The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations

the Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations

Author(s):  Thomas Christiansen, Emil Kirchner and Philomena Murray

ISBN:           9780230378698

Publisher:  Routledge

Year:           2013

Price:           £168.00

Reviewed by Nicholas Peeters, PhD student, University of Leuven, Belgium

On its cover, The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations features an antique, hand colored early 17th century map of Asia by the hand of the Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius. While Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Japan, Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines figure prominently on the cover, Europe is almost rendered invisible with only its most southeastern tip scratching the frontiers of the Asian continent. This specific way of framing seems to convey an impression that appears self-contradictory at first but in reality expresses a possible truth of contemporary EU-Asia relations: Europe and Asia have made tremendous strides in their turnaround of former colonial and wartime relations but are at the same time still miles apart.

Surely, the geographic distance between both regions has been matched by political and economic indifference for many decades. Moreover, cultural misunderstandings as well as the absence of eye-catching achievements have evidently resulted in a concomitant paucity of academic research dealing with EU-Asia relations on both sides. It therefore comes as no surprise that Europe and Asia as two of the worlds’ largest entities have separately attracted widespread scholarly attention, but are only sporadically discussed as a pair. However, the end of the Cold War and especially changes in the international environment during the last decade have spurred an avalanche of developments leading to increased interaction and cooperation between both regions at a pace never before seen. Major shifts in economic and military power, financial crises and present-day challenges including climate change, energy security, infectious diseases, transnational crime and terrorism have made both sides aware of the degree of their mutual interdependence and the concomitant need for building stronger relations.

This book is therefore a long overdue and welcome contribution to the emerging field of EU-Asia studies and bears definite testimony to the observation that the EU-Asia relationship is outgrowing the Cinderella status in imaginary propositions of trilateral relations between the US, Europe and Asia. What ensues in terms of content is a mix of theoretically and policy informed chapters tracking and explaining the evolution of cooperation and competition between these two regions. The book is unique in that it approaches EU-Asia relations, for the first time, in a comprehensive manner and brings together a group of no less than 49 prominent authors of different backgrounds and nationalities. Throughout 38 chapters the EU-Asia relationship is dissected from a myriad of perspectives loosely arranged around 8 sections: conceptual and historical aspects; comparative linkages; political relations; economic interactions; institutional processes; global governance; EU-China relations; and the EU’s bilateral relations with other countries in Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Each section comprises a set of papers through which it becomes possible to assess past and current achievements of Europe’s engagement with Asia in a particular domain. This allows, in turn, to identify patterns and trends affecting their relations in a given field and to formulate specific recommendations for the theory and future praxis of EU-Asia relations. Because the terms of reference and issues under investigation are broad ranging and inclusive, the book as a whole provides a timely and indicative account of where EU-Asia relations come from, where they stand today and how they are likely to evolve in the decades to come. Perhaps the most striking fact that emerges from a close reading of the various chapters on EU-Asia relations is the ample evidence of rapidly growing interlinkages between the two sides. On the bilateral level, the EU has developed strategic partnerships (ch. 5) with China (ch.31), Japan (ch. 32), South Korea (ch. 33) and India (ch. 36) while also promoting relations with other countries in the region such as North Korea (ch. 33), Taiwan (ch. 34), Indonesia (ch. 35), Pakistan (ch. 37) and Australia (ch. 38), albeit in a less effective or successful manner. In the case of inter-regional relations, the EU has endeavored to develop institutional relations with a number of regional organizations, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ch. 19), the Asia-Europe Meeting (ch. 20), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ch. 21), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (ch. 22). In addition, the vagaries of the international system warrant increased coordination on the global level – as in the case of the global financial crisis (ch. 8), international banking (ch. 17) and global trade (ch. 23) – and global institutions – as in the case of the IMF (ch. 18) and the United Nations Security Council (ch. 24).

European and Asian countries have also exceeded the realm of merely preaching lofty ideals and producing attractive, but hollow statements by working together on various issues of mutual concern and producing concrete results. Despite the preponderance of economic relations as the lubricant of Europe’s engagement towards the Asian region (ch. 15), other areas are rapidly making their way up the agenda as revealed by European and Asian joint efforts towards terrorism, corruption and organized crime (ch. 9), human rights (ch. 10), educational exchange (ch. 13), market access and trade facilitation (ch. 16), nuclear non proliferation (ch. 25), Official Development Assistance (ch. 27) and climate change (ch. 28). After standing on the sideline for decades, the EU is furthermore increasingly concerned with security issues in the region (ch. 11), as is also evidenced by its active pursuit of sanctions against North Korea and Myanmar and the continued arms embargo on China (ch. 12). Clearly, EU-Asia relations have become much more multifaceted and multidimensional than in the past and the variety of topics skillfully dealt with in the book point the way to potential areas for further comparative research (ch. 7).

The above is, of course, but a glimpse through the keyhole of what the book has to offer. And yet, a close reading of the book also reveals that the EU is constantly pushing below its weight in the Asian region. Indeed, despite that EU-Asia relations have experienced a period of fundamental change characterized by a growing awareness and recognition on both sides, the EU’s policies towards Asia lack clarity and coherence. Not surprisingly, then, most, if not all, chapters are critical of the EU’s accomplishments in truly engaging its Asian counterparts. The Handbook therefore serves as a critical reminder of the deficiencies and weaknesses surrounding EU-Asia relations. The reasons for this are manifold and run as a common thread through the different sections.

One chapter traces back how the legacy of historical power distributions between Europe and East Asia since the 16th century continues to inform current relations and separate rather than unify both sides (ch. 1). Another chapter attributes explanatory power to, amongst others, divergent attitudes towards the nation state and national sovereignty, continued strong dependence on the US as a security provider, intra-regional institutional deepening and enlargement on top of accelerated economic and financial globalization to account for the embryonic state of EU-Asia relations (ch. 6). Other commentators find that especially the EU must cry mea culpa since institutional quarrels, disputes between member states and the more recent eurozone crisis have marred the emergence of a strategic vision for the Asian region as a whole. This state of affairs has given rise to incoherent images of Europe in Asia (ch. 4) to the extent that the EU is no longer seen as an example for or standard of regional integration (ch. 14). Add to this the relentless rise of China, great power rivalries and territorial and maritime disputes in Asia and one becomes an ideal recipe for missed opportunities and a preoccupation with one’s own backyard. The Handbook thus sketches a mixed balance sheet on the state of EU-Asia relations. On the one hand, it takes adequate stock of the progress made too date, but on the other, it never fails to point out that Europe and Asia are not reaching their full potential.

Despite its crucial contributions, the book does have a number of limitations. First of all, the editors pride themselves on bringing a large number of European and Asian scholars together who approach EU-Asia relations from as many perspectives as there are chapters and state that: “The period of silos of the EU and Asian scholars is now well and truly past” (p. 10). However, bringing together different people with different backgrounds under one heading does not necessarily guarantee cross-fertilization. Despite of being subsumed under broader sections, the chapters do not interact with each other in a meaningful way. In this respect, the Handbook has failed to capitalize on pooling together the available knowledge and expertise to set a distinct course for more intensified research on EU-Asia relations. Next, most chapters are conceived from an overtly European perspective. Tellingly, both the title and the various papers speak of the ‘EU-Asia’ relationship and conversely not of the ‘Asia-EU’ relationship. Nomen est omen. Indeed, this dominant conceptualization is a reflection of the fact that Asian perspectives as well as Asian language resources are commonly neglected in favor of European viewpoints and Western language materials. This leaves one wondering how the book would have looked like if it was written from a perspective truthfully astride the two regions. Third, most of the chapters suffer from the ‘state-as-a-black-box’ syndrome: nations are conceptualized as unitary actors and processes are generally assumed. This leads to a rather one-dimensional, starry-eyed view of EU-Asia relations, exacerbated by the relative short size of each chapter truncating a more in-depth exploration of the topic under investigation. Last, the sheer amount of themes, topics and perspectives dealt with in the book certainly provides for an interesting pick-and-mix, but attenuates the formulation of a clear and coherent research agenda on the EU-Asia relationship. While this may have been a deliberate choice of the editors, I cannot rid myself of the impression that the book itself is reminiscent of the EU’s ambitious communications towards Asia which are often too comprehensive to deliver significant results. Opting to run the full gamut of EU-Asia relations has meant forfeiting new theoretical and methodological insights.

Having said so, the book is most laudable for firmly placing “a number of important issues with a truly Europe-Asia focus on the scholarly map” (p. 4). The overall aim of the book is to add to the burgeoning body of literature on EU-Asia relations in a transnational, comparative and broader contextual way and it succeeds wonderfully well in this respect. It is one of the too date only works that puts flesh on the bones of a relationship that until now had not received the attention it deserves and therefore represents a first, but important step in the direction of a hopefully flourishing future research agenda on EU-Asia relations. Moreover, given the up-to-the-minute character of most chapters, the book is a true treasure-trove of contemporary information on EU-Asia relations and for that reason may well serve as a vanguard of more intensified research on subjects taken up in the book. The chapters are furthermore relatively short and all written in an easily comprehensible manner which provides ready reference for students, academics and policy-makers dealing with the complex repertoire of EU-Asia relations.

As a final note on reviewing a compendium of this size it seems appropriate to conclude with some remarks on the question: whither EU-Asia relations? As demonstrated by the negative views cited above, the danger is that the study and practice of EU-Asia relations fall victim to a “declinist mood” (p. 52) before they had a chance to establish themselves. To be sure, “even if Asia is rising, Europe continues to matter in world politics” (p. 56). Notwithstanding that it has become commonplace to lament their inability to produce acts of cohesion, few would deny that EU-Asia relations are pregnant with possibilities. But in order not to lose the momentum of present-day achievements, the relationship is in dire need of a change of narrative. Christopher Hill’s “expectations-capabilities gap” and Michito Tsuruoka’s “expectations deficit” are by now two famous postulates to point at respectively the gap between high aspirations and few achievements in the case of the EU, and the interplay between low expectations of and low cooperation with Europe in the case of Asia. Neither, however, constitutes a narrative for action. If European and Asian countries are truly committed to transform the current somewhat haphazard forms of cooperation into a genuine partnership for mutual benefit, both sides would do well to take stock of ‘real capabilities, based on just expectations’. This proposition bears resonance to the idea of issue-based cooperation suggested elsewhere in the book: “the idea is to have clusters of members take the lead in specific issues in which they have particular interest and expertise and commit resources and expertise to drive projects and initiatives related to the issue to ensure a certain degree of coherence and continuity, driving long-term policy and delivering some tangible results” (p. 340).

If one is to bring Europe into the purview of the map on this book’s cover, this may be an appropriate way forward.

Suggested citation:

Nicholas Peeters (2014), Review of  “The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations”, by Thomas Christiansen,Emil Kirchner and Philomena Murray, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no. 37.

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