An Asian Perspective on the European Union

An international junior research group at Freie Universität studies the role of the EU in China and India

Jun 01, 2015

Groß als Handelsmacht, klein in der Sicherheitspolitik: May-Britt Stumbaum (2. v. l.) und die von ihr geführte NFG untersucht die Rolle der EU in Indien und China.
A major commercial power, a minor role in security policy: May-Britt Stumbaum (second from left) and the junior research group she heads study the EU’s role in India and China. Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher
Die Rolle der Europäischen Union in China und Indien ist Gegenstand einer Nachwuchsforschergruppe am Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaft.
The role of the European Union in China and India is the topic of study for a junior research group at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science. Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Taken together, these two countries account for nearly 40 percent of the global population. They are emerging economies and have been strategic partners of the European Union for years: India, “the world’s largest democracy,” and China, with its one-party socialist system. What role does the European Union play in these Asian countries, and what factors affect the perception of the EU “from outside”?

And how does this image affect cooperation? The junior research group “Asian Perceptions of the EU” at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science (OSI) took up these questions – with surprising findings.

“The self-image of the European Union and the perception of the EU in India and China are far apart,” says May-Britt U. Stumbaum. Stumbaum, who has a doctorate in political science, studied why that is, with the international junior research group she heads. They looked into what role cultural, social, political, and historical factors play. Over the past four years, the researchers have conducted over 200 interviews with representatives of Asian elites on site as well as with experts in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and London. Of special interest in their research was the role of the European Union as a civil power. Especially in the area of security policy, there have so far been hardly any findings about how the EU is perceived as a partner or role model in other countries, Stumbaum explains.

For example, while the European Union is perceived in Asia as a global commercial power, “the EU plays hardly any role in security policy, contrary to what the Europeans want,” Stumbaum says. Nonetheless, the EU is viewed as a reliable partner in multiple nontraditional fields of security policy. “In the areas of disaster preparedness and relief, fighting terrorism, and peace missions, the EU is perceived as a pool of highly approachable experts,” Stumbaum says. Training programs organized by the EU on these subjects are highly appreciated in the Asian countries. “This shows that the many dialogues, conferences, and training initiatives both large and small organized by the EU and its Member States are bearing fruit.”

One finding that came as a surprise to the group was the discovery that despite its authoritarian form of government, China is more open to exchanging strategies and guidelines than India, which is democratic. “The political systems – India as a democracy and China as a one-party system – do not have any significant influence on the acceptance of European strategies or ‘best practices’ in general,” Stumbaum says in summary. Historical experiences such as colonialism were also found to play more of a secondary role in outside views of the EU, with hardly any effect on people’s actual willingness to cooperate.

Bringing Research and Political Consulting Together

Stumbaum, an expert on Asia, is now focusing chiefly on implementing the research findings as part of political practices. She says, “The goal is for the group to act as an interface between university research and political consulting.” Institutions such as the German Federal Foreign Office, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) have already made use of the international research group’s expertise. But the group has also met with practitioners in London and Brussels to discuss their results.

Each of the four junior researchers in the core team spent at least six months living in China or India in order to conduct the interviews there. “Having such a relatively long period was important in order to build trust with interview partners and get to know the country and people better in order to be able to view and analyze the results in context,” Stumbaum says. And international dialogue is important “at home” in Berlin, too: 22 visiting scholars from a wide range of different disciplines and cultures participated in the research group’s visiting scholar program from 2011 to 2015.

Trust, Chinese Style

Trust and credibility, for example, are fundamentally different in Asia and Europe, Stumbaum explains. “Unlike in Germany, where people tend to trust institutions more than individuals, people in China place their trust in individuals.” This is also why the junior research group has recommended that the European Union increase posting times for diplomats. “Right now, diplomats stay in ‘their’ country for three years at most. We think that’s too short,” Stumbaum says.

The group’s future is secure for 2015: A successor project that will also involve the Public Policy and Management Institute in Lithuania and the National Centre for Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, has received funding from the European Commission. The new project will also examine the view of the EU “from outside.” “The focus will not be limited to the field of security policy, but instead will be on perceptions of European foreign policy on the whole,” Stumbaum explains.

Beyond India and China, the research group will work with local “Country Expert Teams” to investigate ten strategic partners of the EU worldwide. At the same time, the EU is developing a strategy paper for the European External Action Service, which is supposed to bring together the goals of European foreign policy in a one strategy. “At the end of the year, we want to combine our overview study with the EU’s strategic goals. At that point, we will know what recommendations we can make for effective EU public diplomacy in the EU’s strategic partner countries.”