CHIANG MAI, Thailand — ASEM, the Asia-Europe meeting process, was born in a climate of general euphoria in 1996 in Bangkok. The idea to bring together the combined potentials of the European Union and of several important Asian players looked promising and, fundamentally, it is still valid today.
Besides, a great amount of considerable work seems to have been produced in a quiet way by various expert groups. In particular, one should praise the contributions of the Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore which focuses on the cultural dimension of cooperation between the two groupings.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later, clouds started appearing in ASEM skies: “ASEM fails to live up to hype,” was the title of a dispatch from ASEM’s meeting in Seoul in October 2000.
Membership issues present “future complications for ASEAN,” was the prophetic verdict of a Thai analyst at the same time. An academic in South Korea further expressed pessimism, attributing “forum fatigue” to the overall exercise and stating that the biennial summit must narrow its mission and address political issues if it is to avoid “cocktail party” irrelevance.
If this was the scene in the year 2000, four years after the birth of ASEM, reservations continue to be voiced at present. A meeting of ASEM foreign ministers took place in Madrid last June without generating any special interest. Again, a succession headlines made this eloquently plain: “European interest in Asia wanes,” “ASEM in danger of being ho-hum” were just two among a score of others with the same negative overtone.
Why are we facing such a state of affairs? The question keeps puzzling me, both as an observer and as a one-time participant in the ASEM process itself.
First, we have to consider a fact connected with the very concept of ASEM: Apart from a legitimate element of cooperation between two continents, the idea was partially floated as a kind of counterweight to the then still promising APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), in an effort to curtail excessive American influence in the Asian continent. This may be of course counter-argued but the suspicions broadly remain.
Second, although region-to-region endeavors for exchanges are generally welcome, a steady stream of large meetings carries the risk of inducing “forum fatigue.” Indeed, it takes considerable time and hard work for all participants to properly organize such gatherings. It is also difficult to allocate adequate numbers of officials to guarantee those all-important, flamboyant but ephemeral ministerial declarations, let alone the so often neglected followup to them.
Third, there is a certain degree of overlapping between ASEAN-EU postministerial meetings and ASEM. Of course the compositions of the delegations have not been identical but still, they have been pretty close enough to create some confusion about various projects.
Fourth, one should not lose sight of the fact that independently from ASEM, considerable work is already being done under a bilateral dimension, between a given EU country and an Asian country. So the real challenge here is to identify areas of bloc-to-bloc cooperation exceeding the bilateral framework. This is easier said than done.
A fifth element is the level of political representation in ASEM gatherings. Although one has to concede that it is indeed quite difficult for all ministers or heads of government to participate, a majority nevertheless is needed symbolically to energize the whole exercise.
Unfortunately, data show that there is a continuous lack of proper involvement, mainly from the EU side, sending obviously negative signs to their Asian counterparts. If indeed there is less interest in Asia now in the “region-to-region” perspective, why then maintain an uninspiring bureaucratic process?
A sixth element is that a better balance among the ASEM concept’s “three pillars” — political, economic and social — has to be pursued. For quite some time, the economic aspect had prevailed, leading to a disturbing blurring of perceptions.
But on the other hand and in a spirit of fairness one has to acknowledge some progress during especially the ASEM meeting in Copenhagen in September, where meaningful ideas regarding security cooperation in a post-Sept. 11 framework, a dialogue of civilizations and more popular involvement in Europe-Asia cooperation were put forward and discussed.
Finally, we have to mention the constant grumbling about participation, especially in relation to Myanmar, formerly Burma. Although at the Madrid meeting a certain compromise had been reached, constant disagreement over this issue gives to outsiders, rightly or wrongly, the impression that ASEM is more about who participates than about what is discussed.
Allergy to the present government in Myanmar is undeniable and amply justifiable but in the final analysis, an ambitious undertaking such as ASEM has to deliver more on substance than on membership brawls. If the European attitude continues oriented toward exclusion, it is not so much Myanmar but ASEM itself which will be greatly hurt.
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