This is just the right time for a serious Asia-Europe conversation on shared global challenges. With Brexit around the corner, the world economy in poor shape, growing inequalities and discontent with globalisation on the rise, Asian and European leaders meeting in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, on July 15-16, have a great deal to talk about.
Add to the list, an increased disconnect and mistrust between governments and citizens — especially between leaders and young people — the rise in populism, fears of uncontrolled immigration and violent extremism, and it’s clear that leaders at the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Mongolia will have a full agenda.
Asian leaders and policymakers may believe that most of these issues are of relevance only to Europe. The truth is more complicated. The Brexit referendum last month has certainly highlighted the strength of these and other preoccupations among British (and other European voters). But many of these worries are shared by citizens across the world.
Asia is as unequal a continent as is Europe. Winners and losers of globalisation exist on both continents and terrorists pose a challenge to Asian and European states alike. Even though they are masters of grabbing the headlines in Europe, populist politicians with simple messages exist in Asia as well. And leaders in both Asia and Europe need to build stronger connections with young people and respond to their worries about education, jobs, exclusion and marginalisation.
It is important to have these discussions within ASEM. Given its informal format and structure, ASEM offers a unique platform for an open, no holds-barred high-level brainstorm on issues of mutual interest. The leaders’ retreat session is especially suited to the debate on shared challenges.
In fact, it is the need for such a conversation that led to the creation of ASEM 20 years ago — and that is likely to give ASEM renewed geo-strategic relevance and increased credibility in the coming years.
ASEM stakeholders — including policymakers, members of parliament, civil society representatives, academics and members of think tanks as well as young people and business leaders — are engaged in impressive efforts to make ASEM fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
The emphasis should be on new ideas and increased connectivity as part of a potent new recipe for injecting new energy and dynamism into ASEM.
Transforming ASEM into a hub or network of ideas and initiatives will give the Asia-Europe relationship a geo-strategic raison d’être, which it has lost over the last two decades. The platform for networking, dialogue and cooperation it provides today makes it even more essential in an interdependent and complex world. Asia-Europe connectivity is now a fact of life and reinforcing these networks through stronger institutional, infrastructure, digital and people-to-people linkages is rightfully emerging as a central element of efforts to revive and renew ASEM.
ASEM has met many of its original goals by providing Asian and European leaders with opportunities to get to know one another, encouraging greater people-to-people understanding and providing the two regions with avenues to explore new areas of cooperation in the political, economic and social sectors.
An array of ASEM meetings allows policymakers from both regions to exchange views on regional and global issues and strengthen their economic relations through greater trade and investment. Additionally, meetings between business leaders, parliamentarians, academics and civil society actors — and young leaders — have allowed ASEM to make important headway in enhancing mutual Asia-Europe understanding and upgrading the quality and diversity of the Asia-Europe conversation.
While these connections are important, ASEM can do much more by playing a more central role than it has so far in generating, nourishing and disseminating new ideas about living and working together in a globalised world.
This requires the setting up of an “ASEM Brains Trust” or network of think tanks/studies centres, which can help to enliven ASEM by turning into a market place for ideas and initiatives. Proposals and ideas generated within such a studies centre should be fed directly into the work of senior ASEM officials and the activities of other stakeholders. Such tasks could be performed by an ASEM coordination centre of the kind being recommended by Mongolia.
This combination of ideas and connectivity allowing for a permanent circulation and exchange of thoughts, knowledge, experience and expertise can revive ASEM for the third decade. The summit in Ulaanbataar can and should set ASEM on the road to renewal. The 21st Century is proving to be turbulent, violent and unpredictable. ASEM can help increase Asian and European understanding of a very complicated world.