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Can The EU and the UK lead with Asia

03 Feb Can The EU and the UK lead with Asia

Can the EU and the UK Lead with Asia?

How will Asia and the world look like in 2022? Will our region be able to find a path towards recovery and new growth, working alongside Western economies? On 20 January 2022, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) invited H.E. Kara Owen, the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to Singapore, and H.E. Iwona Piórko Bermig, the European Union’s Ambassador to Singapore to share their thoughts on the road ahead, focusing on two areas that gained prominence during the pandemic – the digital economy and climate action.

Also joining the panel as a commentator was Mr. Nicholas Fang, the SIIA’s Director of Security & Global Affairs. The session was moderated by Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the SIIA. A video of highlights from the hybrid event will be available on social media, with the full recording available to SIIA corporate members as premium content.


Charting Paths through Choppy Waters

At present the world is still mired in uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic is still not over, and the past two years have raised questions whether international cooperation can stay on track during times of crisis.  In this context, H.E. Owen said countries need strong connections to “chart positive paths through disruptive and choppy waters”.

Noting that the year 2022 marks the 45th anniversary of formal dialogue relations between the EU and ASEAN, Ambassador Piórko reaffirmed that the EU highly values its ties with ASEAN. She also thanked Singapore for acting as the country coordinator for the EU-ASEAN dialogue partnership over the past three years. “We genuinely believe in this region. It’s not a big secret that the EU has regional cooperation in its DNA.”

Mr. Fang observed that it is heartening to see that both the UK and the EU are keen on working with Singapore and ASEAN as equal partners, which is the preferred approach from an Asian point of view. “It’s rarely leadership from the front, but from behind, or on the same level as everybody, moving together as one.”


Future-Proofing Economies amidst Rapid Digitalisation

H.E. Owen described the search for growth drivers amidst the pandemic as countries reaching “for a set of tools”. In December 2021, the UK and Singapore concluded talks on a digital economy agreement (DEA), the UK’s first such deal. DEAs will be increasingly important to future-proof economies and ensure that both businesses and workers reap the benefits of digitalisation. “It’s about helping our citizens feel there are genuine benefits to them from the digital economy,” she said.

Singapore has concluded talks on DEAs with Chile and New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea. The EU and Singapore also established a working group on digital trade last year, and both sides are in the process of developing a comprehensive digital partnership. “We really believe in Singapore’s role as a pathfinder. The EU is eager to walk on this path with Singapore together,” Ambassador Piórko said.

Although the digital economy is a promising growth driver, Mr. Fang remarked that the security implications of rapid digitalisation cannot be ignored, including concerns about data flows, cybersecurity, and the spread of disinformation. Policymakers are still searching for the right balance between keeping the internet open and implementing safeguards to maintain consumer confidence, especially with regards to sensitive data like medical and financial information.


Climate Action: COP26 and Beyond

Ambassador Piórko observed that ASEAN, as a region, stands to benefit the most in the entire world when it comes to the green economy. ASEAN is extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, yet current climate action plans in the region are still relatively modest. “I respect the challenges they face,” she said, “but if this continues, the consequences will also be high.”

“We have to deliver on every single commitment at COP26 and we have to go further,” H.E. Owen said. The UK is actively involved in discussions with ASEAN on how the UK can support ASEAN’s sustainability goals, especially in areas that the UK is strong in, like green finance and upskilling for the green economy.

Both H.E. Owen and Ambassador Piórko highlighted Singapore’s positive involvement in last year’s UN climate change conference (COP26), particularly Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu’s efforts in helping countries reach consensus on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, establishing rules for carbon markets and emissions trading between countries.

Responding to a question on lessons that the UK can share with regards to energy transition, H.E. Owen acknowledged that the UK has felt a squeeze from the international surge in natural gas prices over the past few months, and this illustrates the challenges involved in shifting to a lower-carbon economy. To go green, countries will require a range of choices. The UK government is working with British companies on hydrogen fuel and other innovations, including Rolls-Royce, which has a manufacturing and research facility in Singapore.

Ambassador Piórko agreed that energy is one of the most sensitive issues for governments, and countries must consider all options in parallel. The EU is currently engaged in a debate on whether natural gas and nuclear energy should be classified as green investments under the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities. In ASEAN, similar discussions will be needed, especially as countries have very diverse starting points when it comes to their current energy situation.


The SIIA in 2022

Commenting on the issues covered by the panel, Prof Tay noted that the SIIA is working on many of these topics. The SIIA is gathering private sector views on issues like carbon pricing, and hopes to encourage greater cross-border climate cooperation in the region in the hopes that Southeast Asia can come together as an ASEAN Climate Community. On the digital front, the SIIA is engaged in closed-door working group discussions with leading companies and government agencies on digital economy issues.

The past two years have been difficult, but the world is starting to see paths towards recovery and new growth. In collaboration with the EU and the UK, there is potential for Singapore and ASEAN to lead in these emerging green and digital frontiers.