Asia and Europe: Strong men at the ends of the earth?

The nations of Asia and Europe will gather in London in April for their second summit. Their relationship is weaker than ties with the global superpower but at stake are crucial issues touching on world security.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 February 1998 5 minute READ

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West,

and never the twain shall meet’

Till earth and sky stand presently at

God’s great judgement seat,

But there is neither East nor West,

Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face,

tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!’

Ballad of East and West, Rudyard Kipling, 1892

Some one hundred years later, how perhaps might Kipling view his lines? Europe and Asia, ‘two strong men’ – at least potentially – still stand at ‘the two ends of the earth’. But it is an earth that has surely shrunk to a mere shadow through the growth of modern communication – the jumbo jet, the satellite and the Internet. He would certainly not have seen the United States as a third great ‘pole’, standingbetween East and West and with a power head and shoulders above any other; as once had Britain and its Empire.

Much has been written and said about the tripolar nature of today’s world; North America, Asia and Europe. Such tripolarism should not be seen as a return to ‘balance of power’ politics, with its implications of military potential, but rather as a means of strengthening the linkages – political, economic, security, cultural and scientific – required for the common good between three important centres of economic activity. However, such tripolarity, by embracing almost all of the world’s richest countries and leaving out most of the poorest, leads almost inevitably to aggravating the prosperity divide between North and South.

East is East

Within the Asian Region, the need for regional, multilateral economic cooperation has long been widely accepted in principle, with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) showing the way; although the introduction of agreed and e ffective measures on a wider basis has generally been halting and slow. Nevertheless, progress has been made in promoting intra regional trade and in raising standards of living; and under the auspices of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) targets have been set for the further reduction of trade barriers. Recent financial turmoil has, however, undermined confidence in the so called ‘Asian economic miracle’, the full effects of which in the near and medium term are not yet clear.

The requirement for regional multilateral security co-operation was far less readily accepted. Following the demise of SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) in 1977, Asian security, resting predominantly under the protection of an Americanumbrella, has been bolstered by a network ofbilateral agreements. The regional ‘Five Power Defense Agreement’ between Britain, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand has however survived and provides a token of Britain’s continuing national interests in the security of the region. France similarly retains post colonial security responsibilities within the Pacific area.

However, the formation of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994, grouping all the principle nations of the Pacific area in a multilateral security dialogue, together with European representation, has served to focus attention on the problems of confidence and security building and of conflict prevention.

This has happened against a background of some regional tensions and in recognition of three potential areas of military conflict: the Korean Peninsular, Taiwan and the South China Sea. Of these three, it is North Korea, with its nuclear overtones, that represents the greatest threat to the region, a situation which has underlined the importance of the successful co-operation between Asian Countries, Europe and the United States in the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO).

Wider West?

Within Europe, the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire provided a unique opportunity for a new political, economic and security structure which would include Russia and within which the integration of a new wider Europe might take place.

The swiftly taken decision of West European governments to expand the membership of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to all the former states of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, the formation of the Partnership for Peace programme, and pressure from some West European Governments, particularly the UK, to widen eastwards the membership of the European Union, all provided encouragement to this view. But it was not to be.

Instead, led by Washington, the offer to open NATO membership to the former countries of the Warsaw Pact was pushed forward, despite its exclusion of Russia, and the fact that the problems of East and Central Europe were those of political and economic transformation, not of military defence.

European Governments, engrossed in the processes of European integration in the West and of Soviet disintegration in the East were, unlike the United States, slow to recognise the growing evidence of a shift of the global centre of economic activity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The trilateral relationship thus became increasingly unbalanced, with the Europe-Asia relationship forming the weak link.

Belatedly, pressed by the dangers of trade confrontation with Japan, and fostered by the benign neglect of a wider Euro-Asian relationship, the European Union launched in the autumn of 1993 a new Asia strategy. This in turn, accelerated by the Asian refusal to bring the EU into the APEC process, led to the proposal by Singapore and Malaysia for an Asian European Summit Meeting (ASEM).

Following the first successful meeting in Bangkok in March 1996, a second meeting (ASEM II) is to take place in London in April. Discussion is likely to embrace items of the ‘new security agenda’, such as environmental issues and the international drive against drugs and terrorism, but is unlikely to tackle the wider issues of shared security interests between Europe and Asia that are now becoming evident.

New fault line?

The agreement between President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Hashimoto to move towards the signing of a Japan-Russia Peace treaty, clearly reflects Moscow’s desire, whilst remaining a predominantly European power, to strengthen its position in Asia.

However, the key to Russian influence in Asia is likely to be its relationship with China. That relationship remains uneasy, despite high level visits and agreements to resolve border disputes. The Russian Far East Region, from which it is reported that about a quarter of the four million resident ethnic Russians have in the last few years migrated back to the West of the Urals, feels heavily overshadowed by the very much greater Chinese population in adjacent Mongolia. Beijing retains its nightmare of a repeat in China of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, Russia and China have made a formal commitment to move towards a strategic partnership in the next century. Such a partnership could form the fault line of a new global divide, with Russia and China bidding for the leadership of a disa ffected ‘second world’ in Central Asia and in the Middle East, underpinned by militant and extremist Islamic fundamentalism.

Such a situation could result from adverse developments in Russia, fuelled by a growing sense of exclusion from Europe if NATO continues its eastward expansion; and from the mishandling by the US of its relations with China as the former presses to preserve its status as a dominant and evangelist superpower.

As a senior Chinese diplomat said recently – ‘We know that the policy of the West towards China is now that of ‘Constructive Engagement’ – but we don’t know what that means. We think it may mean that you Americans want us Chinese to be more like you Americans. We don’t think that that would be very good for us Chinese – or for you Americans.’

In this way we would risk pushing Russia and China together as the ‘awkward squad’ of the first world. The US and Europe set against Russia and China, each vying for the leadership of a ‘new world order’ – shades of Kipling’s two strong men standing face to face.

Shared interests

Europe’s interests in Asia, and Asia’s interests in Europe, are primarily founded on the need for confidence in a stable regional, political, economic and social order, the rule of law, and a business framework conducive to free trade and foreign investment. These are shared and common interests of major and increasing importance.

Over a quarter of the EU’s external trade is now with East Asia. EU investment in the Asian region, totalling some $75 Billion, is not far below that of the US. In Europe, the successful establishment of a common currency should provide new opportunities to add to the already large scale of investment from Asia. However, uncertainty in Europe about the realistic speed and scope of EU enlarg ement, and in Asia following the chaos in financial markets, reminds us that such future stability for the trading order cannot be taken for granted.

Our shared interests are also clearly reflected in the field of arms control, as part of a process of security and confidence building. It is important that both Asian and European countries work together to help ensure that such global measures as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Biological and Chemical Weapon Conventions, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Missile Technology Control Regime are as effectively and widely applied as possible.

There is also interplay between regional arms control agreements such as the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Agreement, and the South East Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) which requires consultation both at the political and military levels.

In the military field we need to address the tough questions, such as: ‘Are there situations in which the armed forces of European Countries should become involved in conflict in Asia; and the armed forces of Asian countries in Europe?’ – ‘Are there other global areas in which military operational tasks need to be shared?’

There is of course very recent precedent in both directions in peace support operations. Malaysia is involved in operations in Bosnia. British forces were involved in the UN operations in Cambodia. Europe, Asia and America have worked together in Central Africa.

Whilst such operations of a limited nature in support of international peace and good order are today the most likely, and will probably be so for the near future, we should not, and cannot safely, ignore the possibility of a return to higher level armed conflict. To do so would provide opportunity for those that might see their national interests as dominant over wider international concerns.

The Gulf region, now once again at the very top of the international agenda with attention on both Iraq and Iran, is one in which military conflict is never far from the surface, conflict which has deep implications for both Europe and Asia. The situation in the Korean peninsular remains highly fragile.

Expeditionary war

Such scenarios pose particular problems for the British defence policy. It is widely believed that the current Strategic Defence Review will underwrite the concept of expeditionary warfare, the capability to mount and sustain from the UK joint and combined operations remote from British territories. But how remote? Clearly the Middle East and the Magreb are areas of prime European concern. However, does Britain require the capability of operating still further afield? In the Pacific, for instance? Britain’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council suggests that the answer should be ‘yes’.

In the wider strategic field there are also shared interests in enhancing a global security order which avoids the dangers of new global balances of power. Asia and Europe, working together, have an opportunity to strengthen a rule based structure for maintaining international peace and security focused primarily on the United Nations.

Whilst this might entail diversifying their external policies away from over-dependence on the United States, we need to recognise that, for the near future at least, the active involvement of the United States in regional security both in Europe and Asia is a vital ingredient of stability.

However, the prospect in the longer term of a US, rather than a UN, led structure for global order inevitably raises the question of whether such a uni-polar world would be stable. In practical terms, the prospects for such a UN structure would be enhanced if further and formal cooperation were to be established between European and Asian countries in humanitarian and peace support operations.

Global reach

How then should we proceed? There is clearly a need for a far more vigorous debate within Europe and between Europe and Asia on common security interests. An outcome of such a debate could well be the conclusion that the major European powers, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, supported by those other EU member states who might wish to join, should seek to retain a limited military capability of global reach, capable both of independent action and also of close cooperation with forces of Asian countries as well as those of the United States.

This would represent a significant shift in emphasis of British security policy, a shift that would recognise the need for a more balanced trilateral relationship between Europe, Asia and the United States to the benefit of all three; and would recognise the likely increasing role in the next century of the Asia Pacific Region as a centre of gravity of both global economic activity and potential conflict.