The Asia-Europe partnership, launched in Bangkok in 1996 to foster stronger relations between the two regions, is ready for a reset.

Hopes are high that the 10th Asia Europe Meeting – or ASEM summit – to be held in Milan on October 16-17 will confirm the credibility and relevance of Asia-Europe relations in the 21st Century. ASEM has certainly survived many storms and upheavals over the last eighteen years. With ASEM’s 20th anniversary in 2016 approaching rapidly, the challenge is not only to ensure the survival of the partnership but to create conditions for it to flourish and thrive.

ASEM has been through different periods.  Initial euphoria over the initiative was followed by a period of inertia and a degree of apathy and disinterest. Asians criticised European leaders and ministers for not turning up at important meetings. Europeans complained that the gatherings were turning into little more than photo opportunities.

The talk now is about renewal and revival as Asians and Europeans seek to inject fresh oomph into ASEM. The focus is on energizing discussions through changed formats and a stronger focus on content.

This is positive. However, ASEM’s future hinges on whether governments are ready to pay as much attention to ASEM and devote as much time and energy to their partnership as they did in the early years. It is also conditional on closer engagement between Asian and European business leaders, civil society representatives and enhanced people-to-people contacts. An ASEM business summit and peoples’ forum will be held in parallel with the leaders’ meeting.
Fresh ideas

Encouragingly, efforts to reinvigorate ASEM have already begun. Asian and European foreign ministers and senior officials have been meeting over the last two years to try and thrash out a new and potentially winning formula for ASEM’s revival. Fresh ideas and formats to recapture ASEM’s original informality and flexibility are being put to the test. Efforts are being made to focus on content, not process. Long-winded communiques are being slimmed down. And leaders are being encouraged to engage in real conversations, not read from prepared papers, while also using ASEM’s immense networking opportunities for increased bilateral contacts.

These and other initiatives are important and should go a long way in making ASEM more interesting and useful – and perhaps even more visible to the public.  To stay in sync with a changing global political and economic landscape, ASEM is trying harder to adapt to and reflect new realities. Significantly, the theme of the Milan summit – “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security” – allows for a discussion not only of ongoing political strains and tensions in Asia and in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, but also of crucial questions linked to food, water and energy security.

High-level support

As Viorel Isticioaia Budura, Managing Director at the European External Action Service (EEAS) points out, Asia matters for Europe – and, just as importantly, Europe matters for Asia. Messages of support for the partnership have also been made in recent months by the Chinese, Japanese and Russian leaders. A statement released after President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China meetings in Brussels underlined the “growing role of trans-regional and regional dialogue mechanisms to promote regional peace and prosperity”, with leaders saying they looked forward to the ASEM summit in Milan. Subsequently, an EU-Japan statement highlighted ASEM’s “value” as a forum for dialogue and cooperation.  And interestingly, after their talks in Shanghai recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin defined ASEM as an “important platform for the exchange of economic and trade cooperation in other fields, social, cultural, etc.,” adding that they were “willing to strengthen cooperation and promote the ASEM to enhance work efficiency”.

Connectivity, connectivity, connectivity

Engagement between the two regions has been increasing over the years, both within and outside ASEM. Five of the 51 (set to rise to 52 with Croatia joining in October) ASEM partners – China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia – are the EU’s strategic partners. Turkey and Kazakhstan have formally voiced interest in joining ASEM although approval of their applications will take time. There is now a stronger EU-Asian conversation on trade, business, security and culture.

Exports to Asia and investments in the region are pivotal in ensuring a sustainable European economic recovery while the EU single market attracts goods, investments and people from across the globe, helping Asian governments to maintain growth and development.  European technology is in much demand across the region. Not surprisingly, Asia-Europe economic interdependence has grown. With total Asia-Europe trade in 2012 estimated at € 1.37 trillion, Asia has become the EU’s main trading partner, accounting for a third of total trade. More than a quarter of European outward investments head for Asia while Asia’s emerging global champions are seeking out business deals in Europe. The increased connectivity is reflected in the mutual Asia-Europe quest to negotiate Free Trade Agreements (FTAs)and investment accords.

The FTAs concluded with South Korea and Singapore and similar deals under negotiation with Japan, India and individual ASEAN –the Association of Southeast Asian Nations– countries as well as the bilateral investment treaty under discussion with China are important in consolidating EU-Asia relations. These and other initiatives illustrate enhanced recognition that the two regions must work closely together to ensure not only national and regional prosperity but also sustainable and inclusive global growth.

Beyond trade

ASEM’s connectivity credentials go beyond trade and economics.  In addition to the strategic partnerships mentioned above, Asia and Europe are linked through an array of cooperation accords. Discussions on climate change, pandemics, illegal immigration, maritime security, urbanization and green growth are frequent among multiple government ministries and agencies in both regions, reflecting a growing recognition that 21st Century challenges can only be tackled through improved global governance and failing that through “patchwork governance” involving cross-border and cross-regional alliances.

While Asia’s rise dominates the headlines, the region’s leaders are cognizant of the many challenges they face – and often look to Europe for cooperation in tackling them. Many Asian countries did not succumb to the woes plaguing the American and European economies but governments in economic powerhouses like China, India and Indonesia are acutely aware of the dangers of falling into the “middle income trap” of economic stagnation. Even as an emerging Asian middle class aspires for a better life and working conditions, the region is grappling with environmental degradation, rampant urbanisation, poor implementation of labour standards and lax quality controls on consumer products. Wealth inequalities persist despite the region’s successful attempts to reduce poverty.

Security: The Asian paradox

Discussions on security are an important part of the political pillar in ASEM, with leaders exchanging views on regional and global flashpoints. Given current tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, this year’s debate should be particularly important.

Some call it the “Asian paradox”. Even as economic cooperation and – in the case of ASEAN – economic integration gathers pace in Asia, historical animosities and unresolved territorial conflicts weigh heavily on the region, damaging relations between governments and people.  The point has been made most sharply by Asian leaders like former Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda who warn that the gains of the “Asian Century” are at risk because of unresolved historical conflicts and abiding mistrust in the region.

Asian views of Europe’s security role are also changing. Unease about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region and the lack of a strong security architecture has prompted many in Asia to take a closer look at Europe’s experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.  As such, eearlier scepticism of Europe’s security credentials is being replaced by recognition of Europe’s “soft power” in peace-making and reconciliation, crisis management, conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy human rights.

In addition, for many in Asia, the EU is the prime partner to deal with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change. Clearly also, the EU remains an inspiration for Asia’s own regional integration initiatives, including ASEAN, and in areas such as rules-based collective security.

The seas…

Europeans too are starting to become more aware of their security credentials and the global implications of instability in Asia, not least as regards maritime security. “The EU’s essential interests are closely tied up with the security of East Asia,” due largely to implications for navigation and commerce, underlines an EU Council document issued in 2012. The recently approved EU maritime security strategy identifies several threats to EU interests including cross-border and organised crime, threats to freedom of navigation, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and environmental risks.  Respect for international law and especially the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea are emphasised.  Importantly, several Asian and European countries are working together in the EU-led ATALANTA counter-piracy operation in the Western Indian Ocean.

Stronger engagement on Asian security issues has meant a deeper EU dialogue with ASEAN which is in the forefront of pan-Asian peace-building efforts. The European Union has signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), ASEAN’s security blueprint for the region. High-level European and Asian representatives are now regular participants at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia’s prime security forum, as well as the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual informal gathering of security experts held in Singapore.

A changing world

Much has changed in Asia and Europe since ASEM’s launch.  The last 18 years have seen the sustained rise of a self-confident Asia and much soul-searching in Europe over the region’s global relevance. ASEAN efforts to create a frontier-free economic community are speeding up and Myanmar, once the global pariah and the cause of much Asia-Europe acrimony, is now firmly committed to political reform. Europe’s economic troubles have made it less strident in promoting a values-based agenda and while the United States’ “pivot” to Asia certainly prodded Europe to become more active in the region, Asia and Europe have discovered the value of interacting with each other without America.

Still ASEM faces strong competition. There is no dearth of rival groupings and countries have become adept at “forum shopping” as they seek to build interest-based coalitions. In a multipolar world, the G20 which brings together industrialised and emerging countries now has to fight for its place against other alliances such as BRICS (which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia).  A host of other regional and cross-regional groupings litter an increasingly crowded global landscape.

Even as economic connectivity rises, Asia and Europe are witnessing the rise of nationalist and populist movements and politics in many countries are becoming more national and inward-looking. At the same time, as underlined by Yeo Lay Hwee of the European Union Centre at the National University of Singapore, relations between states have become more complex and multi-dimensional as countries vacillate between cooperation and competition and even conflict. Asians worry that the entry into the European Parliament of extremist and populist parties will generate a “Little Europe” mindset which fears globalisation and free trade.  Europeans fret over rising China-Japan and Japan-South Korean tensions as well as Beijing’s deteriorating relations with Hanoi and Manila.