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EU, Asia take steady steps

November 03, 2012

IT’S probably a talk shop par excellence but the Asia Europe Meeting (Asem) in Vientiane, Laos, on Nov 5-6, is slowly but steadily helping to forge stronger bonds between the two regions.

A total of 51 Asian and European leaders or their representatives are expected to attend the ninth Asem summit. There will certainly be plenty to discuss: both Europe and Asia are seeking an end to Europe’s long-running currency crisis and looking for stronger economic growth and recovery. There is concern about rising tensions in the South and East China Seas.

No headline-grabbing breakthroughs or spectacular deals are expected, however. Launched in 1996 to boost Asia-Europe relations, Asem is about creating new Asia-Europe connections and strengthening old ones. Leaders are expected to talk, consult and brainstorm, not take quick decisions.

As summit host, Laos —– an ambitious, small, landlocked and least developed nation — plans to issue a ‘Vientiane Declaration’ on strengthening the Asia-Europe partnership for peace and development.

The capital of Laos is being spruced up for the gathering: leaders will spend their time either at meetings at the gigantic conference centre especially built for the summit or in their luxury villas on the banks of the Mekong.

The omens for the summit are good. Deeper Asia-Europe economic interdependence, rising security tensions in Asia and Europe’s determination not to fall behind as the US reinforces relations with the Asia Pacific inject added resonance to the Vientiane meeting.

As Europe seeks to enlarge its global profile, there is recognition that Asem provides an important platform for taking the Asia-Europe relationship forward, forging new strategic alliances as well as repairing partnerships that have fallen on difficult times. Amid signs of economic strain and heightened regional security challenges, Asians too are seeking stronger engagement with Europe.

Asem has long lived in the shadow of other platforms such as gatherings of the US-led Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and more recently, groupings such as the G20.

There is more to Asem than meets the eye, however. The forum has weathered the passage of time relatively well, keeping pace with much that has changed in the last 16 years. In good times and bad, meetings between Asem leaders, ministers, officials and experts as well as business representatives and civil society groups have helped to keep Asia-Europe relations on an even keel.

Asem’s key asset is that contacts are informal, comprehensive and regular. In addition to the biennial Asem summits, ministers and senior officials meet frequently to discuss global developments, trade, labour and financial issues. In between the summits, momentum is maintained by regular political and diplomatic dialogues between senior officials and foreign ministers.

Asem membership is expanding, reflecting a rapidly changing global environment where countries with different political, economic and social structures — as well as different priorities and values — feel the need to work together.

Russia, Australia and New Zealand were welcomed as new members in 2010 and Bangladesh, Norway and Switzerland will take their seat at the table in Vientiane. Membership will go up from 48 at the moment to 51, including the European Commission and the Asean Secretariat.

The rise in numbers certainly poses a challenge. Critics argue that Asem has become too large and unwieldy, turning into a mini-UN. The focus is on photo opportunities, not content, they complain.

However, Asem was not designed for decision-making. Its diversity and inclusiveness can, in fact, be an asset. Asem meetings at all levels encourage informal contacts and habits of cooperation, helping to bring together leaders and officials who may not meet elsewhere, for as much time. If used correctly, Asem could work as an invaluable incubator of new ideas, allow the creation of ‘mini alliances’ of likeminded nations and encourage participants to pursue common interests together, even in other fora.

The number of European heads of state or government who plan to go to Vientiane is not yet clear but heavyweights such as Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and French President François Hollande have said they will be at the summit.

The Vientiane summit comes at the end of an important year for Asia-Europe relations. Senior EU policymakers, including Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy — often criticised for cold-shouldering other Asia-related meetings — attended both the EU-Asean foreign ministers meeting in Brunei in April and the influential Asean Regional Forum in Cambodia. EU leaders have held summit meetings with China and India.

These and other developments augur well for Asem and more generally for Asia-Europe relations. There is still much to be done, however. While EU-Asia trade and economic ties are thriving and are certainly helping to bind the two regions together, the economic link needs to be backed up by a stronger dialogue on security and more serious consultation on political flashpoints such as the South and East China Seas, Iran and North Korea.

The EU and Asia also need to work together more systematically to tackle key 21st-century challenges including climate change, maritime piracy, cyber-crime, illegal immigration and human trafficking.

As the international environment becomes more complex and Asian and European governments seek stronger substance to their ties in order to deal with 21st-century regional and global challenges, Asem should be put to better use. It is time to aim higher and try harder. Asem is still relevant — but after all these years, it is in desperate need of more care and attention.

Vientiane provides an opportunity to provide such support.

At the start of the economic crisis in 2008, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned Asian and European leaders at the Asem summit in Beijing that “we either swim together or sink together”. Four years later, that warning still stands.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.