The Europe-Asian Meeting, better known as ASEM, has the potential to be an important international forum. Its 38 members — 25 from the European Union and 13 from Asia — represent 40 percent of the world’s population, 50 percent of global GDP and 60 percent of world trade. Their respect and preference for multilateralism makes them natural allies in the struggle to shore up international law and international institutions. But the group’s promise remains unfulfilled. At the last ASEM, held earlier this week in Helsinki, Finland, there were pledges to tackle global climate change, but no commitments. As in the past, European leaders condemned the ruling junta in Myanmar to no avail.
The ASEM dialogue commenced 10 years ago in an attempt to strengthen the weakest leg of the trilateral structure of global power, that between Asia and Europe. The group meets every two years. Human rights have dominated ASEM discussions, or at least their preparations. Myanmar has been the biggest problem. The military junta’s blatant disregard for the wishes of its population and its refusal to release Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have meant that every summit has focused on whether Myanmar would attend. European leaders have insisted that they would not meet with that government’s representatives, while Asian members have complained that Europeans cannot pick and choose whom to meet among their members. The result has been a stiff and formal discussion that makes little progress.
This year’s meeting was no exception. The meeting began with the Finnish chair, the current president of the EU, calling on Myanmar to end its human-rights abuses, to release Ms. Suu Kyi and to respect democracy. Finland lifted the EU ban on visas to officials from Myanmar to permit Foreign Minister U Nyan Win to attend the meeting and hear the criticisms face to face, but he merely shrugged them off, clinging to the time-worn argument that his country needs more time. That may be true, but Myanmar has made no effort to reach out to the opposition and the plea for time is merely a stall.
The entire group was no more committed when the subject turned to ways to prevent global warming. While their declaration called for “the widest possible cooperation” to fight climate change, the group refused to make binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As at other international meetings, the Asian governments argued — not without some logic — that global warming is the result of untrammeled growth by developed countries and they (developing economies) should not have to cut their growth to pay for the others’ sins.
Asian governments understand the costs involved. They know well the environmental cost of traditional energy policies and are eager to exploit fuel efficient and green technologies. Their declaration noted that ASEM members are “committed to enhancing energy efficiency and scaling up new and renewable energy, adapted to local circumstances.” That must be balanced, however, against the developing countries’ “legitimate priority needs” to use economic growth to offer their citizens better lives and to reduce poverty. In short, they recognize the problem but are not prepared to do much about it.
Of course, the meeting agenda devoted time to other international concerns, notably the nuclear crises involving Iran and North Korea. The statement called for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, criticized the recent missile tests and, in a diplomatic victory for Japan, urged the country to address “humanitarian concerns,” i.e., the kidnapping of Japanese (and South Korean) citizens. Iran was told to suspend its uranium enrichment program and to resume negotiations on a permanent solution to that nuclear standoff. Neither government is likely to take much note.
ASEM is a paradox at its core. It is a potentially vital component of the international system, but it is currently extraneous, if not irrelevant. Europe and Asia need to have a dialogue. Governments that speak for over one-third of the world’s population and represent half its wealth should have regular discussions, especially when they also share preferences for multilateralism and international law. At the same time, their preference for consensus and lowest common denominator policies, and the residue of postcolonial sensitivities, has yielded a talk shop that is for the most part toothless.
There is little indication that this situation will improve, despite pledges by Asian leaders to “further elevate” ASEM and make the forum more dynamic. At this week’s meeting, the group agreed to expand membership, and will add Pakistan, India and Mongolia, along with Romania and Bulgaria when they join the EU. As the group gets larger, its lowest common denominator gets lower still. For all the logic, ASEM is still foundering.
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