Is there an EU Role in Asia? (1): EU-Korea Relations beyond just Trade


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This entry is cross-posted at the excellent European Geostrategy. Leave comments there as well. Part 2 is here.

On May 6-7, 2010, the EU Center of the Pusan National University is holding a conference on EU-Korea relations. This is a good time to think about the EU’s relations in Asia, about which I have been pretty critical so far. Here is a summary of my paper. I intend to submit this for publication, so comments would be especially welcome. Email me if you want the whole thing.

In 2009, Korea and the EU signed an free trade agreement (FTA), and the EU is regularly a top five export market for Korea. Interest in future cooperation is high, however the research on which this post is based finds that deeper engagement is unlikely. Most importantly, neither side is relevant to the basic security issues of the other. Specifically, the EU cannot assist Korea in its acute security dilemma, and ‘sovereigntist’ Korea does not share EU preferences for soft power, regionalization, and multilateral collective security. However, Korea is likely to pursue the relationship for cost-free prestige-taking. And the EU will understand this ‘Asian bridge’ as a success for the promotion of liberal-democratic values in a non-European context. Europhile, pro-regionalist elites may pursue ‘inter-regional’ ties to bolster the European Comission (EC) within Europe, but deep Korean attachment to the Westphalian state model will stymie pan-regionalism.

Neither the EU nor Korea can meaningfully contribute to the other’s primary security challenges – a central pillar for deeper bilateral relations among states. As James Rodgers and Luis Simon note frequently, the EU lacks serious power projection far from the Continent. Its ‘loss of strength gradient’ toward East Asia is severe since the British retrenchment from east of Suez. The EU cannot meaningfully deter NK or China. EU land forces do not bolster US Forces in Korea. Although a participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative and the (now defunct) Agreed Framework, the EU plays no role in the new Six Party frame. Similarly, Korea is irrelevant to big EU security issues, such as the course of Russia, terrorism and the Middle East, or Eastern Europe’s stabilization. Their shared liberal democratic values place them broadly in the liberal security community of the democratic peace, but a more positive military contribution to either’s security is unlikely.

Both sides derive prestige from the relationship. Korea, small and peripheral to the global economy until recently, captures most of these benefits. A bilateral relationship with Europe flatters the Korean imagination of its stature in world politics. Instead of a half-country whose international image is dominated by a clownish rogue despot, Korea lusts for Europe’s status and rank. Its famous antiquities, high-profile tourism locations, rich history of art and culture – all nested in a wealthy, healthy, international society broadly at peace with itself – strongly attracts the Korean imagination.

A well-known, highly recognized ‘global player,’ the EU captures little direct prestige from Korea. However, the Korean partnership does benefit pro-European elites within the EU, most notably in the EC/EU bureaucracy. The ‘eurocracy,’ trapped in a decades-long turf-battle with the national bureaucracies, is likely to seize on the prestige of a direct EU-level relationship with a G-20 economy. This is ammunition against critics that the EU is simply a trade deal or that other states do not take it seriously. If the 2010 host of the G-20 summit takes the EU seriously enough to label it a ‘strategic partner,’ then the eurocracy gains in the intra-European conflict to establish the EU more soundly and eventually build a real Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Finally, the EU does reap psychological gains of domestic values validation. Korea is a great successes in the transplantation of liberal, democratic, Enlightenment values outside of the West; Korea is routinely touted a central case that these values not ‘western,’ but in fact universal. This excises the cultural-racial bite of the ‘Asian values’ and ‘human-rights imperialism’ arguments of Asian actors such as the Chinese Communist Party or Matathir Mohamad. Conversely, Korea will find little back-traffic, despite heroic efforts to export the ‘Korean Wave.’

The EU and Korea have an unremarkable relationship. Given the mutual irrelevance of one’s security to the other, it is easy to predict that no alliance is likely. The FTA is step forward, but ultimately one based solely on material utility. The EU also trades with Iran, and Korea has a ‘strategic partnership’ with Kazakhstan. This provides perspective on the mutual, post-FTA rhetoric of ‘strategic partners.’ A ‘friendly partner’ is a more credible assessment. The EU-Korea relationship will not mature into a meaningful bond to rival the more critical relations of either with the US, China, Japan, or Russia.

The EU’s preference for Asian regionalism will generate friction, although Korea will tolerate it in order to retain the huge prestige boost an EU relationship. Hence the greatest frustration will fall on the European side. Korea’s prestige gains are already achieved by the completion of the FTA and the ‘strategic partnership,’ and the EU cannot leverage a security contribution to the peninsula to push Korea into the East Asian Community (EAC) or Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). So long as Korea, and East Asia generally, remains committed to the ‘ASEAN Way’ of talk-shop intergovernmentalism, Kantian-Europhilic elites – pro-EU, pro-EAC, and pro-ASEM – are likely to find nationalist Korea, and Asia, a frustrating ‘inter-regional’ partner.

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6 thoughts on “Is there an EU Role in Asia? (1): EU-Korea Relations beyond just Trade

  1. Prof Kelly – If EU bureaucrats crave to legitimize the EU as a entity with real agency in international affairs, why is that not enough incentive for the EU to meaningfully engage South Korea?

    • It is. But,

      1. The EU receives its parallel legtimacy more from negotiating with other regional organizations than with states. So the EU will likely push Asian states, including Korea, to negotiate with it as an ‘Asian bloc’ through ASEM. But nationalistic Asians aren’t really excited about regionalizing into a common indentity or bloc for such negotiations. Hence I predicted that the EU would get frustrated with Korea because of its reticence to regionalize.

      2. The EU’s member-states also conduct their own foreign policies with big economies like Korea. This competes with EU foreign policy and creates confusion. If the eurocracy controlled European foreign policy completely, the situation would be clearer. As is today though, the biggest member-states are likley to push back on too much foreign policy entrepeneurialism by Brussels.

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