Though it is scarcely mentioned in political and media debates, Asia has a central importance for Europe. This is explicitly acknowledged in the latest version of the EU Global Strategy report, published in 2016: “There is a direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security. In light of the economic weight that Asia represents for the EU – and vice versa – peace and stability in Asia are prerequisite for our prosperity.” As an aspiring global actor that advocates for the peaceful resolution of conflict, promotes human rights, and calls for the respect of international law and freedom of navigation, the EU has to monitor Asia’s security landscape. Its most prominent interest in the region is probably the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, as it is the transit area of the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) that are vital for trade between Europe and East Asia.
But in practice, Asia occupies a secondary role in the Union’s foreign policy, which is much more focused on Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Moreover, the EU has very limited means with which to act in Asia because of the great distances that need to be covered. The EU does not have a full-fledged military at its disposal (only Battlegroups, battalion-size units that can be used for crisis management missions), and decisions on the Common Foreign and Security Policy require a hardly-achievable unanimity in order to be taken. As such, the bloc can only act via its member states, but they normally act with little coordination and on the basis of their own national interests. This is also the case for the main tool through which the Union – or rather its member states – can influence Asia’s security dynamic: arms sales.