European Union - Asia-Pacific Trade Relations: Tentative Bilateralism Amidst Competing Plurilateral Initiatives

By de las Heras, Beatriz Pérez | Romanian Journal of European Affairs, December 2016 | Go to article overview

European Union - Asia-Pacific Trade Relations: Tentative Bilateralism Amidst Competing Plurilateral Initiatives


de las Heras, Beatriz Pérez, Romanian Journal of European Affairs


Introduction

As the world's largest trading bloc, the European Union (EU) has for many years been one of the major guardians of multilateralism. However, the EU's focus is currently on bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). Over the last seven years, the EU's trade policy has also been characterised by a formal, rather legalistic approach, linking politics and economics. This trend entails the inclusion of a predefined set of clauses in political agreements negotiated in parallel with trade deals. As a result of this strategy, FTAs are very often relegated to the position of a subset of the political agreements. To make matters more problematic, the EU's diplomatic trade efforts are frequently challenged by Member States, which may hold divergent interests and deploy different strategies.

Bilateralism, political conditionality and the lack of a cohesive trade policy all limit the EU's ability to engage in a more flexible and strategic approach when dealing with its partners. This is particularly true of the EU's relations with countries in Asia-Pacific, a region which has emerged as the most dynamic region in international trade3. Indeed, the proliferation of trade and business transactions clearly shows that this zone has become central to worldwide prosperity and to the EU's growth prospects (European External Action Service, 2013). The Asia-Pacific region is now the destination for almost a quarter of EU exports and home to the world's fastest-growing economies, such as China and India. But, beyond economic concerns, the EU also has a strategic interest in regional security in Asia, where historical disputes, national rivalries and territorial conflicts appear to be growing more serious (e.g. tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the China-Taiwan conflict, China-Japan territorial disputes, etc.) (Godement, 2013: 1-3). In addition, the European and Asian economies are linked by various sea routes, further increasing the EU's strategic interests in the region.

In line with its current trade approach, the EU is presently immersed in bilateral trade dialogues with individual countries in the area. However, the most important trade deals currently being negotiated within the Asia-Pacific region are plurilateral and the EU remains outside these regional initiatives. In addition, this trade bilateralism accompanied by political requirements has been shown to be inconsistent with the EU's stated foreign policy aim of contributing to greater integration in the Asia-Pacific region, and does not match the rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape of the region (Okano-Heijmans, 2014: 12).

This article examines current trends in the EU's trade policy, with a particular focus on the implications for the Asia-Pacific countries. The approach does not take into account so much the economic opportunities this trade dialogue may provide, but rather the scope and consequences of the EU's choices and norm-setting role. Against this background, the article first analyses major trends in the European trade diplomacy, highlighting the lack of a cohesive policy, notwithstanding the EU's exclusive power in the field. Second, it assesses the effects of current European trade approaches in the Asia-Pacific region, providing a general overview of the bilateral FTAs and their state of negotiation by the EU. It finds that the EU's trade bilateralism is moving in the opposite direction to concurrent plurilateral initiatives currently emerging in the region. This divergence risks sidelining the EU from playing a constructive role in the region. Third, given the EU's crucial interests in the region, not only in trade and finance, but also in politics and regional security, the article concludes that the EU and its Member States must rethink their strategies, which are very often competing and mutually contradictory, and define a long-term comprehensive framework for the EU to act as a global player in the newly evolving Asia-Pacific context. …

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