Exploring ideas on ASEM’s future

14 October 2014

By Shada Islam - Asian and European governments, business leaders and civil society talk to each other in numerous fora and on an expanding array of political, economic and social questions.

They meet at bilateral level, in regional cooperation meetings and within the multilateral framework provided by the United Nations and other international organisations.

These gatherings are important in deepening Asia-Europe links and understanding. But they are only part of a complex story.

Ever since the first high-profile Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Bangkok in March 1996, Asian and European leaders, ministers and officials have been working on myriad fronts to forge a stronger region-to-region partnership on issues as diverse as green growth, global peace and prosperity, human rights, education and urbanisation.

Their work may not always make the headlines. And the progress they make can appear slow, plodding and incremental. ASEM participants often complain that their work is not visible to the public, that ASEM does not punch its weight in the over-crowded field of global cooperation platforms and that 17 years after its launch amid much fanfare, ASEM is in need of a new lease of life.

With the next ASEM summit set to be held in Brussels in autumn 2014, the race is on to try and inject fresh impetus into a process which all 51 ASEM partners agree is a compelling necessity – but one which must be deepened and made more dynamic to stay relevant in a rapidly-changing world.

ASEM foreign ministers, who gather in New Delhi on November 11-12, are expected to come up with fresh ideas for reviving the Asia-Europe partnership.

As illustrated at a recent symposium held in Yangzhou, China, the problem facing ASEM is not a lack of initiatives on revitalizing the relationship; rather, the challenge is to find common ground among the many suggestions being put forward by ASEM partners – and then to refine and streamline recommendations before presentation to ministers and leaders.

Significantly, all 51 partners continue to underline the strategic significance of ASEM in the 21st Century. The fact that new countries continue to demand entry into the club – which began with 26 founding partners in 1996 – is seen as a mark of ASEM’s attractiveness and vigour.

Over the years, ASEM has also served as a “new Silk Road” connecting the two continents and providing a unique platform for dialogue and cooperation, says an Asian official, adding: “Asia and Europe need each other…we are closely interconnected and interdependent and draw on each other’s' strengths.”

European policymakers say they are similarly confident that ASEM has great merits. “Its relevance has increased. ASEM is informal, comprehensive and still very attractive,” said one European official in Yangzhou.

The challenge is to maintain ASEM’s unique informality, networking and flexibility but also make it more pragmatic, effective and result-oriented – and more relevant to partners’ economic and social priorities.

ASEM should identify “more cooperation projects which are visible, tangible and serve the interests of people,” said an Asian official, adding: “ASEM should be a forum for action.”

More frequent meetings of ASEM economic officials and ministers were mooted, with participants also suggesting that ASEM should be used to explore new ideas, to stimulate and facilitate progress in other fora and encourage capacity-building across sectors.

The need for more ASEM contacts with civil society, including members of parliament, business representatives, scholars and journalists as well as local authorities, was underlined.

The most difficult task facing policymakers is a much-awaited overhaul of ASEM’s working methods in order to make meetings – especially leaders’ summits held once every two years - more interesting, relevant and productive.

Recapturing the excitement and energy evident at ASEM’s launch in 1996 will not be easy, however. Over the years, ASEM meetings have become more formal and ritualistic, with ministers and leaders reading out well-prepared statements instead of engaging in direct dialogue.

Meetings of ASEM senior officials have also become long and drawn-out as participants talk more about procedures and dates than substantial questions. “These meeting are a bottleneck in ASEM” said one senior official in Yangzhou. “We have become a housekeeping body.”

Instead of reviewing a series of global and regional developments, ASEM summits should have a more streamlined agenda, allowing leaders to engage in a real, in-depth and focused conversation on key concerns.

Leaders and foreign ministers should also meet in a so-called “retreat” format to ensure more intensive and interactive dialogue. “We want them to really get to know each other, forge friendships and understanding,” said one participant.

Chair’s statements and other documents issued at the end of ASEM meetings should be short, simple and to-the-point rather than long and procedural. They should be media-friendly and understandable to the general public, helping to enhance ASEM visibility.

The long-running debate on whether or not ASEM needs a secretariat to provide institutional back-up was discussed. The drive to set up an ASEM Secretariat is essentially driven by Asian partners of ASEM who feel the need for such an institution on their side.

Europeans, on the other hand, are generally satisfied with the current situation since the European External Action Service plays an important coordination role for European partners.

As preparations intensify for the meeting of foreign ministers in Delhi, the conversation on strengthening ASEM is likely to gain pace. The aim is to prepare not only for the summit in Brussels in 2014 but for ASEM’s 20th anniversary celebrations in 2016.

As participants in Yangzhou said, the upcoming anniversary should not only take stock of ASEM cooperation so far but also set it on a new and revitalised course for the future.