Asia & Europe: challenges and opportunities

As early as 1971, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told an Italian journalist that ‘as a first step towards an independent Europe, the Common Market was a good thing’. Four years later, in Beijing Hospital for treatment of the cancer that would kill him in 1976, he agreed in principle with Christopher Soames, the European trade commissioner, to establish diplomatic relations and to start negotiating a trade agreement, later to be the 1978 EEC-China Trade Agreement.

Two contributions by Chinese experts to a wide-ranging collection of essays on relations between the European Union and emerging economies and societies in Asia emphasise the Chinese perception that a strong EU is a safeguard against global ‘Americanisation’. An essay by Fredrik Erixon, one of the two editors, emphasises rather the enormous importance of trading integration: ‘The EU’s trade with China is… bigger than the combined trade between the EU and Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia’, including some smaller economies as well. It is hard not to conclude that the traditionally far-sighted Chinese have always been more attuned to the political significance of the European project, whereas short-termist Europeans have focused on trade advantages                or deficits.

One of the benefits of this statistic-filled collection is that China does not get all the attention. Krishnan Srinivasan, joint editor, provides an erudite analysis of Europe-India relations, which he subtitles a ‘dialogue without intimacy’, looking at the way much of the discourse has been mediated by the historic UK-Indian connection, lamenting that authoritarian China appears better loved than democratic India, and acknowledging the role of Indian diasporas in Europe.

But there are also valuable chapters on Thailand and its ‘middle income trap’; on Korea, which signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU in 2009; on the surprising lack of engagement with emerging Asia of the eleven former communist states of eastern Europe which joined the EU between 2004 and 2013, even though, in the case of Poland for instance, trade with India collapsed by 70 per cent between 1987 and 1997 as the country adjusted to freer markets; and an analysis of the significance of the Caspian-Central Asia neighbourhood for emerging Asia, where two tables underline the vertiginous rise in China’s trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.  Authoritarian China may have some advantages in dealing with undemocratic ‘stans’ when compared with a Brussels that is pushing democracy and                       human rights.

At the centre of this collection there is of course a problem of definition. How far is it possible to write of ‘Europe’ as a composite whole? Which are the emerging countries of Asia? Concluding his chapter on Europe and South Asia, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a former foreign minister of Bangladesh, throws in a breathtaking sentence of futurology: ‘Eventually, there will be three main supra-states in the world, America, Europe, and emerging Asia’. Really? Russians, Africans and Latin Americans might think differently.

Inward-looking Europe, worried about migration, the Eurozone and a British referendum, is currently restricted in its international roles. It is also conflicted. Germany, France and the UK have their own foreign and trade policies, which only coincide sometimes with each other or the European Commission. The EU’s vocation for peace and democracy can be vitiated by the fact that these three states are among the ten largest arms sellers, just as the pacific protestations of China and India need to be checked against their record as the two largest               arms importers.

If Europe is not a coherent whole, emerging Asia is even less so. Arguably Singapore ‘emerged’ by the early 1990s, Japan in the 1960s; there is not a lot in common between India and Korea, and the time must come soon when it is redundant to describe China as, in an African sense, a ‘developing country’. A book which is largely economic in its analysis somewhat downplays major cultural and political differences. The risk that Thailand may fall into a ‘middle income trap’ has much to do with periodic military takeovers, and urban-rural fissures. Warfare and terrorism have held back Sri Lanka in the recent past and currently explain why Pakistan, in the words of James Mayall ‘has been more often described as a failed or potentially failed state than as an emerging economic power’. While several authors refer to the growth of trade and investment between emerging Asian countries, one of the key economic differences between China and India may lie in the skill with which China has partnered in growth with its neighbours, not least through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, where India is the giant, has yet to achieve a similar dynamism.

Certain themes, such as the impact of radical Islam, get less attention than they might, though they worry the EU, China and states such as Bangladesh and Malaysia; even in tolerant Indonesia there is a concern that ‘archipelago Islam’ may not be immune, and there are still Australian tourists who avoid Bali after the 2002 bombings.

The elephant in this Euro-Asian room remains the United States, with Obama’s somewhat inchoate ‘pivot’ towards Asia taking shape in the Trans Pacific Partnership, signed in October 2015, involving the US and eleven Pacific rim countries; six of these are Commonwealth members (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei); three are in Latin America (Mexico, Chile and Peru); and two had once been enemies of the US (Japan and Vietnam). This was a trade bazooka fired at China and two older bodies—the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (22 members, including Russia, China, China/Hong Kong and Taipei) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ten members), of which neither the US nor India were members. But a useful concluding chapter on the US, by Philip Levy, shows that Obama’s hands have been tied by Congress.


The reviewer, Richard Bourne, is a Senior Research Fellow at London University’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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