The Thinker: Waiting on Europe
14 October 2014
Source: Jakarta Globe (Indonesia)
Source type: Newspaper
Published on: 15 Jul 2010
Posted on: 19 Jul 2010
In his 1998 book "The Grand Chessboard," Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Eurasia one day would become a playing field that determines the fate of the world. Such a perception continues to this day, including in Asia and Europe. It was this perception that lead Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore to establish the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which held its first summit in Bangkok in 1996. Since then, the link between the two regions has become closer and relations have continued to expand.
The Thinker: Waiting on Europe
by Dian Wirengjurit
In his 1998 book "The Grand Chessboard," Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Eurasia one day would become a playing field that determines the fate of the world. Such a perception continues to this day, including in Asia and Europe.
It was this perception that lead Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore to establish the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which held its first summit in Bangkok in 1996. Since then, the link between the two regions has become closer and relations have continued to expand.
As a forum for dialogue that is informal and non-binding, ASEM is intended as a medium for sharing information, experience and practices. The forum is primarily based on the principles of mutual respect, mutual benefit and, more importantly, equal partnership.
As a forum to bridge the gap between Asia and Europe, ASEM takes up a path similar to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in its early stage. Since ASEM is not an organization as much as it is a forum — it has no secretariat, permanent program or budget - ASEM's development will mostly depend on the commitment, initiative and participation of member nations.So far, the group's activities have expanded into vast areas — from trade investment and counterterrorism to culture and interfaith dialogue. These activities have been made possible due to voluntary initiatives by members.There is no shortage of commitment from ASEM partners. Since the first meeting in 1996 to the most recent summit in Beijing in 2008, members have reiterated their support again and again.
However, in the middle of ASEM's second decade, and as it approaches its eighth summit in October in Brussels, commitment to the cause is uneven.
Upon close inspection, it comes to light that many or even most ASEM initiatives come from Asian countries rather than Europe.
The fact that Asia is much more active than Europe in ASEM poses concerns since it is the developing Asian countries that need more to learn from their Western counterparts.
Participation is even more disconcerting. When ASEM activities are carried out in Europe, the participation of ASEM partners is relatively high — above 60 percent on average, or about 10 of 16 Asian countries and about 16 of 27 European countries.
But these numbers change drastically if meetings are carried out in Asia. In these cases, Asian representation remains above 60 percent, while Europe generally falls below 50 percent and even lower, sometimes to just five countries.
And in many cases, European nations are represented by diplomats of their embassies rather than representatives from the main ministries. Moreover, it seems that European countries tend to rely on the participation of European Commission representatives.
Distance, timing and budget have been blamed as reasons for minimal European participation. It is true that there is no obligation for ASEM members to participate in all the activities even though the calendars for the meetings have been circulated a year in advance.
Similar practices also applied in the context of the meeting of other international organizations, including the United Nations. However, if carefully examined, such participation has little to do with distance, timing or expense, as clearly demonstrated by Asia.
If the European countries are truly committed to ASEM, the above obstacles cannot justify their high absenteeism.
It is true that active European countries in ASEM are members of the European Union. But relying on the European Commission for their participation runs contrary to basic ASEM principles. After all, the group is a country-to-country forum, not a bloc-to-bloc entity.
As a forum intended to foster open and frank discussion, ASEM requires active engagement from all sovereign countries. If this basic principle continues to be misinterpreted or misunderstood, then perhaps this forum should change its name to the Asia-European Union Meeting, perhaps, so as to more accurately reflect the group's scope, significance and objectives.
With ASEM countries in the midst of serious preparations for its next summit in Brussels, the important question that needs answering now is the most fundamental: Just how serious is Europe when it comes to building bridges with Asia?
Dian Wirengjurit is director of European-American Inter-Regional Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.