Asia-Europe Meeting: Getting Two Regions Together Will Take More Than Just Talks
Mongolia hosted the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit of Heads of State and Government (ASEM11) in Ulaanbaatar on 15-16 July 2016. The presidents of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Myanmar, South Korea, and Switzerland were among the 10 heads of state in attendance. Delegates from over 51 countries, as well as the EU and ASEAN, travelled to the Mongolian capital for the Summit. The 10th ASEM Summit (ASEM10) had been held on 16-17 October 2014 in Milan, Italy.
Mongolia – which celebrated Naadam, its annual summer festival from July 10 to 13 – had organised nine side events leading up to the main show, including the 8th Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Editors Roundtable, the ASEM Consultative Meeting on Food Security, and the 15th Asia-Europe Business Forum.
Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)
The ASEM is an informal process of dialogue and cooperation bringing together the 28 European Union (EU) member states, 2 other European countries, the EU secretariat, 21 Asian countries and the ASEAN secretariat. The ASEF is the only permanently established institution of ASEM. The ASEM11 also marked the 20th Anniversary of the Asia-Europe Meeting dialogue process which was inaugurated on 1-2 March 1996 in Bangkok, Thailand.
The basis for creating ASEM was the simple realisation that ‘Asia matters – for Europe. And Europe matters – for Asia.’ ASEM’s current 53 partners (more than double from the original 26 in 1996) represent nearly 60% of the world’s GDP and more than 60% of the world’s population. Business is at the heart of the EU-Asia relationship, which has been constrained by trade disputes.
The ASEM dialogue addresses political, economic and cultural issues, with the objective of strengthening the relationship between the two regions, with a spirit of mutual respect and equal partnership. Apart from the biennial Summits of heads of state and government, meetings of foreign ministers, ministers of finance, education, culture, transport, mayors & governors and parliamentarians are also organised.
ASEM provides a unique platform to bring Europe and Asia closer together on a number of issues of global importance, such as revival of economic growth, climate change, or any relevant development issue. During the Summit in Milan, the leaders had exchanged views on global economic and financial issues of common interest, as well as traditional and non-traditional security challenges and agreed to strengthen ASEM’s three pillars of cooperation i.e. political dialogue, economic cooperation and socio-cultural cooperation.
The other issues on the agenda of ASEM11 included Britain’s vote to leave the EU and an effort to reassure Asian countries over the EU’s future. The ASEM meeting held a minute’s silence before talks on 15 July in commemoration of the 84 dead in the Nice terror attack. Even though the Chinese assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou had said before the start of the ASEM that it was “not an appropriate venue” to discuss the South China Sea (SCS); however, the issue was raised.
ASEM was the first major international conference since the row over ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on SCS. The EU Council President Donald Tusk reminded the Chinese of the need for a “rules-based international order” saying that “Dialogue and a strong commitment to the rules-based international order are necessary.”
The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who did not include the SCS issue in his keynote speech, said in an informal meeting during the summit that SCS should not be subject to multilateral discussions from the very beginning, or be included in the summit’s agenda. Li said China remains committed to settling the SCS disputes via dialogue and consultation with countries directly involved on the basis of historical facts and in accordance with international law, so as to safeguard peace and stability in the SCS.
The Chair’s Statement of ASEM11 referred to disputes being resolved in accordance with principles of international law, the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), without direct mention of the SCS. The ASEM delegates denounced the attacks in Nice as “heinous and cowardly” and reiterating their “strong unequivocal condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.
India and ASEM
The initial ASEM partnership in 1996 consisted of 15 EU member states and 7 ASEAN member states plus China, Japan, Korea and the European Commission. India became a partner in ASEM’s second round of enlargement in 2008 during the 7th ASEM Summit (ASEM7) in Beijing. It joined along with 5 other new members: Bulgaria, Mongolia, Pakistan, Romania, and the ASEAN Secretariat, increasing total ASEM membership to 45 partners. Gen VK Singh (Retd), minister of state for external affairs had represented India at ASEM10 while Vice President Ansari did the honours in Mongolia.
India is a member of the ASEM working group on the 20th Anniversary celebration of ASEM and as a part of the celebrations of organised the ASEM Youth Summit on 26 March 2016 in New Delhi on the theme of building networks amongst youth in ASEM countries. It will also organise a workshop on “Conservation Techniques & Instruments” driven by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) from October 20-21, 2016 in New Delhi.
ASEM is considered “ultra-light” as it is not institutionalised, has no funding and is not based on ‘hard’ commitments. Dialogues, discussions and a perceived improvement in Asia-Europe relations over time constitute its ‘results’. India is one of those members of the ASEM which would like to see it move beyond dialogue and mutual understanding. At the 10th ASEM Summit, India had made “specific proposals” (ten initiatives) for increasing cooperation in tourism, education and business ties between Asia and Europe.
At ASEM11, the Indian Vice President called for ASEM’s role to be elevated and that it should collaborate to protect our global commons in accordance with international conventions without threats or use of force, but through the exercise of self restraint. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urged all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans.
Despite a myriad of activities, the tag of being a ‘talk shop’ continues to dog the ASEM as it has yet to fully realise its potential and achieve the objectives for which it had been conceived.