The European Union last week announced the opening of a new ambassador position dedicated exclusively to handle the bloc’s relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a move seen to increase Brussels’ reach and influence in a region with booming economies, seemingly endless development potential and set to implement its own economic integration process by the end of 2015.
The announcement from the European External Action Service is part of the EU’s recent plans to upgrade its engagement with ASEAN, home to more than 600 million people, from a regular regional partnership — mostly characterized by economic and cultural cooperation — to a “strategic one,” a decision adopted at the last EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting last July in Brussels.
But what will that policy shift entail?
According to Jean-François Cautain, EU ambassador to Cambodia, more EU engagement with Southeast Asia will, for example, include assistance and collaboration on maritime security — a perennial issue that continues to affect several ASEAN member states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, against China’s claim to huge swathes of territory in the South China Sea.
“The priority sectors that will be focused on will depend on strategies. The main pillar is economic, but we are also heightening our political and security relationship with ASEAN,” Cautain told Devex. “We’ve developed quite a good know-how about maritime security because of our previous experience in sharing maritime space. We have also developed knowledge and experience on cooperation in nontraditional security threats — that's why we like to cooperate with ASEAN countries.”
Cautain clarified, however, that other issues will also be prioritized, such as enhancing connectivity and a 170 million euro ($215 million) assistance package for the region’s integration and institution building until 2020.
The EU has diplomatic relations with all the 10 member countries of ASEAN, including resident ambassadors and charges d’affaires, but the focus of these officials is more on bilateral cooperation, even if previously the representative in Indonesia would handle regional affairs. The new ambassador to ASEAN, the French diplomat explained, will focus exclusively on the organization in order to complement bilateral relations with each member state.
“By having a dedicated ambassador, we will have more time because he or she will not only focus on regional issues but also will have more ways in terms of visibility for ASEAN as a group of countries,” he said. “This new person will clearly be the symbol of the improvement of the already very good relationship between the EU and ASEAN.”
While Brussels has not released any specific requirements or qualifications for the new position that will be based in Jakarta, Cautain shared his insights regarding the ideal characteristics of the person who will be appointed to the coveted post.
“First of all, the person should have the minimum qualifications for a diplomatic position,” he said. This means the person should have strong knowledge on and experience in working with the ASEAN, and “a very good feeling about working on issues on a group of countries especially with [interactions and intersections of] governments.”
The biggest responsibility of the new position, Cautain explained, is bridging communication and operations from the regional to the national level through increased synergy with other EU ambassadors to the different ASEAN nations.
“[The new post will] help people like me, ambassadors on a national level, to facilitate synergies as much as possible on the national and the regional level,” he concluded. “When you're in a bilateral position, there is a tendency to think that you cannot feel the approach. It will be a great opportunity to strengthen the regional dimension of our work.”
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