What do people in Asia really think about the EU? What does Asia mean to Europeans? These are the kind of question that the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF) was born to answer. Each year, the Singapore-based think tank commissions studies that investigate ‘the EU through the eyes of Asia’ and ‘Asia through the eyes of Europeans’. The projects gather information from thousands of news reports, hundreds of interviews with opinion leaders and an online survey of more than 12,000 citizens.
The results of this year’s studies were presented at a recent talk at the foundation’s HQ. They show that, unlike ‘Africa’, ‘Latin America’ or ‘North America’, Europeans don’t really conceptualise Asia as a regional entity at all. Instead, the rise of Asia is conflated with the rise of China, as the emerging giant dominates both news reports and Europeans’ ‘top-of-mind’ statements about the continent.
As well as underrepresenting important powers like Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, media coverage tends to emphasise images of Asia as disparate and lacking in unity. Reporting and awareness of regional integrative processes such as the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the East Asia Summit are quite low, leading to a ‘gulf in perception’ regarding Asia’s growing institutional capacity to solve its own cross-border problems.
It is clear from recent relations between the two continents that this gulf exists among policymakers as well as among the media and public. The EU and its member states seem increasingly minded to deal with Asian nations on a bilateral basis, rather than demonstrate the patience and persistence required to secure regionally binding results.
International trade negotiations provide an illustrative example. After talks on an EU-ASEAN trade agreement stalled in 2009, the EU quickly moved to strike bilateral deals with key trading partners rather than hold out for a regional deal. In contrast, the United States deftly built diplomatic support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious nine-party agreement that looks set to establish the biggest free trade area since NAFTA came into being in 1994.
That the world’s most advanced transnational policymaking entity is striking deals on an ad hoc basis while its lone superpower works patiently at regional integration is further evidence of an EU that is suffering from a crisis of confidence about its role in the world. Not long ago, Asian politicians looked to European leaders with admiration for the way in which they managed to build a zone of peace and prosperity out of a continent of ancient enmities. Not only that, they looked to them for advice. The European Single Market provided a clear template for the ASEAN Economic Community, which is still scheduled for completion in 2015. But with the euro crisis now threatening to unravel decades of painstaking integration, leaders in Asia are thinking twice about the model they once embraced.
For better or worse, the euro remains by far the most compelling symbol of the EU in Asia. This is clear from media analysis, elite interviews and citizen surveys alike. The best known European institution is not the Commission or the Parliament but the European Central Bank. So the grinding crisis in the Eurozone is doing tremendous damage to the continent’s image in Asia. As Prof. Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore argues, the European Union increasingly looks like a sick and declining power from many vantage points in East Asia. This perception is sometimes encouraged by opportunistic politicians, for example the many governments from Singapore to China that are “using the crisis as a cautionary tale against welfare state systems”. Yet Europe is still seen as a ‘great power’ by most citizens and elites in China and Japan. Elites in India and South Korea, perhaps influenced by those countries’ closer ties with the United States, are more sceptical. Rising countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are less impressed still, though they acknowledge the importance of powerful states like Germany, France and the UK.
ASEF’s findings show that, despite its current troubles, Asian publics generally perceive the EU favourably, with only around 10% of respondents expressing a negative view. A striking feature of responses to survey questions (such as: is the EU likeable?; is it aggressive?; is it united?; is it modern?) is that, consistently, around 50% of people said that they were ‘not sure’. This means that there is great potential for smart diplomacy – economic, political and cultural – to shape the narrative surrounding the EU in Asia and to improve Europe’s relations with some of its most important partners.
– Shane Fitzgerald