Rethinking EU foreign policy for the ‘Asian Century’?

With a rapidly growing economy, Asia is emerging as a major player on the world stage and the EU needs to reassess how it views the region, as both a partner and a competitor. But poor communication in the past has meant that research on Asia has not always reached EU policy makers. The IDEAS project has made some critical first steps towards bringing European policy makers and the Asian studies research community in Europe closer together. Looking to the future, the researchers have also proposed new, proactive ways for diplomats to stay in tune with rapidly evolving Asian politics, including specialising in one region and using social media.

In 2011, China accounted for a third of global GDP growth and economists predict that at the current rate of growth, China’s GDP will overtake that of the United States by 20181. However, with vast cultural, religious and historical differences across nations, the economic rise of Asia presents a number of political uncertainties. A deep understanding of the factors that drive Asian geopolitics is critical if the EU is to continue to be accepted as a global power alongside Asia and the US.

The IDEAS project emerged from the recognition that the transition from theory to practice in Asian foreign policy is very poor, particularly given its mounting significance. In other words, even though social sciences and humanities (SSH) scholars in Europe are developing rich cultural and historical insights through research, EU diplomats and policy makers have not been aware of such research, have not drawn on it or have been unable to access it. If this continues, it could have a critical impact on the quality of EU foreign policy in Asia, say the IDEAS researchers.

Step by step: Bringing researchers and policy makers closer together

In the first part of the IDEAS project, a workgroup from the University of Turku looked at how cooperation could be improved within the European Consortium for Asian Field Study (ECAF), which comprises more than 40 research institutions across Europe and Asia. At the same time, the British Academy carried out an assessment of the network of 23 field research centres run by ECAF members in Asia.

A set of recommendations, which is now being piloted, include encouraging scholars to form new networks across disciplinary boundaries by setting up joint-research programmes and co-hosting conferences, lectures, workshops and seminars, and offering a number of fellowships to enable early career researchers to make field visits to the ECAF centres.

But how does their research get through to policy makers? Another outcome of the IDEAS project has been the creation of an online web portal where policy makers, diplomats, civil society and any other interested parties can access a database with the names and contact details of more than 1,800 scholars within the ECAF network ( This makes it easier for policy makers to contact experts in specific areas and to form new connections with the research community.

What about other research coming out of Asia? The creation of a European Digital Research Infrastructure on East Asia has been recommended by IDEAS partners, whereby access to the huge amount of digital data and resources being produced in Asia, outside of the ECAF network, could be granted on a European level and made available to all research institutes and universities. The current situation is that national institutions have to pay for individual licenses, resulting in many without access to the data they need to carry out cutting-edge research, leaving Europe at a disadvantage. Such a system already exists in Germany, which the IDEAS researchers recommend expanding to cover all EU Member States.

A ‘new generation’ of EU diplomats

The two major religions in Asia, Buddhism and Islam, play significant roles in shaping politics in the region. Two policy dialogues, held in June 2011 and 2012, organised by the University of Hamburg, assembled European and Asian experts and representatives from the European External Action Service (EEAS), the foreign policy branch of the EU set up in 2010, to discuss how the EU can meet future challenges in Asia.

Achieving better EU-Asian relations means becoming more culturally sensitive, concluded the IDEAS consortium. In Asia, where warmth, humility, sincerity and engagement on a personal level are highly valued in business and politics, EU diplomats should be prepared to engage with public authorities, local businesses and civil society in new and unconventional ways, to open discussion out to a wider sphere rather than restricting it to ambassadors behind closed doors.

With this in mind, approximately 40 participants from the EEAS, Member States’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Asian Embassies in Brussels, the European Commission, the European Parliament and European think tanks gathered in Brussels in June 2012 for the final meeting of the IDEAS project, to discuss the qualities and qualifications that would be desirable in the next generation of EU diplomats.

Some recommendations included:

  • A stronger emphasis on diplomats’ in-depth knowledge of history and culture, especially shared historical experiences resulting from past European presence in Asia.
  • Changes in recruitment to introduce diplomats who are trained intensively for a specific region or country, i.e. to become specialists not generalists.
  • Initiating a one-year ‘European Master of Asian Cultures and Diplomacy’, pre-posting training and follow-up training once on duty in Asia.
  • Strong linguistic skills to allow diplomats to follow local debates, to monitor public opinion and to engage with communities via, for example, social media.

In March 2011, the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) organised two briefing sessions in Hong Kong and Vietnam, in close collaboration with local EU delegations. The first looked at Religion as a test to the “One country, Two systems” principle and the second at The Long Wall of Quảng Ngãi - Bình Định: Politics, Poverty and Ethnic Relations in the History of a Central Vietnamese Province.

Both events met with considerable interest and brought together a wide range of participants - including Asian and European diplomats and policy makers, SSH researchers and leading figures from civil society. They represent a first step in an initiative to explore various approaches to develop synergies between long-term oriented humanities research and the ongoing exigencies of policy making.

With the project now at a close, the IDEAS researchers are optimistic that not only has the exchange of information between researchers and policy makers been improved over the lifetime of the project, but also that bringing the latest research to policy makers’ fingertips presents an opportunity to kick-start a fundamental change in attitude towards Asia, which will be essential in what is fast becoming known as the ‘Asian Century’.


1 China vs US GDP statistics. See:

IDEAS - Integrating and developing European Asian studies (duration: 1/1/2010 – 30/6/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4, “Europe and the world”, Research area 4.1 “Interactions and interdependence between world regions and their implications”. Collaborative project (coordination and support action).


Contact: Elisabeth Lacroix,