• Kyodo

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Foreign ministers from Europe and Asia formally began their annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Beijing on Friday with a call by Chinese President Jiang Zemin for the forum to serve as a “new Silk Road” for exchanges between the two continents.

“The ancient Silk Road, which used to be an important passage between Asian and European civilizations, has played a unique role in the exchanges between Eastern and Western civilizations,” Jiang said in his opening address.

“ASEM should build up a new Silk Road to actively boost exchanges between these two civilizations in the new century so that countries in Asia and Europe will build on their respective civilizations and respect, learn from, complement and benefit each other,” he said.

The two-day ASEM conference, which began with a working dinner on Thursday, is intended to reinforce political, economic and cultural dialogue between Asian and European countries.

The Chinese leader voiced a strong desire to see the forum help rectify what he called a lack of “democracy in international relations” and an “unjust and irrational international political and economic order,” apparently referring to China’s slew of differences with the United States.

“It is imperative to abide by the U.N. charter and the universally acknowledged basic principles of international law, strengthen consultation, coordination and cooperation, properly handle major political, security and economic questions and pay close attention to the interests and demands of the vast number of developing countries,” he said.

Some analysts have suggested China may try to use the ASEM discussions to criticize U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush.

“China will try to woo the EU into some sort of multipolar statement — anti-U.S. if possible,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China. “We’ll see if the EU will play that tune, or try to resist the ‘anti-U.S. united front’ strategy.”

Intercontinental opposition to Bush’s proposed national missile defense shield “may be something that will bring together China and the EU,” Cabestan said.

But it is far from clear that missile defense will even be discussed openly in the loose ASEM format, which provides little framework beyond bringing officials together under one roof.

“ASEM is not yet an organization,” said one European diplomat involved in the Beijing meetings. “It’s barely an institution. It’s primarily a forum.”

At the current round, he said, the EU hopes to cover arms control, security issues, U.N. reform “and human rights, of course.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said in Thailand last week that China wanted ASEM to focus on economic and social issues and to avoid human rights and political disputes.

But he said Wednesday that discussions should also cover the “maintenance of global strategic stability,” possibly a reference to U.S. missile defense plans.

ASEM consists of Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam from Asia. Its European members are the 15 member countries of the European Union plus the European Commission.

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