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How to cooperate with Asia-Pacific: a view from Estonia

Vlad Vernygora
Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies
Tallinn University of Technology


Once upon a time Europeans came up with the geographical concept of ‘Asia’. Relatively speaking, it was what ‘non-Europe’ would be called. The Ural Mountains helped to identify at least some border between the two parts of the Euro-Asian array, but no more. In reality East is indeed a delicate and extremely intricate geopolitical area. That is why in some countries one can still see the maps where, for example, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (these are considered European states by us) are assigned to Asia. When adding the Pacific to the puzzle, the geopolitical disputes generally do not end. For example, the organization of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) calls its participants ‘economies’ so that no member will be offended. The ASEAN countries (there are ten of them) have been talking for years about their own ‘Community’ and by 2015 will eventually create it. Australia, long wishing to leave Oceania geopolitically, once initiated the establishment of another ‘community’ – the Asia-Pacific one. The Japanese initiative, in turn, was aimed at equipping the Community of East Asia. There are also organizations like Pacific Islands Forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6 and even, would you imagine, ASEAN+8. In addition, there is Russia that is in Europe, in Asia and on the Pacific. There is the United States willing to deal with each country bi-laterally, still not quite knowing who to call if you want to talk to Europe or ASEAN. Well, in the end, there is China. I already hear your strong “Enough!”. In the particular case of the Republic of Estonia, do we really need to understand all this, and whether or not you want to do it at all?

Having a look from Tallinn, we should be asking the following two questions: 1) how important is it for Estonia to take an active part in the process? and 2) on which regional segments should we concentrate in order to formulate mutually acceptable parameters for prospective cooperation?

This material is an attempt to respond to a number of strategy-driven challenges in terms of interconnectedness between Europe and Asia-Pacific. There is also a hope that we could generate an academically fruitful discussion on the tactics that Estonia should adopt while interacting with existing and prospective partners in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR). Immediately we should stipulate that, in the view of Estonia’s membership in the EU, it is advisable to academically narrow the almost boundless ‘European area’ to the size of the EU. Prospects for the rest of Europe in its relations with Asia-Pacific we will conditionally leave out of the equation.

Being mindful of the fact that the concept of ‘partnership’ usually has a positive connotation as well as a nice linkage with the concept of ‘benefit’, I would suggest to keep our first question in mind, while considering it, if not rhetorical, then at least too general. Specific things are always more interesting. I would therefore immediately offer the following premise – for Estonia, in the process of establishing a more active cooperation with the APR, the country should justifiably focus on the ASEAN+6 format, which in addition to the ten countries of Southeast Asia, includes Australia, India, New Zealand, China, South Korea, and Japan. The aforementioned regional segment represents a set of interdependent economies, which in the near future are seeking to create a free trade zone composed of all the sixteen states. The talks about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have been ongoing, and the signing of the relevant document is scheduled for 2015. Naturally, the RCEP will emphasize the central position of ASEAN in the region, but also for the ‘+6’ it is worth a try. Now a few words about each.

China, after having been ‘walking’ around the world for the last thirty years, slowly but surely ‘returns’ to Asia. China has missed out on many essential things in its ‘home’ region. Nothing surprising – China has been busy working ‘over-time’ and ‘night shifts’ to successfully establish its global image. That is why modern Chinese academic discourse started highlighting the issues of integration within the APR and the importance of understanding the regional political and economic trends.

For the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan, the new millennia is a challenge and an opportunity to improve relations with its neighbours in the region. This was exactly the point that the then Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama attempted to rise in 2009 during his landmark speech to the UN General Assembly. According to the politician, “mistaken actions in the past” made it difficult for Japan to take its active part in the process of creating a strong community in the Asian east. The hope for Hatoyama was seen within the concept of a “new Japan” that would become a “bridge” for genuine partnership in the region.

Regarding South Korea, there is a strong perception that the union of the two parts of the Korean peninsula is a matter of perspective and not too distant. According to experts, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games – the event will be held in the South Korean county of Pyeongchang-gun – will help to create about a quarter of a million new jobs, generate about twenty billion dollars in the form of direct investment, becoming somewhat a catalyst for the unification of the two Koreas in the future. For the whole APR, a united Korea could become a stunning business ‘Klondike’ of modern times.

Australia… This country-continent has really grown up from the ‘short pants’ of Oceania. It was the Commonwealth of Australia that initiated the establishment of APEC back in 1989, becoming an Asia-Pacific nation overnight. The Green Continent feels very comfortable among the diverse membership of the G-20, especially given the fact that the G-8 no longer exists. In Australia, speaking on the location of the country, people prefer to speak of Australasia, but no way of Oceania. Moreover, the football team of the Aussies is already making its way through the group tournaments in Asia – geopolitically Australia wants to be there, trying to play for high stakes, and to influence the situation in the APR.

India – the third country in the world, if estimating its gross domestic product in terms of purchasing power parity. For this indicator, it has already surpassed Japan. India is a unique sub-continent, gradually opening up to the global gaze, despite the distinct policy of economic protectionism in the past.

‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ or ‘Aotearoa’ – this is the original name of New Zealand in Māori language. However, this country is not just an outstanding scene for ‘The Lord of the Rings’. In recent years, New Zealand has entered into agreements for the establishment of free trade zones with Australia, Brunei, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Chile and, separately, with ASEAN. The export-driven South Pacific country of 4.5 million people is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, accounting for about one-third of the international dairy trade annually.

Finally, let us dedicate a few lines to ASEAN. This organization includes the market, consisting of about 600 million people, generating a total GDP of nearly 3 trillion USD. Back in 1980, ASEAN successfully concluded a cooperation agreement with the European Economic Community, becoming the very first regional partner of the EU’s predecessor. In subsequent years, ASEAN paid much of attention to the integration-linked ideas and ‘know-hows’ of the EU, though never expressing a desire to eventually become a supranational entity, at least for now.

According to the above, even a superficial analysis suggests that prospective benefits of a multi-vector enhanced cooperation between the EU and the ASEAN+6 group are enormous. I must note that the Estonian side has already made some important steps in this direction. For example, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee prepared an interesting document on strategic directions of Estonia’s cooperation with Asian countries (‘Eesti võimalused ja huvid Aasias aastani 2025’). In itself, the document offers a somewhat idealised view but it is an excellent beginning in order to activate the process. In the region of ASEAN+6, Estonia has its Embassies in New Delhi, Beijing, and Tokyo, in addition to Tallinn-based Anders Unga, the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador, who represents Estonia’s interests in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and The Philippines. Certainly, the idea to establish Estonia’s high-level on-the-ground diplomatic representation in the Southeast Asia not only deserves serious consideration, but it could be just a matter of time. Location wise, Jakarta would fit perfectly, given the role of Indonesia in ASEAN.

The role of Estonian academia in the process of developing the country’s cooperative linkages with the APR should also and with necessity open up a number of prospective avenues for Estonia discovering Asia-Pacific. For example, the three largest universities in Estonia have joined forces for a joint as well as promising project ‘Aasia Uuringute Kompetentsikeskuse loomine ja Aasia-suunalise teadustöö arendamine’ (AUKLASTA).

About two years ago, during his public lecture delivered at Tallinn University of Technology, the then Japanese Ambassador to the Republic of Estonia Hideaki Hoshi ironically noted that his state is “almost a neighbour of Estonia”, adding after a pause that “only one country is between us”. This irony has just a bit of irony in itself, but otherwise – pure pragmatism. The APR is interested in Estonia that, according to the nowadays standards, is not so far away any more.

So, if we use the famous Churchill’s statement, this is already the good and promising end of the beginning. Now, in order to be able to understand the APR, we really need to select potentially the most effective framework for cooperation. The region of our interest is complex and, for all of its attractiveness, it is extremely versatile. Does the EU in general and Estonia in particular have a comprehensive set of analytical instrumentarium to construe the APR correctly? It is difficult to give a definite answer to this question. If we approach the task from the other end, then we could possibly get closer to the required information. Namely – through the analysis of how well the APR’s existing and prospective partners comprehend the EU. What prejudices do they have in relations to the European side? What do they actually know about the process of European integration? How clearly is the economic and political empire of the EU visible through the prism of its constructs and bureaucratic machine?

At present, it should be recognized that the EU, previously perceived in the APR as a laboratory of ideas on region-building is losing its mega-status in this context. It was effectively a ‘bombshell’ for the academic world when Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, during his discussion with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 2012, made the following statement: “[…] I do not view the European Union as an inspiration for the world. I view it as an enterprise that was conceived wrongly because it was expanded too fast and it will probably fail”.

Here is another historical example. Back in 1957, Ortvin Sarapu, the most famous New Zealander of Estonian origin who was known in the South Pacific country simply as ‘Mr. Chess’, won the Open Australian Chess championship. The grandmaster’s recollection was that next day after winning the tournament he was called by an Australian newspaper as “New Zealand Maori” – the media source simply could not determine the national background of the gifted chess player’s family name. I am pretty sure that that if the brilliant man had been alive today and had repeated the 1957 feat in 2014, the report in the Melbourne newspaper would have been similar.

The latter two stories suggest that the EU is in the urgent need to seriously consider the data on how the entity is being perceived by the outer world, more specifically – by the countries of the APR. On this academic account, there is a research field existing to provide the EU and its partners elsewhere with the vital data on media and elites perceptions of the EU in the APR, and the other way around. However, it will be the material for the next discussion.