Interview with Park Sung Hoon, professor of economics at Korea University
“EU must do more in Asia”
By Sébastien Falletti in Seoul | Thursday 17 September 2009
Park Sung Hoon, professor of economics at the prestigious Korea University in Seoul, explains toEuropolitics
why the EU has such little visibility in Asia despite being an economic giant. The dominant role of the US in regional security is seen as the most important factor. But the scholar stresses the need for the EU to invest more resources in Asian affairs in order to increase its leverage in the most dynamic economic region in the world.
Why does the EU has so little visibility in Asia?
The notion that the EU should be a global actor is very new. Until recently, the EU had shown only little involvement in global issues and Asian affairs. This lack of engagement has contributed a lot to the relative invisibility of the EU in Asian societies. Until the mid-1990s, the EU’s external policies were concentrated on transatlantic relations plus Africa and Latin America, where many European countries had colonies in the past. These traditional relations have shaped EU external policies for a long time at the expense of Asia. The EU has discovered the value of East Asia in the beginning of the 1990s. The first Asia strategy was adopted in 1994, therefore EU-Asia relations are only 15 years old and are still in infancy, in my view. The launch of ASEM [Asia-Europe Meeting], in 1996, has marked a very substantial turning point in this regard because it was established as a summit meeting. But still, there is room for a lot of improvement, especially if you compare with the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) process that includes the US. APEC includes a lot more forums and venues were issues are significantly captured, analysed and discussed. The quality of dialogue and cooperation in the ASEM process is not as substantial.
How would you explain this limitation? Is there a lack of interest?
I do not think it is a matter of strength of interest. I do think the presence, the involvement of the US in Asia makes a big difference. The EU recognises that the role of the US is too strong here, especially in the field of security. Therefore the EU does not want to intervene more in this field. That is probably the reason why Asia-Europe relations have some limitations.
But is there a real demand for greater EU influence on the Asian side?
The positions and interests of Asian countries are divergent. There are some nations that are strongly welcoming the increasing role of the EU. Usually, these countries do not have very good experiences with the US influence in the region, like Malaysia. Vietnam is also part of this group, although it has improved substantially its relations with Washington over the past few years. Hanoi has been traditionally close to Europe but is now developing a very pragmatic economic and foreign policy approach. Indonesia has also become more American friendly recently. China is in a different position, since it is engaged in a leadership rivalry with Japan and the US. Beijing wants to emerge as the regional leader. Against this backdrop, China is relatively more prone to have cooperation with the EU in order to play Europe against America.
What should the EU do to increase its influence?
The EU struggles to speak with one voice. In the field of foreign affairs and security, European integration is not yet at the stage of a union. So we have a lot of diverse opinions from different member states that cannot be really coordinated by the European Commission. This is particularly true regarding China, where we see diverging economic and political interests at play. This is a serious problem. Moreover, the EU’s complex institutional setup often does not allow for a timely response to an international crisis. The EU’s response often arrives too late, and its united position is often superficial.
Do you think the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty could make a difference?
It will definitely provide some improvement. But whether it will really lead to some kind of unified positions remains an open question. First, EU member states have to think about developing coordinated and coherent policies among themselves.
What are the EU’s assets in Asia?
The EU is a very important partner, especially in the field of economy. It is essential for a country like South Korea. If you look at trade and investment figures, you can see that the EU is now the second largest trading partner after China. And China has emerged quite recently. Only five or ten years ago, the EU was ranked third or fourth in terms of destination for Korean products. But recently, it has emerged as number two, overtaking the US. When it comes to culture and social cooperation, most of the Asian countries are also much more dependent on Europe. In this field, the EU has a competitive advantage over the US. The activities of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) are quite influential among policy makers and academics. The development of the EU’s ‘soft power’ in Asia will increase its visibility. But the activities of the Delegation of the Commission are not well represented and visible enough. The EU needs to invest more to increase its visibility. In that sense, the opening of EU centres is a welcome initiative. However, I think that is not enough.