Where is ASEM heading?

14 October 2014

Source: Today (Singapore)
Source type: Newspaper
Published on: 01 Oct 2010

A comprehensive partnership between Asia and Europe but the dialogue could be deeper

When I wrote my first book on the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) about a decade ago, the book was entitled "Asem: From Sexy Summit to Strong Partnership?"

The 8th Asem summit will take place in Brussels on Oct 4 and 5, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be attending the summit and also addressing the Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF) that is held back to back with the summit.

So far media reports and attention on the summit and the various meetings leading up to the summit has been "paltry".

This was in contrast to the inaugural summit in Bangkok in 1996.

That summit was highly symbolic as it was the very first large gathering of 25 heads of state and government from the 15 European Union (EU) member states, and 10 East Asian countries and the president of the European Commission.

It was seen as "sexy" as it was sold then in the media as Asia's and Europe's rediscovery of each other. It attracted a lot of media attention prior to and immediately after the summit.

The trouble with summits is that the novelty wears off, and particularly so when there has been such a proliferation of summits. The proliferation of such meetings in the international arena has also created pressures on leaders' calendars, and diluted the value of summits.

With so many summits, it may turn into something like a beauty parade, where media attention will only be on the most "sexy" and attractive but not necessarily the more productive and meaningful.

One could see this, for instance, when Apec leaders met. Media excitement seemed to be on the "national costume" that the leaders wore for the "family photo".

Asem is now into its 15th year. For some, after all these years, Asem is no longer just a dialogue or summit.

It has developed into the comprehensive partnership between Asia and Europe. They point to the fact that there have been meetings not only among senior officials, ministers and leaders, but Asem has spawned several concrete initiatives and projects such as the Trans-Eurasia Information Network (Tein), an information highway funded by Asem partners amounting to €70 million ($125 million), that facilitates academic and research information exchange via the Internet.

The Asem Trust Fund that was set up in the wake of the Asian financial crisis was also a specific initiative aimed at helping some of the crisis-hit countries in the restructuring of the financial sector and addressing the social fallout of the crisis. And there is, of course, the Asia-Europe Foundation (Asef) established in 1997, one of the most concrete manifestations of Asem.

Despite the fact that Asem is now more than a summit, there are however those who are not convinced that Asem has helped to engender a strong and comprehensive partnership between Asia and Europe. They point to the lack of EU engagement in security issues with Asean or Asia, and noted that while the economic relations between Asia and Europe are real, they are driven by the private sector and not a result of the Asem dialogue.

My own assessment of Asem is that there is no doubt it has acted as a catalyst and facilitated a plethora of dialogue and initiatives between Asians and Europeans but this dialogue has been broad, not deep.

A deeper concern is that the so-called dialogue that we have been engaged in may not have been "dialogue" in the true sense. Instead it is one where everyone talks and no one listens. Hence, we continue to harbour the same stereotypes we have of each other, and we succumb to new cliched perceptions of an old, tired Europe and a dynamic Asia (in contrast to an exotic East and a modern West).

The enlargement of Asem from 26 members to 48 in such a short span of time has also undoubtedly affected the quality of the dialogue. Asem now brings together the 27 EU member states, the European Commission, the 10 Asean member states, the Asean Secretariat, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.

However, being an eternal optimist, I would like to believe that Asians and Europeans would be able to rise to the challenge of developing a close and comprehensive partnership to face up to the complex problems in our interdependence. The following observation gives me hope that we can indeed move beyond "sexy" summit to strong partnership:

Asia and Europe are stepping up educational exchanges - the Eurpe-East Asia Higher Education Platform (EAHEP), the European University Association (EUA), the Asean University Network, etc, are engaged in regular dialogue to promote university collaboration, student exchange, etc.

The number of Erasmus Mundus programmes which offer joint master's and doctoral programmes by a consortium of European universities in partnership with Asian universities are rising.

Such educational exchanges and the growing trade and investment ties between many European countries and Asian countries will hopefully provide both the youthful ideas and the material interests that will nurture a solid, long-term relationship.

-By Yeo Lay Hwee

The writer is director of the EU Centre and senior research associate,Singapore Institute of International Affairs.