“Bloc Politics” in Southeast Asia

EU seeks to strengthen its position in Southeast Asia at first summit – at the expense of Russia and particularly China. Singapore increases military cooperation with Berlin.

BRUSSELS/BERLIN/SINGAPORE (Own report) – At yesterday’s first summit with the Southeast Asian alliance ASEAN, the EU tried to strengthen its position in the power struggles with Russia and China. In Brussels yesterday, both sides agreed to increase future economic cooperation. This should facilitate companies from Germany and the EU to shift their supply chains from China to Southeast Asia. Experts, however, see only limited chances of success for this plan. In yesterday’s summit declaration, the EU was unsuccessful in its attempt to seriously damage ASEAN-China relations by mentioning Taiwan. The EU also failed to reach agreement on taking an explicit anti-Russia position. Regarding the war in Ukraine, several ASEAN member states still refuse to openly condemn Moscow. The West is primarily successful in Singapore, which is the only Southeast Asian state participating in the Russia sanctions and in Western maneuvers targeting China – also together with Germany’s Bundeswehr. Singapore is one of the German arms industry’s most important customers.

“No Containment Policy”

Yesterday’s EU summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was the first of its kind, since, 45 years ago, the EEC with its nine members, established direct relations with ASEAN, with its five members, at the time. As anti-communist blocs, both alliances were embroiled in the systemic confrontation: the EEC in the power struggle against the Soviet Union in Europe, whereas ASEAN (founded in 1967), in Southeast Asia. Its members had provided the United States with military bases and other services particularly during its War on Vietnam. The two alliances’ first meeting at the level of heads of states and governments was held yesterday in the midst of a renewed escalation of global power rivalry: a major power struggle between the West and China on the one hand, and between the West and Russia on the other. However, unlike prior to 1990, the ASEAN member states are no longer tightly linked to one of the major blocs but are striving to maintain an independent political position. ASEAN is opposed to any form of ‘bloc politics’ and does not want “to be a part of China’s containment policy, nor do we want to be supportive of any war for hegemony,” Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, which currently chairs ASEAN, declared yesterday.[1]

EU’s Supply Chains

The EU, which certainly would like to bind ASEAN to Western alliances, to use them in its power struggles against Russia and China, is currently seeking to expand economic cooperation with the objective of shifting larger portions of its supply chains from China to Southeast Asia – so far, with only limited success, as, for example, in textiles. In technologically more sophisticated sectors this has only been possible in selected countries – such as in Singapore and Vietnam. In view of China’s sheer size and the country’s various, already far advanced high-tech sectors,[2] experts see only limited opportunities for the EU to abandon sites in the People’s Republic on a large scale and replace them with sites in ASEAN countries. Nevertheless, the EU seeks to improve its economic standing in the ASEAN region by concluding new free trade agreements. Currently there are only two, with Singapore and with Vietnam. Others, for example with Indonesia have been in discussion for many years, but are making little progress. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has now signaled her intention to inject new momentum into the negotiations. Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos, however, pointed out that Brussels would have to scale down its demands on the contents of the accords.[3]

Against Russia, Against China

In addition, the EU is still seeking to align the ASEAN countries against Russia and China. The jointly-published final declaration at the conclusion of the summit was intended to serve this purpose. However, the EU was unable to reach a unified condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Thailand, Vietnam and Laos rejected the request. Therefore, the final declaration merely made reference to the March 2 resolution of the UN General Assembly. It also mentions “different assessments” of the West’s sanctions policy – a reference to the fact that the majority of the ASEAN nations oppose the sanctions.[4] The EU’s efforts to force ASEAN into open confrontation with China was also unsuccessful. Brussels had intended to dedicate a passage in the final statement to Taiwan, with the aim of achieving closer cooperation with the southern Chinese island. Since some time, western states have been engaged in efforts to achieve this, which would chip at the internationally recognized one China principle,[5] on which Beijing insists. The ASEAN countries were unwilling to join the EU in this venture against the one China principle which would increase tensions with China. The final statement, adopted yesterday, made no reference to Taiwan.[6]

Military Cooperation with Singapore

Within ASEAN, Singapore holds a special position. It is the only Southeast Asian country participating in the West’s sanctions against Russia – alongside Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It is also involved in the West’s efforts to forge anti-China military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the Frigate Bayern was permitted to dock in Singapore during its Asia-Pacific cruise in late 2021. German Air Force fighter planes were also allowed to make a stop over in Singapore on their way to a major maneuver in Australia in August 2022. On their return trip in September 2022, they trained in aerial operations with Singapore’s Air Force.[7] A German liaison officer is stationed in the city-state, at the Information Fusion Center (IFC), where information pertaining to the smuggling of weapons and narcotics as well as to maritime terrorism is exchanged.[8] According to information from the Bundeswehr, there is also an “intensive training cooperation.” Since Singapore uses the Leopard 2 battle tank, its crews regularly train at the Oberlausitz military training area. Last Tuesday, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht received her Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen to further intensify cooperation – both in the military sector and in the area of armaments.

“An Important Strategic Partner”

For years, Singapore has been one of the German arms industry’s most important customers. From 2007 to 2012, according to the Stockholm Research Institute SIPRI, it received a total of 158 used, but modernized, Leopard 2 battle tanks from German stocks. In the years from 2016 to 2019, 45 more were added.[9] Numerous other armored vehicles, anti-tank weapons and a large amount of ammunition were also delivered. In 2013, Singapore ordered two 218SG submarines, and two more were ordered in 2017. They are being built by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in Kiel.[10] Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong personally participated in Kiel at the launch ceremony of two of the Singapore-bound submarines, last Tuesday. On the occasion, Scholz noted: “Singapore is an important strategic partner for Germany’s security policy.”[11]


[1] Oliver Noyan: EU, ASEAN should work closer together, ‘avoid adding fuel to the fire’, Cambodia PM says. euractiv.com 14.12.2022.

[2] See also The Dialectics of the China Business.

[3] Kein leichter Partner: EU will Beziehungen zu Südostasien ausbauen. handelsblatt.com 14.12.2022.

[4] EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit (Brussels, 14 December 2022) – Joint Leaders’ Statement.

[5] See also Conflict over Taiwan (I) and Conflict over Taiwan (II).

[6] Finbarr Bermingham: EU-Asean statement drops language about Taiwan ahead of summit. scmp.com 14.12.2022.

[7] Rapid Pacific Teil 4 – Die Besuche. bundeswehr.de.

[8] Florian Manthey: Singapur: Sicherheitspolitische Partnerschaft im Indo-Pazifik. bmvg.de 13.12.2022.

[9] bicc Länderinformation: Singapur. Bonn, Juli 2022.

[10] Doppeltaufe für Singapur in Kiel. marineforum.online 14.12.2022.

[11] Rede von Bundeskanzler Scholz anlässlich der Taufe von zwei U-Booten von Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems am 13. Dezember 2022 in Kiel.