Southeast Asia

Asia is the world’s largest and most populous continent, of great geostrategic importance to the EU. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN and ASEM are important interlocutors for the EU and the EU is forging closer ties with countries across the region. The EU is a strong economic player and important development and aid donor, working to foster institution-building, democracy, good governance and human rights.

This fact sheet describes the Southeast Asia region. See also the fact sheets on South Asia (6.6.7) and East Asia (6.6.8).

Legal basis

  • Title V (EU external action) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU);
  • Articles 206-207 (trade) and 216-219 (international agreements) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
  • Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) (bilateral relations).

Southeast Asia

a.Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The EU and ASEAN began meeting at summit level 40 years ago. ASEAN was established in 1967 and now comprises 10 countries (founding members Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, plus Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar). It has been an international legal entity since the ASEAN Charter entered into force on 1 January 2009. It follows a strict policy of non-interference in its members’ domestic affairs.

EU-ASEAN cooperation was framed in the 2012 Plan of Action to strengthen the EU-ASEAN enhanced partnership (2013-2017), and the EU has a strategic interest in consolidating ties with ASEAN.

The EU and individual ASEAN member countries pursue partnership and cooperation agreements (PCAs). The EU is ASEAN’s second-largest partner, with a 13% share of ASEAN’s total trade with the world. ASEAN is the EU’s third largest partner outside Europe (after the US and China). Negotiations for a region-to-region FTA between the EU and ASEAN — the EU’s ultimate goal — were revived in March 2017. EU-ASEAN two-way trade stood at EUR 208 billion in 2016, and the EU remained the largest external source of FDI flows into ASEAN in 2015, when they amounted to EUR 23.3 billion.

b.Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is a key forum between the EU and Asia, with 53 partners representing nearly 60% of the world’s GDP and over 60% of the world’s population, The 11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM 11) was held in July 2016, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The next ASEM Summit will be in Brussels in 2018. Beyond government-level meetings, ASEM also brings together members of parliament, the business sector, civil society, academia and the media.


Indonesia, a G20 member, the world’s third-largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority country, is increasingly a key partner for the EU. Cooperation is based on the EU-Indonesia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which entered into force in 2014. Negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the EU and Indonesia were officially launched in July 2016. The introductory round of negotiations took place in September 2016 and, following the second negotiation round from 24 to 27 January 2017, nine of the EU’s initial negotiating positions were published on 7 February 2017.

The EU is Indonesia’s fourth biggest trading partner, with total trade worth EUR 25 billion (2016). The first EU-Indonesia Joint Committee meeting under the Framework Agreement on the Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation took place on 28 November 2016. The EU’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan has helped enable Indonesia to develop one of the most advanced timber legality assurance systems in the world. The first FLEGT licence was issued on 15 November 2016.

EP resolutions have addressed human rights issues and attacks on religious minorities.


The EU has been an active partner in Myanmar’s democratic transition. It opened a delegation to Myanmar in 2013. The European Council conclusions of 20 June 2016 on an EU strategy with Myanmar welcomed the peaceful transfer of power and the consolidation of democracy following the elections in November 2015. The European Parliament participated in the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM) for the 2015 general elections.

In March 2016, Htin Kyaw became the first democratically elected president. However, the government still shares power with the army, which controls 25% of the parliament’s seats. The EU encourages the Government of Myanmar to bring all existing legislation into line with international law and standards and to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council.

The European Parliament has addressed concerns about the human rights situation, particularly ethnic violence, in its resolutions — most recently in its December 2016 resolution on the persecution of the Rohingya minority. Myanmar is one of Parliament’s priority countries for comprehensive democracy support. The EU welcomed the Government of Myanmar’s announcement in November 2016 that it was establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the recent violence against Rohingya in Rakhine.

The EU granted Myanmar access to the Everything But Arms trade scheme in 2013 when the EU and Myanmar launched negotiations for an investment protection agreement. The fifth round of negotiations on the EU-Myanmar Investment Protection Agreement took place on 26 and 27 April 2017. Total trade between the EU and Myanmar amounted to EUR 1.6 billion in 2016. The EU is one of the main donors of assistance to Myanmar. The amount of assistance allocated for the period 2014-2020 is EUR 688 million. Focus areas are rural development, education, governance and the rule of law, and peacebuilding. Since May 2015, the EU has participated in the ‘Initiative to promote fundamental labour rights and practices in Myanmar’ with the United States, Japan, Denmark and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

e.The Philippines

In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election with 39% of the vote. The new administration has also taken controversial measures against drug trafficking with ‘shoot to kill’ orders leading to flagrant human rights violations. Duterte has also changed the Philippines’ foreign policy, partially breaking its alliance with the US and building a new alliance with China and Russia.

The EU and the Philippines signed a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 2011, but it has not yet been ratified by all the Member States. The European Parliament has been increasingly concerned by the human rights violations in Philippines, adopting resolutions on the subject in September 2016 and March 2017. Negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Philippines were formally launched in December 2015. The second round of negotiations took place from 13 to 17 February 2017 and moved to text-based negotiations in a number of areas (such as trade in goods, rules of origin, Social Protection Systems (SPS) measures, and trade and sustainable development). The Philippines is currently enjoying GSP+ trade preferences. The EU is a significant donor to the Philippines, providing EUR 325 million for 2014-2020, more than double the amount for the previous period. Focus areas are the rule of law and inclusive growth.


Vietnam is one of the EU’s key partners in Southeast Asia. The EU-Vietnam Framework Agreement on a Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) entered into force in 2016. The EU is Vietnam’s third largest trade partner, and relations are expected to intensify when the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA) enters into force, which is expected in 2018. The EU is also one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Vietnam. It is Vietnam’s main development cooperation donor. A total of EUR 400 million was allocated for 2014-2020, focusing on good governance, energy and climate change.

Vietnam has undergone rapid economic and social transformation over the past two decades, alongside integration into the global economy. It is one of the fastest growing countries in ASEAN, with an average GDP growth rate of around 6% between 2010 and 2016. The EU has a negative trade in goods balance with Vietnam of around EUR 23 billion. In 2016, EU-Vietnam trade in goods was worth over EUR 42 billion, with EUR 33 billion in imports from Vietnam into the EU and EUR 9 billion in exports from the EU to Vietnam. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in June 2016 on human rights issues in Vietnam.


The EU-Thailand partnership is based on a framework agreement signed in 1980. The EU and Thailand completed negotiations for a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in March 2013, but the process of signing the agreement was halted following the military coup in 2014. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations were launched in 2013 but have also been halted. The EU has called repeatedly for the restoration of democratic government. The EU is Thailand’s third largest export market and Thailand is one of the EU’s main trade partners in ASEAN. It is also a significant donor to civil society. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on civil society in Thailand in October 2016 and a resolution on the political and human rights situation in October 2015. Thailand has been given a Yellow Card notification in connection with the EU Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and consultations are under way.


EU-Cambodia relations are based on the Framework Cooperation Agreement of 1999 and a joint committee holds meetings biannually. Cambodia benefits from the Everything But Arms trade scheme and the EU is the largest export market for Cambodian products. The EU is a major development cooperation and humanitarian assistance donor, with funding of EUR 410 million allocated under the 2014-2020 Multiannual Indicative Programme (MIP) and focusing on agriculture and resource management, education and skills, and good governance. Members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights visited Cambodia in March 2016. Parliament has adopted several resolutions on Cambodia’s political and civil rights situation. The EU has blacklisted Cambodia in connection with the EU Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing since 2014.


The EU and Singapore initialled a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ESPCA) and an EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) in 2013. Both agreements are awaiting ratification. The EU is Singapore’s third most important trading partner and largest source of foreign direct investment. The Court of Justice of the European Union clarified in its opinion of 16 May 2017[1] that although the EU is exclusively competent for most of the EUSFTA in its current form the EU alone cannot conclude it, because some of the provisions, notably those relating to non-direct foreign investment and to dispute settlement between investors and states, fall within competences shared between the EU and the Member States.

The two sides have a high level of cooperation in the areas of business, science and technology. The EU calls for the abolition of the death penalty and supports the work of civil society through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).


The EU is actively enhancing its relations with Brunei, but there is not yet a framework agreement. Relations are mainly handled through ASEAN. A Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) is being negotiated. The EU is Brunei’s fifth largest trading partner and trade between the EU and Brunei is mainly in machinery, motor vehicles and chemicals.


The EU and Laos have a Cooperation Agreement dating from 1997 and the Joint Committee meets every two years. The EU is one of Laos’ main development donors. The Multiannual Indicative Program for Laos for 2014-2020 allocates EUR 207 million and focuses on nutrition, education and governance. The EU supports civil society work in Laos. Laos benefits from the EU’s Everything But Arms scheme and trade has been growing rapidly in recent years.


The EU and Malaysia concluded negotiations on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 2015 and are currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement, but the negotiations have been put on hold at Malaysia’s request. A stocktaking exercise is being finalised to assess the prospects for resuming negotiations. The EU is Malaysia’s third largest trading partner. EU development cooperation focuses on sustainable development and the environment, research and technological development, migration and asylum programmes, human rights and the abolition of the death penalty.

[1]Court of Justice of the European Union, Opinion No 2/15 of 16.5.2017, ECLI:EU:C:2017:376.

Jorge Soutullo / Anna Saarela