Asia, Europe differ on summit expansion
The Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, will hold its fifth summit in Hanoi in October amidst a recent crisis over the inclusion of Myanmar. Two ministerial meetings have been cancelled when both sides failed to agree on future expansion of ASEM.
Ten new European members and three member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - are earmarked for membership.
The Europeans have opposed the admission of Myanmar because of its allegedly poor human rights record, but Asian members believe it is their prerogative to admit who they choose within the "Asian ambit." The standoff has already cast a shadow over the Hanoi summit.
Launched in March 1996 in the Thai capital Bangkok, ASEM - the brainchild of former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong - has met four times at summit level after it was decided to institutionalize the meetings once every 18 months, alternating between Asia and Europe. ASEM summits have previously been held in London, Seoul and Copenhagen.
The Hanoi meeting brings the club back to Asia.
One of the most important political and strategic fall-outs of the ASEM process has been the strengthening of the Asian pillar of consultations and co-operation, notably in the emergence of the "ASEAN+3" framework, which could build itself one day towards the much-touted, East Asian Community.
The Asian side has indeed come a long way in co-operation from the 1990 East Asian Economic Caucus, EAEC, as proposed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. This co-operation now extends beyond economics and finance into political, social, environmental, cultural and some aspects of East Asian security. Thanks to ASEM, East Asia has embarked on a long and useful journey of consultations, co-operation and community-building, by initially co-ordinating its own "Asian" positions ahead of ASEM meetings. But this habit of East Asian consultations really goes beyond ASEM matters alone.
Four challenges abound for ASEM, for which China would have to play an increasing role as one of the principal players of this Asia-Europe framework.
Firstly, ASEM's expansion brings to the fore again the fundamental question of so-called "approfondissement," the deepening of, versus "elargissement," meaning enlarging or expanding. These are the references commonly used in the European Union to portray this dilemma. The principal issue at stake is whether the ASEM process would be "diluted" with the entry of smaller European countries, which may not have as much a stake in Asia as the principal European players. The concern could thus be a general drop in European interest in Asia, especially when the EU-25 is now more fixated on succeeding at its own integration eastwards after the last round of enlargement. The role of China would hence be crucial in keeping European interest anchored in Asia and in ASEM.
Secondly, political differences between Asia and Europe could aggravate as the recent Myanmar quagmire has amply shown. Human rights and democracy have been already at the heart of some differences between Asians and Europeans in the past, although a successful dialogue on these issues has also germinated between them within the ASEM framework. Political differences over Myanmar have almost paralyzed ASEM, and such differences would continue - especially in the lead-up to Myanmar taking over the chairmanship of ASEAN by the middle of 2006. Other potential bilateral political differences could also be sparked between the EU and individual ASEM partners, over human rights as well as the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China.
Thirdly, the socio-economic challenge of ASEM remains an important pillar of not only co-operation but of potential conflicts. ASEM has sought to promote trade and investments both ways, although Europeans complain that trade is still flowing more from Asia to Europe, whereas overall investments flow the other way. There is indeed a need to balance these two flows more fairly. But more importantly, new challenges have emerged, ranging from differences over social legislation and European fears of "excessive outsourcing" to Asia, to unemployment concerns in Europe and uncontrolled Asian immigration to the EU. Drugs, human trafficking and triad activities could be of potential major Asian-European concern if not dealt with seriously within the ambit of ASEM. China too has a leading role to play in these matters.
Lastly, the ultimate challenge for ASEM is the furtherance of the good work done thus far by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which is based in Singapore.
People-to-people exchanges, especially between Asian and European youths, academics, media representatives and civil society, have progressed since the establishment of ASEM and ASEF. However, the biggest challenge is to "introduce" the modern and "rising Asia" to Europe's youth, just as generations of Asian youth have lived and worked in Europe, from colonial times to the present day. The European youth have still to "discover" and understand Asia truly, and once and for all get rid of the outdated distorted misunderstandings of the "yellow peril" that prevailed at the turn of the century, and which had plagued European thinking for decades. This probably constitutes ASEF's greatest challenge ahead as it seeks to bring rapprochement between young Asians and Europeans. But Asians also need to try to understand each other better in order to build their common future together, especially among the young of China, Japan and South Korea, and Southeast Asians and their Northeastern Asian brothers.
ASEM's challenge is really about managing misperceptions and differences between Asia and Europe, and harnessing further co-operation between the two developing entities in economic and social fields. Consolidating youth exchanges and understanding is important to mould future generations of Asians and Europeans. China, as one of the two premier Asian powers, would have a leading role to play and a genuine contribution to make to ASEM and the future of Asia-European relations.
The author is council secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.