The EU is forging closer ties with South Asian countries and promoting regional integration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A strong economic player in Southeast Asia, the EU is also an important development and aid donor, working to foster institution-building, democracy, good governance and human rights. Since August 2017, the EU has been providing extensive humanitarian assistance to around 655 000 Rohingya refugees.

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 first ASEAN summit, in February 1976 in Bali, brought together Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, plus Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. ASEAN follows a strict policy of non-interference in its members’ domestic affairs.

The 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila on 13 and 14 November 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN. It coincided with the ASEAN-EU Commemorative 40th Anniversary Summit. The two parties reaffirmed their support for one another’s regional integration and community-building efforts. The EU has a strategic interest in developing Asia’s regional integration. 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. Its main purpose is to foster political dialogue, strengthen economic cooperation and promote people-to-people links. The ASEM cooperation mechanism focuses on connectivity, trade and investment, migration and climate change, but also broad security challenges such as counter-terrorism, maritime security and cyber issues. It brings together 53 partners from across Europe and Asia representing nearly 60% of the world’s GDP and over 60% of the world’s population. Beyond government-level meetings, ASEM also brings together members of parliament, the business sector, civil society, academia and the media. The 13th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting took place on 21 and 22 November 2017 in Myanmar. ASEM partners discussed security, terrorism, climate change and migration, as well as the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

C. Indonesia

Indonesia, a G20 member, the world’s third largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority country, is increasingly a key partner for the EU. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been scheduled for 2019 and will be held simultaneously for the first time. President Joko Widodo will stand for re-election.

The economy is supported by a strong private sector. Indonesia’s GDP is expected to grow at around 5% in the period from 2018-2022. EU-Indonesia cooperation is based on the 2014 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The third round of discussions on a comprehensive EU-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement, in September 2017, moved to text-based negotiations on trade in goods, services, investment, government procurement, state-owned enterprises and technical barriers to trade. The EU is Indonesia’s fourth biggest trading partner, with total trade worth EUR 25 billion (2016). Indonesia was the second destination for EU investments in the region, accounting for EUR 30.6 billion (2015). The second EU-Indonesia Joint Committee meeting under the EU-Indonesia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement took place on 6 December 2017, when both sides underlined the importance of strengthening dialogue on developing the sustainability of palm oil production. The Human Rights Dialogue is scheduled to take place in Indonesia in early 2018. The European Parliament has passed resolutions, including one in June 2017, addressing human rights issues and attacks on religious minorities.

D. Myanmar

The EU has been an active partner in Myanmar’s democratic transition, at the forefront of the international community’s re-engagement with Myanmar, since it began to re-establish democracy and open up to the world. There is no formal framework agreement in place because of decades of international isolation and sanctions (lifted by the EU in 2013, with the exception of arms). In 2016, the Council endorsed a strategy for relations with Myanmar.

Since the 2015 elections, observed by the EU with the participation of the European Parliament, democratic reforms have been progressing. Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the posts of state counsellor, foreign minister and minister of the Office of the Presidency, giving her real executive powers. The Myanmar Constitution, written by the military government in 2008, restricts the new government’s actions. Myanmar is still engaged in a civil war that began in 1948. A ceasefire was agreed in October 2015, but a number of ethnic insurgent groups have not signed it.

The EU is a strong economic partner and development aid donor, fostering democracy and institution-building, allocating EUR 688 million for the 2014-2020 period. Focus areas are rural development, education, governance and the rule of law and peacebuilding. The fifth round of negotiations for the EU-Myanmar Investment Protection Agreement took place in April 2017. Total trade between the EU and Myanmar amounted to EUR 1.6 billion in 2016. The European Parliament is providing technical support to the Myanmar Parliament.

There are major human rights issues, in particular the persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine. Since August 2017, around 655 000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar. The situation is unlikely to be resolved unless Bangladesh and Myanmar implement their repatriation plan of 23 November 2017 under the auspices of the international community. The EU is ready to support the repatriation process. Myanmar is also facing an increase in Burmese Buddhist nationalism and an escalation of inter-communal tensions.

E. The Philippines

In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election with 39% of the vote. He adopted controversial measures against drug trafficking with ‘shoot to kill’ orders leading to flagrant human rights violations. Human rights organisations have urged the international community to react against President Duterte’s campaign. Duterte changed the Philippines’ foreign policy, building a new alliance with Russia and China, despite the controversy over the South China Sea. On 23 May 2017, President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, mainly because of the presence of so-called Islamic State militants in the Muslim-majority city of Marawi and other cities. The European Parliament has become increasingly concerned by the human rights violations.

The EU and the Philippines signed a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 2011. The EU is a significant donor to the Philippines, providing EUR 325 million for the 2014-2020 period. Focus areas are the rule of law and inclusive growth. Negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) were formally launched in December 2015. EU-Philippines bilateral trade in goods amounted to EUR 13 billion in 2016, and the EU ranks as the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner. The Philippines is currently enjoying the EU’s GSP+ trade preferences.

F. Vietnam

EU-Vietnam relations are at a decisive stage, following the entry into force in 2016 of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. A total of EUR 400 million was allocated for the 2014-2020 period, focusing on good governance, energy and climate change. The EU and Vietnam reached agreement on a comprehensive trade and investment agreement (FTA), which is expected to be presented to the Council for approval and for consent by the European Parliament in 2018.

Vietnam continues to be a one-party communist state without political freedom, even though it is one of the most successful examples of transition from a failed communist economic system to an open market-oriented economy. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing countries in ASEAN, with an average GDP of 6% between 2010 and 2017. The EU is Vietnam’s third largest trade partner and one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment. In 2016, trade in goods was EUR 42 billion. In 2015, EU Foreign Direct Investment reached EUR 5.5 billion.

The European Parliament has adopted several resolutions on human rights issues in Vietnam. In December 2017, the European Parliament addressed the state of freedom of expression in the country, also articulating its concern about the rise in the number of detentions, arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens related to the expression of their opinions.

G. Thailand

The EU-Thailand partnership is based on the 1980 framework agreement. The parties completed negotiations for a Partnership Cooperation Agreement in March 2013, which was halted following the military coup in 2014. On 11 December 2017, the Council adopted conclusions with a view to pursuing gradual political re-engagement, reiterating its call for the urgent restoration of democracy. The EU is Thailand’s third largest export market and Thailand is one of the EU’s main trade partners in ASEAN. In 2016, bilateral trade amounted to EUR 34 billion. Thailand was given ‘Yellow Card’ status in April 2015, in connection with the EU regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The National Council for Peace and Order (the Junta) has been ruling the country since 22 May 2014 and Prayut Chan O-cha has been prime minister since August 2014. The military has supressed opposition by imposing martial law and human rights abuses have been reported. King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in late 2016. The formal coronation of his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, will take place in April 2018. Elections in Thailand, initially scheduled for 2017, have been postponed several times. In February 2017, the Junta initiated peace talks with the insurgency in the southern provinces with a Muslim majority. The European Parliament has passed resolutions on human rights, migrant workers and labour rights.

H. Cambodia

The EU’s relations with Cambodia date back to the 1977 Cooperation Agreement. The EU is its biggest donor, allocating EUR 410 million for the 2014-2020 period, for improving governance, the rule of law and for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. However, the EU’s influence is limited by the country’s geopolitical situation, with China promoting its own model of development and investment.

The Khmer Rouge period and years of civil war have rendered Cambodia one of the poorest states in Southeast Asia. After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia adopted a Constitution in 1993, laying the foundations for a liberal, multiparty democratic state, with regular elections. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for decades and progress on democratisation and poverty reduction has been very slow. Local elections took place in June 2017. Soon afterwards, the Law on Political Parties was changed, in July 2017, in order to target the opposition. The government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have increasingly been intimidating the media and NGOs and undermining the opposition ahead of the general election scheduled for July 2018. The opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September 2017. On 14 September 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Cambodian government to end its politically motivated prosecution of the opposition party leader.

Despite economic growth being expected to reach around 7% in 2017-2018, Cambodia’s economy is dependent on international aid and on garment exports, and is vulnerable to labour-costs. As a Least Developed Country (LDC), Cambodia benefits from the most favourable trade regime.

I. Singapore

The People’s Action Party is leading the transition before the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2021. The EU and Singapore initialled a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and an EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2013, awaiting ratification. The FTA is expected to be presented to the Council for approval and for the consent of the European Parliament in 2018. The EU is Singapore’s second most important trading partner and largest source of foreign direct investment. EU-Singapore trade in goods reached EUR 51 billion in 2016, while trade in services amounted to EUR 47 billion. Singapore is a major destination for European investments in Asia, with FDI stocks amounting to EUR 153 billion in 2015.

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 country holds the ASEAN rotating presidency in 2018.

J. Brunei Darussalam

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, rules the state, while Prince Billah Bolkiah is assuming more responsibilities. There is no political liberalisation. In 2016, the Penal Code was reformed incorporating a new Sharia-based approach. The economy is linked to the oil and gas sector. Brunei’s main diplomatic activity is in the regional multilateral sphere, especially within ASEAN.

The EU is actively enhancing its relations with Brunei, but there is not yet a framework agreement. Relations are mainly handled through ASEAN. The EU is Brunei’s fifth largest trading partner and trade between the EU and Brunei is mainly in machinery, motor vehicles and chemicals. In December 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the ban on celebrating Christmas in the Sultanate of Brunei.

K. Laos (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lao PDR)

EU-Laos relations are based on the 1997 Cooperation Agreement. The EU is providing over EUR 500 million for the 2016-2020 period, supporting the Lao Eighth National Socio-Economic Development Plan, which focuses on high economic growth with an overall target of graduating from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020.

Laos is a one-party state. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), in power since the end of the civil war in 1975, rules the country with a firm grip, with no opposition. All other political parties are banned, while dissent is firmly suppressed. Opposition comes mainly from ethnic Hmong, and from expatriates in Thailand and the US, mainly Hmong but also ethnic Lao. Laos is deepening its relations with China and with ASEAN, seeking to attract greater investment. Economic reforms have led to sustained economic growth (at rates of over 7% since 2014, with 7.3% expected for 2018). Despite economic reforms, the country is still poor and dependent on international aid. As a Least Developed Country (LDC), Laos benefits from the most favourable trade regime. Textiles, clothing and agriculture dominate EU imports from Laos.

The European Parliament passed a resolution on Laos on 14 September 2017, expressing deep concern about the human rights situation. It deplored the lack of freedom of expression and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians.

L. Malaysia

The EU and Malaysia concluded negotiations on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 2015. EU-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations have been put on hold at Malaysia’s request. The EU is Malaysia’s third largest trading partner and one of the biggest foreign investors: the EU had investment stocks exceeding EUR 19 billion in 2015 in Malaysia. In 2016, EU-Malaysian overall trade in goods reached EUR 35.4 billion, while trade in services reached EUR 7.7 billion (2015).

The next general election has initially been scheduled for August 2018. The opposition is divided and the ruling Barisan Nasional is in a good position. Malaysia’s GDP growth was 5.8% in 2017. It will maintain this average in 2018-2022. The European Parliament has condemned the death penalty and the silencing of public discontent, as well as the lack of peaceful expression, including public debate.


Jorge Soutullo / Anna Saarela