America continues to loom large over the Asia-Pacific region. Whether it’s about trade, politics or security, Asian eyes tend to focus almost solely on Washington. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines feel safer under the US security umbrella. India wants to forge a stronger relationship with Washington. Even China, the region’s most economically vibrant and powerful nation, seeks a special “great power” relationship with America.
Hence the focus on the US-led Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit opening in two-day Beijing on Nov 10 and the East Asia Summit from Nov 13-14 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. A few days later, the spotlight will move to Brisbane, Australia, for the G20 summit.
Certainly, the APEC agenda is impressive, with leaders expected to agree to a study on negotiating a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). But Asia’s enduring affair with America leaves only a small space for an Asia-Europe relationship.
Significantly, Europeans will be absent from the jamboree in Beijing. The EU has been pressing for entry into the EAS which now also includes the US and Russia but Asians are in no hurry to open the door.
Some European countries and the European Commission will, however, participate in the G20 meeting.
And yet, there is more to the Asia-Europe relationship than meets the eye. America’s so-called “pivot” to Asia may have grabbed the headlines, but the EU has spent the last three and a half years upping its own game in Asia.
The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held in Milan last month is a case in point. The summit may not have made headlines worldwide but over 50 European and Asian leaders made an array of pledges on boosting growth, continuing economic and financial reform and building stronger Europe-Asia connectivity.
Significantly, the theme of the Milan summit — “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security” — allowed for a discussion not only of ongoing political strains and tensions in Asia and in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, but also of crucial non-traditional security threats linked to food, water, and energy security.
In addition, the meeting brought back much of the informality that marked the first few ASEM summits by including a “retreat” session during which leaders — with only one aide in attendance — were able to have a free-flowing discussion on regional and international issues, including Ebola and the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State.
Attendance was exceptionally high, with all key Asian and European leaders — apart from the new Indonesian president and the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers — taking part in the sessions.
Even before they meet in Beijing, there was a quick handshake in Milan between estranged neighbours Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in attendance. Also, the EU finally held a long-awaited first-ever summit with Asean leaders. Kazakhstan and Croatia joined ASEM, bringing the total number of ASEM participants to 53.
Leaders agreed on an ambitious programme until 2016, the year when ASEM, under Mongolian chairmanship, will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Countries agreed to work in smaller groups or clusters on 16 “tangible cooperation areas” including disaster management, renewable energy, higher education, connectivity and information technology.
The challenge is to keep up the momentum generated in Milan. The good news is that ASEM’s resilience has allowed it to survive many upheavals since its launch in Bangkok in 1996. Initial euphoria over the initiative was followed by a period of inertia and a degree of disinterest. Asians criticised European leaders and ministers for not turning up at important ASEM meetings.
Europeans complained that the gatherings were turning into little more than photo ops. The current mood is positive as ASEM seeks a stronger focus on content. 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. Closer engagement between Asian and European business leaders, civil society representatives and enhanced people-to-people contacts is also essential.
In the future ASEM needs an even sharper focus on growth and jobs, combating extremism and tackling hard and soft security issues. Women in both Asia and Europe face many societal and economic challenges. Freedom of expression is under attack in both regions. Populist parties and nationalism are becoming a threat to diversity and societal peace in both regions.
Finally, ASEM faces the uphill task of securing stronger public understanding, awareness and support for the Asia-Europe partnership. ASEM’s 20th anniversary in 2016 should set the Asia-Europe partnership on a new and more dynamic track — that could perhaps generate the kind of excitement that APEC does.