Monday, 6 February, 2023
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EU wants to 'reconnect' with Southeast Asia amid Ukraine war

EU leaders meet their counterparts from Southeast Asia for a summit in Brussels on Wednesday, looking to bolster ties in the face of the war in Ukraine and challenges from China.

Europe is keen to boost trade with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which counts some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

"There is a need for Europeans to reconnect with ASEAN, one of the most dynamic areas in the world," the French presidency said.

The EU has been on a diplomatic push to galvanise a global front against Moscow as its invasion has sent economic and political shock waves around the world.

But ASEAN's 10 nations have been divided in their response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine.

Singapore has gone along with Western sanctions on Russia, while Vietnam and Laos, which have close military ties to Moscow, have remained more neutral.

Along with Thailand, they abstained from a United Nations vote in October condemning Russia's attempted annexation of regions of Ukraine seized since February.

The diverging views led to intense wrangling over a final declaration from the summit as the EU pushed for stronger language to condemn Moscow.

An EU official said Brussels was satisfied in the end that it sent a "crystal clear message" of the need to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and independence.

- China looms -

While Europe presses for a tougher response to Russia, there is another global giant looming over the summit.

Chinese claims over the South China Sea have set it against some neighbours and sparked fears in Europe over trade flows through the key global thoroughfare.

But China remains the biggest trade partner for ASEAN and many in the region are wary of distancing themselves from their giant neighbour.

The EU is keen to pitch itself as a reliable partner for Southeast Asia's dynamic economies amid the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

The EU and ASEAN are each other's third-largest trading partner and Europe sees the region as a key source for raw materials and wants to increase access to its booming markets.

EU nations are pushing to diversify key supply chains away from China as the war in Ukraine has highlighted Europe's vulnerabilities.

The EU is set to unveil investments that could be worth 10 billion euros ($10.6 billion) for the region under its Global Gateway strategy designed as a counterweight to China's largesse.

- Sex law furore -

ASEAN and the EU suspended their push for a joint trade deal over a decade ago and Brussels has focused on striking agreements with individual members.

So far deals with Vietnam and Singapore are in place, but the bloc is keen to make progress with ASEAN's largest economy Indonesia and to resume talks with Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

The crisis in ASEAN member Myanmar will also figure as its regional neighbours have struggled to calm the bloodshed in the junta-ruled country.

But Myanmar will not be represented at the summit as its military rulers were not invited.

One issue that risks clouding discussions is a new law in Indonesia criminalising sex outside marriage that has sparked fears for foreign visitors to country.

An EU official said the matter would likely be raised with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo.

"I think even from an investment point of view, there are questions as to whether this legislation will encourage further people to visit," he said.