To count in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, you have to be connected. This is true for individuals, institutions, companies, continents, regions and countries. The growth of social media sites is testimony to the increased connectivity of individuals and groups.
No connections translate into lack of influence. It means no voice, no role and no chance to make an impact. What’s true for individuals is also true for countries. The nations which have clout in this rapidly-changing 21st century are those that are connected to the rest of the world.
That’s why the European Union is busy breaking down internal barriers to trade, services and the movement of goods among its 28-member states. It is also the reason that the EU and the United States are negotiating an ambitious and trade-boosting Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and it is also why the US is also hoping to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) negotiations by the end of the year.
Asians are embarked on a headline-grabbing connectivity agenda of their own. The Connectivity Masterplan drawn up by Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) is impressive in its scope and content. And of course China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative is making waves worldwide.
As these different initiatives illustrate, connectivity can and does take many forms. The first focus is clearly on transport — building roads, bridges, railways as well as maritime and air routes. There are also digital networks.
Connectivity is also about building networks that connect people, schools and colleges, media, civil society organisations, businesses, policymakers and institutions.
Being connected is good for the economy by helping to boost trade and investments and creating jobs. It is good for creativity and innovation. It is good for fostering mutual understanding. And, of course, it is very good for peace and stability.
And that’s why is encouraging to see the attention now being paid to Asia-Europe connectivity. The topic is high on the agenda of Asem (Asia Europe Meetings) and is being widely recognised as a vital element in the efforts to revive Asem for its third decade.
Certainly, compared to 1996 when Asem was first launched in Bangkok in 1996 or even 10 years ago, there is now a stronger EU-Asian conversation on trade, business, security and culture. As Asem celebrates its 20th anniversary in Mongolia next year, connectivity is expected to be an important driver for further Asia-Europe cooperation.
Asia-Europe economic connectivity has grown. With total Asia-Europe trade in 2012 estimated at 1.37 trillion euros, Asia has become the EU’s main trading partner, accounting for a third of total trade and surpassing the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). More than a quarter of European outward investments head for Asia while Asia’s emerging global players are seeking out business deals in Europe.
The increased connectivity is reflected in the mutual Asia-Europe quest to negotiate Free Trade Agreements and investment accords. The EU and China are currently negotiating a bilateral investment agreement. The FTAs concluded by the EU with South Korea and Singapore and similar deals under negotiation with Japan, India and individual Asean countries are important in consolidating EU-Asia relations.
Beyond trade and economics, Asia and Europe are linked through an array of cooperation accords. Discussions on climate change, pandemics, illegal immigration, maritime security, urbanisation and green growth, among others, are frequent between 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.
Importantly, connectivity is the new Asem buzzword. The significance of Asia-Europe connectivity — including digital connectivity — was underscored by the Asem summit in Milan last year, with leaders underlining the contribution increased ties could make to economic prosperity and sustainable development and to promoting free and seamless movement of people, trade, investment, energy, information, knowledge and ideas and greater institutional linkages.
The summit urged the establishment of an integrated, sustainable, secure, efficient and convenient air, maritime and land transportation system, including intermodal solutions, in and between Asia and Europe. It also noted the usefulness of an exchange of best practices and experiences on areas of common interest, relating for example to the governance of the EU Single Market and the implementation of the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity.
A meeting of Asem summit in Milan transport ministers held in Riga discussed a common vision for the development of transport networks between Asia and Europe and emphasised the significance of connectivity between the two regions for achieving economic prosperity and sustainable development. The importance of railway links was especially underlined.
Certainly, much of the talk on Asia-Europe connectivity is centred on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans for the Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st century maritime Silk Road (termed together “One Belt, One Road”) aimed at building two economic corridors with important development implications for many nations, creates new opportunities for further China-EU cooperation in areas such as infrastructure, trade and investment as well as energy and resources.
The initiative raises many questions: how will Europe benefit from the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt? What is the potential for synergies between the Chinese and European infrastructure and connectivity policies? Which sectors are likely to benefit most from such cooperation? What will be the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in financing the “One Belt, One Road” initiative? What is the role of youth and women in the drive to connect Asia and Europe?
Is it only about infrastructure or can Asem also encourage institutional and people-to-people connectivity? The answer was given at a meeting of Asem education ministers — also in Riga — which highlighted the importance Asia-Europe cooperation in areas like mobility of students, teachers, researchers, ideas and knowledge. Finally, while increased connectivity would offer opportunities for business and trade, the darker security implications linked to the cross-border movement of arms, drugs and terrorists also need to be addressed.