[COMMENTARY] The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): A Bridge between East and West

6 October 2015

by Mr GOH Chok Tong, Former Prime Minister of Singapore

This is an excerpt from the inaugural article from the ASEM 20th Anniversary Publication on “Celebrating 20 Years of Asia-Europe Relations”. This will be followed by a series of articles by leaders and experts from Asia and Europe on the past, present and future of ASEM. Selected articles from this series will be compiled and published as a book by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which will be launched at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM11) Summit in 2016 Mongolia.

When I became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1990, the Cold War had ended and the world was transiting to a new order. Asia was experiencing a period of unprecedented high economic growth: Japan and the so-called “Asian Tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – led this wave, followed by the re-emergence of China and India. In Europe, the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty on 1 November 1993 laid a firm foundation for closer economic and financial integration. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendency of North America, East Asia and Western Europe, a tri-polar world order was taking shape.

I was of the view that if we could connect these three economic blocs together like a triangle, the result would be a more stable geopolitical environment for all. North America and Europe already had longstanding institutional linkages, by virtue of their shared history and culture. North America and East Asia had also begun to forge closer ties under the aegis of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). However, the missing institutional link that was needed to complete the triangle was closer relations between Asia and Europe. Europe’s interest in Asia had dwindled after the withdrawals of France from Indochina and of the UK from territories east of the Suez in the last century. On Asia’s part, colonisation had dampened its enthusiasm for closer relations with Europe. Partly because of this, Western Europe was trading and investing less in Asia than in the US. In 1994, North America accounted for 25% of the EU’s total trade volume, whereas its total trade with 10 countries in East Asia (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan and South Korea) made up only 8% of the total.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Europe/East Asia Summit held in Singapore in October 1994 provided an occasion for me to seed the idea of closer dialogue between Asia and Europe at the leaders’ level. European leaders then had limited contacts with a China which was not yet fully opened to foreign investments and imports. In its July 1994 Communique, “Towards a New Asia Strategy”, the European Commission sought to “accord Asia a higher priority than is at present the case” and to “strengthen its economic presence in Asia in order to maintain its leading role in the world economy”. Similarly, Asia wanted Europe’s investments and access to its markets. Given Singapore’s close relations with ASEAN, China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific as well as with Europe, I thought that we were well-placed to seed the idea of an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

Excerpted from "The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): A Bridge between East and West", published by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).
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