Bridging the Divide: The EU’s Global Gateway Amidst Southeast Asian Skepticism

On May 2024, ASEAN and the European Union launched the ASEAN-EU Blue Book 2024-2025, unveiling their future roadmap. The Blue Book, a collaborative effort by ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Kao Kim Hourn and EU Ambassador Sujiro Seam, marks a historic milestone in their nearly 50-year collaboration. Although it has played a crucial role in the history of ASEAN-EU relations, this year’s edition breaks new ground. The EU’s ambitious “Global Gateway” initiative serves as its foundation, indicating a future of deeper strategic engagement between the two regions.

The EU first introduced its ambitious Global Gateway in 2021, spanning the globe from 2021 to 2027. This initiative aims to revolutionize the global infrastructure landscape by investing €300 billion in digital, energy, health, education, research, and transportation projects. Guided by the principles of social responsibility and environmental stewardship, this grand plan aligns with the EU’s core values and standards.

For Southeast Asia, Team Europe has pledged a staggering €10 billion by 2027 to support green and digital connectivity initiatives, making the Global Gateway a cornerstone of the ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2023–2027). The EU, already ASEAN’s third-largest investor and second trading partner beside the US and China, sees this as a chance to deepen ties. Previously, the EU had maintained its position as the fourth potential partner by 2024. The recent activity of the EU-ASEAN Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement in 2021 shows the history of their successful collaboration. These facts underscore the significance of global cooperation in the region.

While EU-ASEAN optimism prevails, the Southeast Asian public is less enthusiastic. According to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey 2024, trust in the EU is at an all-time low as a result of previous disputes with ASEAN member states over governance, human rights, and palm oil. The question is, How will the EU close the divide between the global gateway initiative and the skepticism of Southeast Asia?

The Dragon, the Eagle, and the Union

The EU’s Global Gateway in Southeast Asia has caught the attention of many observers. Despite their admirable objectives of enhancing infrastructure and enhancing lives, the EU’s Global Gateway in Southeast Asia coincides with escalating tensions between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US’s renewed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). In the midst of the ongoing South China Sea dispute, the Indo-Pacific region is once again the focal point of a complex geopolitical struggle.

As an actor that holds one of the most trade and investment opportunities in the region, the EU can’t afford to be a bystander in the Indo-Pacific competition. Southeast Asia, at the region’s heart, is the key target. In 2021, the EU unveiled its Indo-Pacific strategy, boosting cooperation with ASEAN member states to navigate the evolving economic and security landscape and respond to its dynamic situation. The primary focus is on Southeast Asia, which is located at the center of the region. In 2021, the EU introduced its Indo-Pacific strategy to promote collaboration with ASEAN to adapt to the changing economic and security landscape.

The Global Gateway initiative supports this policy, serving as the EU’s projection of soft power in the Southeast Asian influence rivalry. The Global Gateway positions the EU as an alternative development partner to China and the US for ASEAN. This project goes beyond trade and investment to strengthen the EU’s “normative power,” promoting democracy, environmental sustainability, and human rights. 

A blue version of BRI?

The global gateway, often referred to as Europe’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), presents a unique perspective. It encourages openness and good governance and condemns financially burdensome and covert agreements. For Southeast Asian governments wary of US and Chinese dominance, the Global Gateway offers a welcome alternative with its focus on achieving sustainable growth and development.

The EU is also renowned for its support of human rights and the environment, which the Global Gateway represents. Southeast Asian nations, recognizing the need to attain sustainable development goals to safeguard their environment, promote equality, and embrace digitization, may consider the EU’s Global Gateway as an advantageous platform for their future prosperity and security.

The Global Gateway offers wider cooperation than BRI or IPEF. While trade and investment are important, the EU’s efforts promote partnerships in environmental protection, energy, health, research, and education. The Global Gateway also lacks military or territorial ambitions, which is important for Southeast Asian governments weary of geopolitical power conflicts.

Southeast Asian Skepticism

The EU’s ambitious Global Gateway initiative could be a game-changer for Southeast Asia’s development. However, the Southeast Asians themselves are losing confidence in the EU. A 2024 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report reveals a dramatic 9.5 percentage point drop in trust by Southeast Asians towards the EU, reaching a mere 41.5%, with distrust rising to 5.8 percentage points. This skepticism reflects a major shift in Southeast Asia’s view of the EU.

Southeast Asia’s trust in the EU is declining as the bloc grapples with internal divisions. Economic and agricultural problems, rising populism, and a perceived lack of unity in upholding its values have cast doubt on the EU’s ability to be a strong regional partner. The EU’s dispute with Hungary over democratic backsliding has led to the withdrawal of its financial support for the country in 2024.

Furthermore, Southeast Asia is increasingly critical of the EU’s policy-making capabilities, particularly its perceived double-standard outcome. When the EU frequently criticizes ASEAN for Myanmar’s crisis, Southeast Asian nations emphasize the EU’s inaction in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. While the EU quickly welcomed Ukrainian refugees, its response to Palestinian suffering appears muted, with internal divisions hindering a unified stance.

Additionally, the EU’s previous green crusade in Southeast Asia is also backfiring. For example, environmental concerns led the EU to restrict palm oil imports from the region in 2020, sparking accusations of trade discrimination from Indonesia and Malaysia. Yet, the EU contradicts itself by protesting Indonesia’s ban on raw nickel exports in 2022 because it is crucial for its electric car battery industry, despite the nickel industry’s devastating environmental impact. This views this inconsistent policy, sometimes referred to as “flip-flop policy,” as hypocritical, undermining the EU’s credibility and its commitment to its principles on a global scale.

Possible Solutions

Despite the challenges, there are still some solutions for the EU to mantains Southeast Asian trust and turn the Global Gateway into a win-win proposition:

First, the EU’s declining support depends on its capacity to recover its essential values of faith, justice, and freedom, which promote peace and prosperity. This requires overcoming internal differences and presenting a united front for global crises without any inconsistencies, such as humanitarian issues. Resolving previous trade disputes with Southeast Asian countries based on those standards may provide challenges, but it will also foster confidence.

Second, the EU must mend fences to strengthen its relationship with ASEAN. Reaffirming its 2012 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation pledge is crucial. The EU’s “European Values” of democracy, human rights, and sustainability may coexist with “ASEAN’s Way” of respectful cooperation and non-interference. Realizing these disparities and promoting mutual respect are more important than imposing values.

Third, the EU must maintain a balance between normative values and economic objectives. Although the balancing act is challenging due to the diverse political, ideological, and economic systems of Southeast Asia, the EU must be aware of the areas in which their cooperation may be beneficial and those in which it may not. It should promote mutual respect and collaboration in order to allow Southeast Asian nations to determine their development pathways in a transparent and accountable manner.

The EU must also cease its “messianic complex” and demonstrate respect for the differences and unique values of each Southeast Asian member state. Otherwise, the European Union runs the risk of replicating its colonial practices by trying to establish a monopoly or impose conditions through its Global Gateway initiative. Imposing limitations and onerous prerequisites may discourage potential partners, ultimately leading to the perception that it is only another endeavor to reestablish colonial control.

Lastly, it is crucial that the EU’s Global Gateway maintains its original ideas. Presenting it as a catalyst for transparent and sustainable development through good governance. The EU can increase its partnership by working with local governments and NGOs so that the benefits reach the grassroots level. This bottom-up strategy and sustainability focus could make the EU Southeast Asia’s future partner.

[Photo by the ASEAN Secretariat]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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