Europeans have not yet decided how to respond to the US “pivot” to Asia but became more vocal about maritime disputes in East Asia in 2012. Sanctions on Burma were suspended.
The EU has wide-ranging interests in Asia that go beyond trade. In particular, it seeks regional security. However, Europeans have not yet decided how to respond to the US “pivot” to Asia or figured out what their role might be in the region. On paper, however, the EEAS did everything right in 2012. High Representative Catherine Ashton visited the region in what she called an “Asian Semester”, participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum, and made a joint statement with her US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on cooperation in Asia. But although some saw in this focus on Asia a European “mini-pivot”, it was mostly ignored in Beijing and even in EU member state capitals.
In June, the EU published new foreign-policy guidelines on Asia, which included speaking out on the conflicts in the South China Sea. But during ASEM, the EU–Asia summit, which was held in Laos, most EU member states seemed as malleable as ASEAN member states on addressing maritime disputes in the region after pressure from China to keep silent. Still, on other occasions in 2012, the EEAS did start to speak up on the maritime conflicts in East Asia and Ashton’s spokesperson called for “peaceful and cooperative solutions in accordance with international law”. The East Asia Summit in November, convened by ASEAN, passed without European participation, but in July Ashton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (a non-aggression pact between ASEAN members and their partners), which is expected to allow the EU to participate in the future.
As Burma moved towards democracy – and also to some extent away from Chinese influence – the EU was quick to respond. British Prime Minister David Cameron was the first Western leader to visit the country and met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon in April. Shortly afterwards, the EU agreed to suspend for a year most sanctions in recognition of the “historic changes” in the country.