Europe's coming Asia pivot

Article Highlights

  • America isn't the only country pivoting to Asia.

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  • Europe's new Asia policy will have to be about more than just trade, if it is to succeed.

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  • There is a large arena for political and security cooperation on Asian issues.

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America isn't the only country pivoting to Asia. Some of Europe's leaders, fearing the economic implications of a rupture in the euro zone and decrying years of stagnation on the continent, are turning east.

Prime Minister David Cameron, during his trip to Japan and Southeast Asia last month, said that Britain's economic future lay in no small part with its Asian partners. This approach will pay dividends only if Europe puts in place measures that promote growth—no, not spending—at home and beefs up its foreign policies.

As Mr. Cameron pointed out, Britain has long lagged in pushing trade with Asia. Japan, for example, is just its 14th largest export market, and British exports to Japan were only slightly more than $6 billion in 2010. Compare that to the $60 billion in U.S. exports to Japan or the $50 billion in U.K. exports to the U.S. in the same year.

As Mr. Cameron and other leaders look to diversify their portfolios in Asia, China dominates their economic prospects. European trade levels with China are the highest in the region, but the EU runs a massive current deficit. This is something that will be increasingly untenable in times of austerity, and it requires greater consumption in Asian markets of European goods. Such a rebalancing, however, cannot be taken for granted.

Are David Cameron and other leaders wrong, then, to call for greater economic engagement with Asia? Not necessarily, but Europe's new Asia policy will have to be about more than just trade, if it is to succeed. Here is an opportunity for Europe's leaders to work with the U.S., as the continent's leaders put meat on the bones of their pivot strategy.

While President Obama's Asia focus is cheered by many in the region in principle, Asian leaders are skeptical of what the policy entails in practice. With the U.S. election, increasing tension with Iran and defense cuts all looming, will Washington offer more than rhetoric? This is not enough for Asia.

It therefore makes sense for the U.S. to embrace Europe's new interest in Asia, as a way to convince Europe to pivot its military toward Asia and hence bolster the resources for this region. There is a large arena for political and security cooperation on Asian issues.

Though no one expects Europe to help the U.S. uphold its alliance commitments, there are many things that European militaries can do. European air forces and navies could offer their expertise to nations like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all of which are exploring larger regional roles. Similarly, Europe is well-placed to offer human rights education to militaries throughout the region. Such cooperation can build strong political relationships for the future.

Europe has largely left the sphere of politics in Asia to the Americans, playing almost no role in the various multilateral forums that are emerging in the region. There is also a great deal of help that European nations can give on building civil society—grassroots political organizations, student exchange groups, think tanks, and the like—in Asia.

All of this should be cheered by the Obama administration, which has clearly placed its bets on Asia as the most important region for future U.S. prosperity. Given that, even economic competition over Asian markets between Europe and America may not be a bad thing.

The goal of U.S. trade policy, for instance, should be to grow the overall pie, and not to want to hoard a slice for itself. In this, Washington has a large head start with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but some broader talks on increasing competitiveness, lowering taxes and promoting basic research and development, besides of course lowering trade barriers, could link up Europeans, Americans and Asians in ways that make all parties recognize their common interests.

Europe once ruled large parts of Asia, but has been absent from many of the most important events in the region for decades. If Asia is indeed the future dynamo of global growth, as well as a region of increasing security competition, then Mr. Cameron's visit is an appropriate new policy to make globalization more than a mere catchword.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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