Asia, Europe gathering sidelined by MH17 events | Asia Pacific

Asia, Europe gathering sidelined by MH17 events

Asia, Europe gathering sidelined by MH17 events

Updated 28 July 2014, 12:15 AEST

When foreign ministers and officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations paid a flying visit to Brussels last week, the timing could not have been worse.

A scheduled round-table involving the 10 ASEAN member-countries and the 28 governments that make up the European Union took place against a backdrop of diplomatic turmoil.

Instead of focusing on building ties with Asia, the EU ministers spent the day struggling to manage their worsening relationship with Russia, in the wake of the attack in which a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was downed over Ukraine.

Reporter: James Panichi, Brussels

Speakers: Arif Havas Oegroseno, Indonesia's Ambassador to the EU

SFX: PROMOTIONAL VIDEO : "As the world's two major bodies that promote regional integration, the EU and ASEAN are natural partners. They have worked together to advance peace and security at home and abroad for almost four decades..." 
PANICHI: As this EU-produced video and the glossy media packs provided to journalists suggest, on paper the relationship between the EU and ASEAN has never been stronger. 
The EU is the biggest foreign investor in ASEAN countries, accounting for a third of all foreign investments. 
The EU is also ASEAN's third-largest trading partner, with trade in goods and services between the two blocks estimated at 281 billion US dollars a year.
Yet a proposed trade and investment deal remains a distant prospect. 
What's more, the EU's key diplomatic objective of gaining observer status at the East Asia Summit - ASEAN's key annual forum - appears to have made little progress.  
PANICHI: Which is why the arrival of ASEAN foreign ministers and officials in Brussels had been slated as an important moment in EU foreign policy. 
However broad the meeting's official agenda, the EU's top priority is to lock ASEAN into a mutually beneficial trade framework. 
Fraser Cameron is the director of the EU-ASIA Centre, a Brussels think-tank. 
CAMERON: Essentially, they want to strengthen relations between two of the largest trading blocks in the world, the EU and ASEAN. They have the medium-term aim of securing a free-trade area, but this depends on the very diverse economies within the 10-block ASEAN countries narrowing their differences and creating an ASEAN economic community by the end of 2015. If that happens, then the EU is ready to consider negotiations on a block-to-block basis, but at the moment they are going down the bilateral track and have concluded agreements with Singapore, Thailand, and are negotiating with Vietnam and Indonesia. 
DUR: 0:40
PANICHI: Once the ASEAN Economic Community is in place, officials in Brussels believe the time will be right to move beyond the piecemeal bilateral agreements currently being negotiated. 
Yet the EU's attention lies elsewhere at the moment. 
The foreign policy crisis over how to respond to Russia's increasingly assertive role in Ukraine comes as the current European Commission - the EU's executive - is scheduled to be replaced. 
The successor of Karel De Gucht, the Commissioner who has driven trade negotiations, has yet to be announced. 
PANICHI: Indonesia's Ambassador to the EU, Arif Havas Oegroseno, is no stranger to the difficulties of negotiating trade agreements. 
In his time at Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs he negotiated a number of bilateral trade deals, and led talks for the Indonesia-Australia Security Framework Agreement. 
The Ambassador has closely observed the EU's efforts to strengthen trade ties with ASEAN member countries.  
OEGROSENO: Initially, the idea was block-to-block arrangements, but there was an issue of Myanmar, a couple of years back. Then the strategy was to try to get bilaterals, as a building block, to get into a block-to-block agreement. Now, Myanmar has changed, and you also have another political economic development, which is ASEAN economic community, coming up in 2015, so we will review which one is better... Whether we are going to complete all single, bilaterals or we are going to do the bilaterals as we are doing today and complete them as they are today, or whether they go under the block-to-block reform. 
PANICHI: And it is clearly the preference of the European Union that it be done at a regional level, rather than through single, bilaterals... 
OEGROSENO: Yes, it can be both. It can be both, actually. And we don't know what the next Commissioner is going to have in mind. 

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