December 19, 2022
JAKARTA – Just one month after chairing the internationally applauded Group of 20 Summit, bringing together the leaders of the world’s largest 20 economies in Bali, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo played a leadership role for the 10-member ASEAN during the summit to commemorate 45 years of its relationship with the 28-member European Union in Brussels on Wednesday.
Indonesia will formally chair ASEAN next year.
An ordinary Indonesian friend deciphered the President’s message as follows: We thank the Europeans for being very helpful to us when we were still poor, although some of them behaved with a colonial-master mentality. You taught us so many things, built so many infrastructures and helped our economy grow. But now we are developed enough. We want strictly equal relations. And as we have paid all our debts and obligations, please stop dictating on how to live!
Given the dispute with the EU over Indonesia’s two most-important commodities — nickel and palm oil — clear in his mind, the President said the European nations should let the Southeast Asian nations develop their economies. Jokowi grew in confidence to say so because now ASEAN’s trade bloc with Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and South Korea has emerged as the world’s largest free-trade agreement.
“Partnerships must be based on equality. There must be no coercion. There can no longer be one side that always dictates to the other and assumes that ‘my standard is better than yours’,” Jokowi said.
The EU is now desperately watching the prolonged war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February. It can only condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin but is too afraid to confront Russia militarily. Unsurprisingly, during the summit, the EU tried in vain to persuade ASEAN leaders to issue a stronger statement condemning Putin.
The invasion does not only violate the United Nations Charter but has also triggered a global crisis of energy and food. For the EU, the war inflicts nagging pains as it depends on gas and coal imports from Russia. But it does not mean that ASEAN should also support its way of dealing with Russia.
The EU is also desperately trying to back down from China’s economic intimidation. But it is so reliant on China it does not dare to attack China on environment and human-rights issues. It needs to find more allies to fight China because even the United States cannot help. ASEAN, however, will never form an alliance with the West to contain China, as it will only worsen the global crises.
Almost all of sudden, the EU, especially its members such as Germany and France, is stepping up efforts to play a bigger military and economic role in the Indo-Pacific cooperation scheme because the area has become the world’s center of growth. Therefore, it is becoming more eager to participate in the annual East Asian Summit, which is hosted by ASEAN.
The EU has a long-standing habit of preaching to developing and weaker nations on many aspects of life, especially on the environment, human rights, labor issues and good governance. But now ASEAN has gained confidence, although some of its members are still facing problems in upholding democracy and human rights.
In June, Indonesia told EU members that it would not be able to meet their increasing coal demand. The government officials teased the EU, saying coal was a dirty-energy source and therefore they could not fulfill the high European standard.
Indonesian coal shipments to Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Poland and Switzerland increased tremendously over the first five months of the year compared with the same period of last year, Statistics Indonesia data show.
The EU recently passed an anti-deforestation law. The new rule requires all exports of palm oil, cattle, soy, coffee, cocoa, timber and rubber — as well as some derivative products such as beef and furniture — to the EU market to prove that the product’s process does not damage the forests.
We should welcome and support the noble intention to save the Earth. But remember, terms and conditions apply. It means the regulation will be strictly enforced as long as it does not affect the EU’s interests.
During the summit European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told ASEAN leaders, as the two regional-trade blocs share the same commitment to multilateralism and the international rule of law, they need to work together to oppose Russia’s aggression.
“The European Union pleads for closer cooperation between the EU and the ASEAN partners. Russia has unleashed its war of aggression against Ukraine. War has returned to the European continent. And it is clear that this is not solely a European problem, but the world is feeling the brutal shock waves of this war on food prices, on energy security,” she said.
The EU wants to look more flexible on the palm-oil issue because they are facing difficulties in securing supplies of edible oils, and the market mechanism will decide. So the objective of saving the Earth is not that rigid, because protecting the national economy comes first.
In the joint leaders’ statement, the summit concluded, “In the spirit of cooperation, we welcome the convening of the 2nd Joint Working Group [JWG] on Palm Oil between the relevant ASEAN Member States and the EU.
“We will explore further cooperation to reduce deforestation and enhance sustainable forest and land use, including through partnerships and other cooperation to promote climate-change mitigation and adaptation as well as sustainable agricultural supply chains between ASEAN and EU Member States,” the statement said.
Honestly, I do not believe forest protection is all that is in the EU’s mind. I will not argue the devastating impacts of the palm-oil industry on the environment, and therefore drastic measures should be taken to stop deforestation. But it is too naïve to believe business interests do not play a key role. When Ukraine exports of sunflower oil to the EU dropped due to the invasion, many EU members realized that palm oil was not that bad.
President Jokowi has arrived home from Brussels. Next year he will chair ASEAN. He knows very well that the regional grouping needs a European partner and vice versa.
It is a good time for the two blocs to speak up to each other so as to build a two-way dialogue. Not only Europe, but ASEAN too can play a preacher role for the good of all.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.