Considering the length of their ties and a historical landscape pock-marked by the blight of conquest, colonisation and occasional strife, you might imagine that Europe and Asia would today have a relationship more evolved than they seem to. But even as the two continents engage, as they have for centuries, political and economic encounters seem to run into obstacles. An analysis of those obstacles from various perspectives – European and Asian – forms the underpinning of this important collection of writings.
As the editors note in their introduction, “Any speculation on whether the EU is a world power is not useful. Nor is the debate on whether certain economies in Asia are emerging or re-emerging. We are content to state that the EU and emerging Asia are important actors in world affairs…It is prudent to postpone any declaration of the ‘Asian century’, as also of the diminishing global strength of the United States and Europe, despite the current EU crisis in self-confidence. As for emerging Asia, predictions of the implosion of China and the descent of India into dystopia have proved wrong, and there is growing optimism in the capitals of the Asian big economies.”
The importance of the engagement is underscored variously by the dozen contributors. As co-editor Srinivasan notes in the first chapter – on Europe-India ties, a dialogue he notes is marked by an absence of intimacy – Eurocentricity must be replaced by a growing receptivity to cooperation with Asian emerging economies like Asia.” While Europe&’s ability to influence the global marketplace is “waning”, India he feels must in its own interest maximise its connections with the continent. Presciently Srinivasan notes that “India enjoys brand recognition in Europe and holds considerable appeal due to its spirituality, soft power and economic potential.”
Europe, says Srinivasan, is not threatening and does not feel threatened by India; and while it can be “clumsy and preachy”, it is “fundamentally non-intrusive” and can therefore assist in enhancing India&’s status in the world.
Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury picks up the thread of the preachy European while examining the relationship through a South Asian prism. He criticises Europe&’s tendency to hold that its values are universal and says this is sometimes not “an easy sell” to some Asians who stress the importance of their own values. “There is little doubt that despite noble intentions and ideals, the EU has often been maladroit in its dealing with many South Asian countries.”
Chowdhury concludes that “while Europe-South Asia relations have many features that are enduring and durable, an obvious critique of these connections is that they cannot be fully and mutually rewarding without the involvement of America, which is really the elephant in the room, whether seen or unseen. Historically, the fact that the United States was not a colonial power gives it an advantage…”
If America might be called the elephant in the room as far as the future of Europe-Asia ties are concerned, Britain lumbers into that role in any analysis of the past, as brought out by James Mayall in his “tale of opportunity and frustration”. While noting that Britain&’s historic engagement with much of the Asian region should create many opportunities for “refashioning the relationship to the advantage of both sides”, Mayall suggests that Britain would gain influence by helping Asians understand the EU.
Mayall notes: “The EU, Britain very much included, sees itself as the latest avatar of Western civilisation. The assumptions of Western hegemony are so deeply rooted that they are mostly taken for granted, but if Britain and Europe are to remain relevant in a rapidly de-Westernising world, there is an urgent need to rethink and reform the international order to make it more genuinely unipolar.”
In his chapter on Europe&’s eastward expansion, Hari Vasudevan notes that there is “potential for competition between Europe and emerging Asia for Caspian-Central Asian resources, competition that has dimensions that are understated but likely to assume new importance.” He concludes, “The lines that have distinguished Asian political behaviour from that of the EU may be likely to blur in such circumstances, as the EU itself becomes embroiled in the complexities of the borderlands of emerging Asia and expanding Europe.”
Overall, this book covers much new ground even as it presents illuminating insights into perspectives discussed elsewhere. Its value lies in the concise manner in which it covers ties between two continents; it should thus interest both scholars and laypersons with an interest in this field of study.
The reviewer is Editor, The Statesman