Considering that ASEAN will be the EU's third largest foreign trade partner as of 2020, Picula wrote an analysis for Večernji list in which he explains why the presence of the EU in that region is important and what opportunities it can open up for Croatia.
Below is the text in its entirety.
At the end of last year, 45 years of diplomatic relations were marked between the European Union and ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has around 688 million people. The importance of ASEAN, which has been a strategic partner of the EU since 2020, is best told by the fact that it is the Union's third-largest foreign trade partner, right behind the United States of America and the People's Republic of China.
Although the European Commission called itself "geopolitical" at the beginning of its mandate in 2019, it was only the change in American focus on foreign policy, the pandemic, and Russian aggression against Ukraine in the past three years that directed the Union to a more significant foreign policy engagement.
These are the circumstances in which, from February 21 to 23, as part of the delegation of the European Parliament's Foreign Policy Committee, I met with the new ASEAN Secretary General Kao Kim Hourna, the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi, the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam Tran Luu Quang, the leaders of the parliaments of those countries, but also the ambassadors of the EU member states accredited in Indonesia and Vietnam. It is worth emphasizing that the EU and ASEAN are similar in that they act jointly towards third parties, but not all ASEAN members are parliamentary democracies like the EU members. This is what the EU orients in diplomatic communication, both with the Alliance and its members. The constant need to overcome mutual differences was confirmed by the Indonesian minister: "The EU has 27 member states, ASEAN only ten, but that does not mean that it is easier for us to harmonize."
And the similarities and differences between the two organizations are well illustrated by the catchphrases under which their parliaments operate. While the European Parliament emphasizes its "unity in diversity", the ASEAN Parliamentary Assembly emphasizes: "one vision, one identity, one community".
The moment in which the EU decided to strengthen its diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia is complex enough without the factor of the war in Ukraine, on which ASEAN members have different views. A strengthened China is increasingly openly showing its ambitions in the South China Sea, the American initiatives AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, USA), as well as the QUAD cooperation initiative of the USA, India, Japan, and Australia, form an extremely complex geopolitical landscape in which the European Union wants to contribute, primarily by advocating for the preservation of the international legal order in the South China Sea.
And this is an extremely important topic for the ASEAN countries because, since the signing of the free trade agreement twenty years ago, China has become one of the important factors in the great economic growth of the member countries, whose GDP has increased five times since 2000. For example, Indonesia is one of the few countries that have a trade surplus with China. Beijing even introduced anti-dumping measures on steel imports from Indonesia. However, China also emphasizes its territorial claims towards the four ASEAN countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and its behavior in the South China Sea disturbs relations with all members of the Alliance.
ASEAN members do not look with great favor on either the AUKUS or the QUAD initiative. On the other hand, Chinese official policy opposes its doctrine of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" to these Western platforms. Since ASEAN represents one of the world's economic and strategically important centers of gravity, the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy adopted in 2021 can be seen as an effort by the bloc to define relations with the region on its own terms in order to avoid marginalization in the growing confrontation of great powers.
For the Union, the preservation of peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region is of key importance, and this was one of the most important messages we wanted to convey to our partners there.
However, from unofficial contacts with EU diplomats in Vietnam and Indonesia, we also received a clear confirmation of the need for a much stronger involvement of the Union than before, so that the importance of the Union does not continue to decline. From the perspective of the ASEAN members, China is a trade partner of the first rank for them, but also a great challenge in geopolitical positioning. The EU is too often perceived as a "post-colonial" old power in decline, which preaches a lot about values but does not deliver enough in relation to what it stands for in principle.
An important proof of the EU's willingness to be more dynamic in this large region is over 36 billion euros in support for the energy transition, which it made available to Indonesia and Vietnam. It is clear that the issue of achieving environmental neutrality is not equal on the list of priorities of the EU, Indonesia, and Vietnam, but it is certain that we share the awareness of the fulfillment of this goal, so Vietnam also has the goal of achieving neutrality by 2050.
It is this type of engagement that gives the EU the opportunity to make our messages, such as those of concern about the state of human rights, including workers' rights in Vietnam, heard more loudly. However, it should also be noted that the EU invests less than, for example, one Samsung in Vietnam, the most populous of all ASEAN members.
Nevertheless, especially in Indonesia, there is resistance to the "Green Plan" of the EU, which is perceived as something that the West uncritically imposes on others. According to the assessment of officials in Jakarta, the provisions of the "Green Plan" threaten the existence of as many as 10 million families. It is about the efforts of Brussels to influence the excessive clearing of indigenous cultures in Indonesia for the further expansion of palm oil production. How sensitive this issue is is shown by the fact that even 60 percent of the products on supermarket shelves in the EU contain exactly palm oil! In addition, the production of energy from renewable sources is under great tax pressure.
Indonesia is the largest country-archipelago in the world because it includes 17,000 islands. It takes as much as seven hours of flight from the endpoint in the west to the endpoint in the east. With new programs, the government is trying to reduce the pronounced regional differences in the development of the country. On the island of Java, for example, sixty percent of Indonesia's GDP is realized. Profits from palm oil and coal exports generally do not stay where they are generated as they flow to Jakarta or Singapore.
As a member of the EU, Croatia has the opportunity to do business with ASEAN members under the same conditions as other members, and the recent 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Croatia and Vietnam is an opportunity to strengthen trade, but also cooperation in culture, sports, and science. With its increased involvement, the EU is opening the door for us.
Therefore, the room for progress in the entire region is huge.