This is the Top of the Page.

This is the Skip Menu.
Go to the Main Text of this Page.
Go to Category Menu.
Go to Global Menu.
Use of this Site.
Back to Home.

THE CHALLENGES OF STUDYING THE EU IN SOUTHEAST ASIA / Professor of the Department of International Studies De La Salle University in Manila Alfredo C. Robles, Jr.

1 2

The effort to analyze the state of EU studies in ASEAN might seem superfluous, if not presumptuous. After all, in the last decade, two major conferences on the state of European Studies in Asia (the first in Thailand in 1999 under the auspices of Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for European Studies and the second in the Philippines in 2007, organized by the Asia-Europe Foundation) have been held. Yet it may be argued that there are good reasons for attempting the exercise again. While ASEM has been slowing down since its enlargement in 2004 and the ASEAN-EU FTA negotiations have been stalled, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty has just entered into force, introducing institutional innovations that may make the EU an even more formidable negotiating partner for Southeast Asia and for the rest of the developing world. For this reason it is incumbent on Southeast Asian scholars to assess their region’s capacity to understand the EU.

The following remarks do not claim to be exhaustive or authoritative; rather they are personal observations, based on my experience as a researcher on ASEAN-EU relations and on ASEM since 1996, as coordinator of the MA International Studies, major in European Studies at De La Salle University since 1998, and as instructor of a module on the Political Economy of Asia-Europe Relations at the University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute since 2004. I will argue that the ASEAN countries’ remarkable success in penetrating the EU market does not obviate the need to develop EU studies, a need that the Southeast Asian countries themselves feel. To strengthen their capacity to understand the EU, they must respond to common challenges

ASEAN Success in European Markets vs. the Precocious State of EU Studies in ASEAN

The Southeast Asian countries’ success in penetrating European markets is too well-known for it to be necessary to go into greater detail here. Suffice it to say that by the beginning of the 21st century, the 10 ASEAN members accounted for a greater share of EU imports from the developing world than did over 70 ACP countries. Moreover, unlike the Latin American countries, the ASEAN countries had managed to diversify the composition of their exports. Thirty years ago, agricultural and primary products represented the bulk of their exports to Europe; they have now been replaced by manufactured goods as the region’s main exports. Ironically this success has been accompanied by increased vulnerability to antidumping complaints and to the use of non-tariff barriers, such as SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) standards.

This success is all the more surprising when one considers how few specialists of the EU (not to mention of the member states), there are in Southeast Asia. When doing research on the Mercosur-EU FTA negotiations, I could not help but be struck by the sheer number of Latin American scholars who were writing year after year, in Spanish, Portuguese, English and French, on various aspects of EU-Mercosur relations (and not just on the general state of their relations). The numbers were enough to allow the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris to sustain a Chaire Mercosur de Sciences Po, which held annual conferences and published voluminous annual reports. This does not include the substantial research undertaken by other research institutes and by NGOs. In contrast, apart from myself, only a handful of European scholars have been writing in the last three years on the ASEAN-EU FTA negotiations. In fact, European and Southeast Asian NGOs have been more active in publicizing the stakes (and the risks) involved in the negotiations. The scarcity of Southeast Asian specialists of the EU is highlighted by the fact that only one Southeast Asian scholar, a Thai jurist, participated in the qualitative feasibility study commissioned by the ASEAN-EU Vision Group in 2005. His contribution was confined to the analysis of legal frameworks in Southeast Asia, and not of the central issues of a future FTA.

Southeast Asia

It was only in the 1990s that Southeast Asian academic institutions themselves recognized the need to build up their capacity in European Studies. Programs were successively established at undergraduate and/or graduate levels in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, in some cases with initial and/or partial support from the European Commission. At present, the National University of Singapore offers a four-year undergraduate program, which requires that the student acquire fluency in either French or German. For this latter purpose, the student is required to spend a year in either France or Germany. At De La Salle University, the European studies option is offered alongside American studies and Japan studies by the International Studies department, which grew out of the University’s 20-year-old East Asian studies program. The two main languages that the students may choose from are French and Spanish, with German possibly being taught beginning in the next academic year. Graduate programs exist in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. Chulalongkorn University’s MA in European Studies is the oldest in the region and the first to be financially supported by the European Commission. It is an intensive three-term program, concentrating exclusively on Europe and the EU, taught mainly by visiting professors from Europe and involving a two-week study tour in Europe. In contrast, the graduate programs at De La Salle University and the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang combine training in European studies with a general background in International Studies. The first caters mainly to Filipinos who intend to take the Foreign Service Officers’ (FSO) Examination, and the second is addressed to applicants who already have professional experience. In the latter program, the applicants are not necessarily limited to Malaysians. In 2007-08 a Namibian national had received a grant from the Malaysian government to pursue her studies at Penang. The University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute organizes a one-year intensive International Master’s in Regional Integration (IMRI), which includes modules on the Political Economy of Asia-Europe Relations and on the EU. Like the Penang program, the AEI program is largely open to non-Malaysians. Since 2005 the author has taught students from Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam), Europe (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland), North America (the US) and even Africa (Nigeria) at the AEI. The international composition of the student body clearly distinguishes the Malaysian programs from their counterparts in other countries. Moreover, at the AEI, the Asian and European students all receive scholarships granted by the Institute that cover tuition as well as board and lodging.

The differences in approach and level may probably be attributed to differences in the respective countries’ overall relations with Europe. An undergraduate program in Singapore makes sense, given that the country is the regional headquarters of many European multinationals in Southeast Asia. Graduates with competence in French or German may also be presumed to be fluent in English and Chinese, resulting in very rare language combinations that are likely to make them attractive to prospective employers. At the other extreme, Europe is less important as a trading and investment partner for the Philippines than for the other Southeast Asian countries. A European studies major without any knowledge of general international relations will have fewer job opportunities than their counterparts in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Malaysia, for its part, very clearly expressed its ambition, from the very beginning, to become an education hub in Asia-Europe relations, not just in regional integration, but also in small and medium enterprises, information management, ASEAN studies and life-long learning.

While there can be no objection to designing programs that are adapted to the specific circumstances of each case, several common challenges need to be met.


Exploring the EU

The Multi-disciplinary Nature of EU Studies

What to Learn from Higher Education Reform in the EU

The Challenges of studying the EU in Southeast Asia

Why We Celebrate the Birth of the EU on May 9th

Sending EU Experts Out into Society

EU Standards

Why the EU Now?