The EU is forging closer ties with Southeast 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. The EU has been providing extensive humanitarian assistance to around 655 000 Rohingya refugees since August 2017.

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, held in Bali in February 1976, 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 foreign direct investment (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 65% of the world’s GDP, 55% of global trade and more than 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 European Parliament hosted the 10th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership (ASEP) meeting on 27 and 28 September 2018. The 12th ASEM Summit will centre on the theme ‘Europe and Asia: global partners for global challenges’, and is scheduled to place in Brussels on 18 and 19 October 2018.

At the 13th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Myanmar on 21 and 22 November 2017, issues discussed included security, terrorism, climate change and migration, as well as the situation of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State.

C. Indonesia

Indonesia, a G20 member, the world’s third largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority country, is becoming an increasingly 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% over the entire 2018-2022 period. EU-Indonesia cooperation is based on the 2014 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The fifth round of negotiations on a comprehensive EU-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement, in July 2018, continued across a board range of areas, particularly trade in goods, services, investment, government procurement and technical barriers to trade, while a parallel process of preparing respective market access offers on goods and services continues. The sixth negotiating round is scheduled for the week beginning 15 October 2018. The EU is Indonesia’s fourth biggest trading partner, with total trade worth more than EUR 27 billion (2017). Indonesia was the second destination for EU investments in the region, with FDI stocks amounting to EUR 33.9 billion (2016). At the second EU-Indonesia Joint Committee meeting under the EU-Indonesia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, on 6 December 2017, both sides underlined the importance of strengthening dialogue on developing the sustainability of palm oil production. The seventh EU-Indonesia Human Rights Dialogue took place on 1 February 2018. The European Parliament has passed resolutions, notably in June 2017, addressing human rights issues and attacks on religious minorities in Indonesia, while its Committee on Foreign Affairs visited the country in May 2018 in an effort to highlight the strategic nature of EU-Indonesia relations.

D. Myanmar

The EU has been an active partner in Myanmar’s democratic transition and at the forefront of the international community’s re-engagement with the country 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). The Council endorsed a strategy for relations with Myanmar in 2016.

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 and 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; while good progress was made, negotiations are to be continued. Total trade between the EU and Myanmar amounted to EUR 2.1 billion in 2017. The European Parliament is providing technical support to the Parliament of Myanmar.

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.

On 27 August 2018, United Nations investigators levelled accusations against the military of genocide and crimes against humanity.

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. Duterte has 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, with the agreement entering into force in March 2018. The EU is a significant donor to the Philippines, providing EUR 325 million for the period 2014-2020. Focus areas are the rule of law and inclusive growth. The second round of negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), which were formally launched in December 2015, took place in February 2017. EU-Philippines bilateral trade in goods amounted to EUR 14 billion in 2017, and the EU ranks as the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner. The Philippines continues to enjoy the EU’s GSP+ trade preferences scheme, with a GSP+ utilisation rate of 71% in 2016. In particular, products such as coconut oil, preserved tuna, bicycles, pineapple products, and some garments and footwear benefit from the enhanced access to the EU market. The European Parliament resolution on the Philippines of 19 April 2018[1] recalls its obligations under international law, the GSP+ scheme and the PCA, while recognising the progress made in the implementation of the GSP+ conventions since its previous resolution on the Philippines of 16 March 2017[2].

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, with a focus on good governance, energy and climate change. The architecture of the EU-Vietnam comprehensive trade and investment agreement was adapted to two agreements: a Free Trade Agreement and an Investment Protection Agreement. Both are expected to be presented to the Council for approval and to the European Parliament for consent in late 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 and market-oriented economy. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing countries in ASEAN, having registered an average GDP growth of 6% between 2010 and 2017, a figure set to rise to 6.8% in 2018. The EU is Vietnam’s third largest trading partner and one of its largest sources of FDI. In 2017, trade in goods was almost EUR 48 billion. In 2016, EU FDI stocks in Vietnam reached EUR 8.3 billion.

The European Parliament has passed several resolutions on human rights issues in Vietnam. In December 2017, for instance, it addressed the state of freedom of expression, and articulated concerns 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, but it 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. In line with the Council conclusions, the negotiations on the EU-Thailand FTA may be resumed once a democratically elected civilian government is in place in Thailand; exploratory talks on the level of ambition for their possible resumption are under way. The EU is Thailand’s third largest export market and Thailand is one of the EU’s main trade partners in ASEAN. In 2017, bilateral trade amounted to EUR 37 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 suppressed 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, took place in April 2018. Elections in Thailand, initially scheduled for 2017 but postponed several times, are now expected to take place in February 2019. In February 2017, the Junta initiated peace talks with the insurgency in the southern Muslim-majority provinces. 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 the country’s biggest donor, allocating EUR 410 million for the 2014-2020 period for improving governance and the rule of law and for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. However, its influence is limited by Cambodia’s geopolitical situation, with China promoting its own model of development and investment. On 26 February 2018, the Council adopted conclusions on Cambodia in the light of political developments and the continuing deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law[3], including the escalating repression of the opposition, media and civil society. This followed a move by the European Parliament in December 2017 to adopt a resolution on the dissolution of the political opposition[4].

The Khmer Rouge period and years of civil war 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, multi-party 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 amended, 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 Mr Sokha.

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, Cambodia benefits from the most favourable trade regime, namely Everything But Arms, under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP).

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 in 2013. Following the Opinion of the European Court of Justice on the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (Opinion 2/15 of May 2017), the architecture of the EU-Singapore comprehensive trade and investment agreement was adapted to two agreements: a Free Trade Agreement and an Investment Protection Agreement. The EU-Singapore Free Trade and Investment Protection agreements are expected to be signed in October 2018 and then presented to the European Parliament for consent, with a view to their entry into force in 2019.

The EU is Singapore’s third most important trading partner. EU-Singapore two-way trade in goods reached EUR 53 billion in 2017, while trade in services amounted to EUR 44 billion in 2016. Singapore is a major destination for European investment in Asia, with FDI stocks amounting to EUR 168 billion in 2016.

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 for 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 bound up with the oil and gas sectors. 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 was Brunei’s eighth largest trading partner in 2017 (with a total trade in goods of EUR 362 million), 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 achieving high economic growth with an overall target of graduating from Least Developed Country 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 an iron grip and with no opposition to challenge it. 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 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, Laos benefits from the EU’s most favourable trade regime, namely the Everything But Arms scheme. The EU’s imports from Laos are dominated by textiles, clothing and agricultural products.

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. After seven rounds of negotiation on the EU-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the negotiations were put on hold in April 2012 at the request of Malaysia. A stocktaking exercise to assess the prospects for resuming negotiations has been finalised. In the aftermath of the general elections in May 2018, the new government is expected to take a position on the possible resumption of negotiations. The EU is Malaysia’s third largest trading partner and one of its biggest foreign investors: investment stocks in Malaysia exceeded EUR 22 billion in 2016. In 2017, EU-Malaysian overall trade in goods reached EUR 39.4 billion, while trade in services totalled EUR 7.2 billion (2016).

Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional coalition, which included the United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), was defeated for the first time in the country’s 60-year history in the general election in May 2018. The 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, led the opposition Alliance of Hope to victory, and replaced Najib Razak as prime minister. Razak had been in power since 2009.

Malaysia’s GDP growth was 5.8% in 2017, bringing it closer to high-income country status. 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