Europe reaches out to Asia

14 October 2014

Source: The Pioneer (India)
Source type: Newspaper
Published on: 08 Nov 2010

Posted on: 08 Nov 2010

The voluntary discipline implicit in collective efforts like ASEM might help direct a future superpower's energies into constructive channels An Asia-Europe Meeting makes me wonder where one ends and the other begins. As Mr Kerry Brown from London's Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) asked rhetorically on the sidelines of last month's eighth ASEM summit in Brussels, "What is Asia? What is Europe?"

Neither question was conclusively answered during the two-day meeting. But definitions are no longer essential. They can even be inconvenient. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy's affirmation as summit chairman that "the European Union is committed to be a stronger actor on the world stage and a stronger partner for Asia" implies a global realignment in which the EU needs Asia to match the US. That throws new light both on European views of what constitutes Asia and of the key Asian player — China.

The old notion of Chopsticks Asia, which initially inspired ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, to pioneer this initiative in 1996, provoked Mr Pranab Mukherjee to remark that Asia without India was like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Since then, ASEAN has taken note of wider geopolitical realities, the 16 Asian Governments in Brussels including Australia and New Zealand though not Bangladesh. But no matter. A group, however it is selected, that accounts for 58 per cent of the world's population, 52 per cent of its GDP and 68 per cent of its trade boasts a rationale of its own, providing it thinks and acts as a group.

Whether ASEM does so as yet is a moot point. But the eighth summit confirmed it's a meeting place where ideas can be pooled and solutions discussed and the civil societies of Asia and Europe come together. That is a tremendous gain at a time when economics unite but politics divide. The fifth Asia-Europe Editors' Roundtable (the sidelines event in Brussels that Mr Brown addressed) organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation in partnership with Chatham House and Belgium's Foreign Affairs Ministry was a supporting parallel event. Again, it's a moot point whether ASEM's captains and kings took on board the deliberations of about 20 seasoned commentators from Asia and Europe.

But further cohesion is impossible in the foreseeable future and probably also unnecessary. The day before the Editors' Roundtable opened, I was at a conference on federalism at St Anthony's College in Oxford. It was clear there from the presentations of august British diplomats and erudite academics from the European continent that a common currency is about as far as the 27 EU members are prepared to go by way of integration. And even that might be at some risk after the fiscal crisis in Greece.

Mr Steven Vanackere, Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister who also holds the Foreign Affairs portfolio, recalled in this context the joke about Mr Henry Kissinger's jibe that the EU didn't even have a single telephone exchange. The bosses in Brussels took note and when next Mr Kissinger needed to get in touch, he was asked to dial a central number for Europe. But just as he was beginning to marvel at the new unity, a recorded voice cut in, "Dial 1 for Austria, 2 for Belgium …" and so on in alphabetical order.

ASEAN is much more homogenous. So is G8 which represents 80 per cent of the world's GDP. But what is of greater long-term relevance is the interdependence that ASEM again highlighted and which is implicit in the inclusion of 12 ASEM nations in the G20 grouping. That overlapping is some answer to the fears of those who see events in terms of hegemony or even duopoly, with the interlocking economies of the US and China lording it over the rest.

If the US under President George W Bush paid scant attention to dissenting Asian opinion when attacking Iraq and Afghanistan, China's diplomatic style can be even more peremptory though still confined to a territorially limited canvas. But its seizure of the Paracel Islands, unilateral action in the Spratlys, abrupt cancellation of a scheduled summit with the EU because France's President Nicolas Sarkozy was meeting the Dalai Lama, high-handedness over the Daiyou/Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan and recently revived muscle-flexing over Arunachal Pradesh hardly speak of a responsible custodian of global authority.

That makes multipolarity all the more necessary, and underlines the importance of exercises like ASEM to supplement regional organisations (ASEAN, SAARC) as well as the United Nations. A curious feature of China's not particularly "peaceful rise" is the silence in which aggrieved partners suffer rebuffs and worse. For instance, there was nary a squeak from the ASEAN Regional Forum, envisioned as a damage control mechanism, when China arbitrarily occupied Mischief Reef to which several ASEAN members, especially the Philippines, also had claims. It's almost as if the world fears that any criticism of Chinese actions will invite swift and unbearable reprisal.

Being an informal dialogue process without executive authority, ASEM cannot be expected to do more than recommend worthwhile moves in combating terrorism or reducing trade barriers, which Mr Van Rompuy's Chair's Statement listed. However, ASEM's purpose of achieving "greater wellbeing and more dignity for all citizens" can be met best not through platitudes but through dynamic initiatives like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that India and Singapore signed in 2005. But even seemingly innocuous developments often have a political dimension. China's offer to establish an ASEM Water Resources Research and Development Centre in Hunan province could impact on rivers that rise in the Tibetan plateau and provide the lifeblood of millions of people in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

The need for circumspection is all the greater because of the shifting centre of economic gravity. Understandably so, with US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O Blake saying in another forum that one-third more of US trade is now with Asia than Europe. He means China. Though India's share is also growing, the rate is nothing like China's.

This might provide another clue to the Western response. But unmitigated placation offers little hope of Asian or world stability. Legend does not say that the mythic Furies were flattered into being less vindictive because the ancient Greeks called them the good-humoured ladies.

Confrontation and containment are not practical alternatives. But the voluntary discipline implicit in collective efforts like ASEM might help direct a future superpower's energies into constructive channels.

-- by Sunanda Datta-Ray, The Pioneer