For all its bravado about the need to “maintain influence” in Asia, says William Bratton in Nikkei Asia, Europe has become nothing more than a “bit player” in the region. In part, this “growing irrelevance” is self-inflicted: European leaders who promise a global outlook are invariably stymied by the “brutal suction of home priorities”, a fact that has not gone unnoticed among potential Asian partners. This is exacerbated by the view, popular on the European left, that “Europe has no right to assert itself globally” because of the “complications of history”.
Yet even if Europe really were committed to playing a serious role in Asia, it no longer has the economic clout to do so. Just after the Cold War, western European economies accounted for a third of global GDP. Today it’s less than a fifth. The same countries funded just 28% of all foreign direct investment in 2021, down from three quarters in 2000. Last year, less than a tenth of exports from manufacturing powerhouses South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore went to western Europe. However much Europeans may lament this loss of influence, it’s unlikely to be stopped or reversed. This will disappoint Asian countries hoping Europe can act as a counterweight to China’s growing power. It will also mark the first “substantive rupture” as the world fragments into distinct regional economic and political blocs.