Sparring Over Gaza, Ukraine Ruffles EU-ASEAN Forum

Last Friday, 70 delegations from across Europe and the Indo-Pacific flocked to Brussels for discussions on climate change, trade, and regional security at the third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum.

Around 40 per cent of EU imports come from the Indo-Pacific, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an important partner for the 27-member bloc. The EU became an ASEAN “strategic partner” in 2020, unveiled its wider Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2021, and appointed a special envoy to the Indo-Pacific the same year.

Comments, joint statement underline differences

The more exclusive EU-ASEAN Ministerial Forum produced a 37-point joint statement emphasizing the EU and ASEAN’s “shared values” and common interests on maritime security, sustainable development, food security, and more. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters that “ASEAN . . . is at the epicentre of the region. We want to upgrade our relations [with ASEAN].”

But the pledges and praise were overshadowed by divergent opinions on the Israel-Hamas war. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told the EU to “listen to your heart and do the right thing” and “stop the atrocities in Gaza.” Sri Lanka’s foreign minister told reporters that the EU has "a double standard when it comes to the Middle East and the plight of the Ukrainians.” Foreign ministers from Austria and Finland rejected that claim, and Borrell noted the bloc’s ‘minimum common position’ — backing humanitarian pauses and the release of hostages — will likely be a subject of ongoing debate.

Point 36 of the EU-ASEAN statement underscored these differences: both sides condemned “all attacks against civilians,” but the statement merely notes the “call of some of us for a durable ceasefire.”

Ottawa’s ASEAN embrace

Canada hasn’t yet established a ministerial forum with ASEAN and remains outside important ASEAN-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus. However, in September 2023, Ottawa upgraded its relations with ASEAN to a “strategic partnership,” a symbolic gesture acknowledging Canada’s deepening engagement. At the ASEAN-Canada Summit that month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that “Canada is committed to . . . becoming an even more active presence in the region.”

Ottawa’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy also noted “deep respect” for ASEAN centrality in the region, while talks on a Canada-ASEAN free trade agreement — now in its sixth round of negotiations — rumble on. ASEAN economies collectively represent Canada’s fourth-largest trading partner.