The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or the EU Centre in Singapore.
A printable version of the commentary is available HERE.
The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of Foreign Ministers (ASEM FMM) took place in Myanmar on 20-21 November 2017, against the backdrop of the plight of the Rohingyas in the Rahkine state in Myanmar. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh and the unfolding humanitarian crisis made it impossible to be ignored by the ASEM ministers. While the human rights situation in the Rakhine state did not make it to the official agenda of the 13th ASEM FMM, efforts were made by both Asian and European foreign ministers on the sidelines of the meeting to help bring about a long term solution to the crisis. This showed that ASEM has the real potential to transform itself from a mere talk shop to a platform for tackling sensitive issues facing both Asia and Europe in an informal setting.
The “ASEM way” to addressing the Rohingya crisis
Before the Foreign Ministers Meeting, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Federica Mogherini, and her counterparts from Germany, Sweden and Japan visited one of the refugees’ camps in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh to try and understand the scale of the problem. Mogherini’s visit came shortly after the EU pledged to commit an additional €30 million, on top of the €51 million already allocated, for the Rohingya communities in Bangladesh. Of the €30 million, €10 million will be used for immediate humanitarian aid purpose and €20 million will be used to support early recovery and development actions.
Japan News also highlighted Japan’s plan to extend an additional ¥2 billion in emergency humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh to help cope with the massive influx of Rohingya refugees. The report noted that Japan has already provided ¥600 million to help Bangladesh manage the crisis, and extended another ¥1.2 billion emergency humanitarian aid to Myanmar to support the Rohingyas that remain in the country.
The Rohingya crisis was top of the agenda for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He laid out a three-step approach to ease the crisis. The first step involves ceasefire and restoration of stability, followed by a second step that encourages bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the last step is for the international community to jointly develop the economy of Rakhine state.
While some may wondered about the parallel instead of coordinated efforts, they nevertheless brought attention to the plight of the Rohingya refugees and highlighted the difficulties but also the urgency to address the issue. Media reports on the 13th ASEM FMM were dominated by the Rakhine and Rohingya issue. Though not in the official agenda of the foreign ministers meeting, it was discussed at the side line of the formal meeting when Myanmar State Counsellor, Ms Aung Sun Suu Kyi met with a selected group of ministers to brief them on the situation. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told Channel News Asia that the informal briefing by Aung San Suu Kyi was helpful, and the latter also reassured the ministers present that violence at Rakhine state has stopped, and that Myanmar is committed to implementing the Kofi Annan recommendations on Rakhine state.
ASEM: 20 years in the making
The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was launched in 1996 as an informal gathering of leaders of then 15 EU member states, president of the European Commission and 10 leaders of ASEAN 7 plus China, Japan and South Korea. It has since then grown to encompass 53 members traversing the Eurasian plain – from what was initially a Western Europe-East Asia link to an Asia-Europe trans-continental link. It has also “blossomed” from a leaders’ summit to one that involves ministers and officials of different portfolios – not only the foreign ministries, but also education, transport, etc. The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) that was setup in 1997 after the first summit has also grown to be an integral part of ASEM, helping to connect youths, artists, journalists, civil society and think tanks from Asia and Europe.
Despite the fact that members of ASEM together make up 60% of world’s population, 60% of global GDP and 60% of global trade, ASEM remains a relatively unknown forum compared to say the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. While APEC is more focused on economic and business issues, ASEM is an informal inter-governmental forum for dialogue on a broad range of issues. Being essentially a dialogue forum, ASEM’s goals and objectives are less defined and more amorphous to include political, economic, social, cultural, and educational issues of common interest.
ASEM’s emphasis on being open and inclusive has seen it grow at a much faster pace, from 26 to 53 members within two decades, and hence becoming a far more diverse entity traversing the Eurasian space. This is both strength and a weakness. It is a strength if ASEM members are conscious enough to harness the diversity and use ASEM as a platform to draw connections and links to the multitude of forums that have proliferated since the 1990s. ASEM could then strive to become the marketplace of ideas. But the diversity can also set ASEM adrift as many ASEM members are also participants in many other forums, their attention and interest in ASEM is often fleeting or perfunctory.
A few days before the 13th ASEM FMM, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and the EU Centre in Singapore held its 19th Asia-Europe Think Tanks’ dialogue in Yangon in which a session was organised to take stock of what ASEM has achieved in the last two decades, and the way forward.
Much has been written about ASEM, and consultations and studies had also been done by both the EU and other ASEM member states on how to make ASEM more visible, how to raise its profile and improve on its working methods and what tangible benefits or concrete deliverables can be expected. On visibility, 1 March (the day when the inaugural summit took place in Bangkok in 1996) has been designated as ASEM Day during the ASEM summit in Ulan Baatar in 2016, a highlight marking the 20th anniversary of ASEM. On improving the working methods or coordination mechanisms, the proposal to have an ASEM Secretariat or some sort of “liaison office” has been rejected and ASEM continues to rely on two rotating coordinators on the Asian side, and on the European side, the EU’s External Action Service is the primary coordinator. On applying “issue-based leadership” in order to deliver on tangible cooperation, not much has been achieved either. ASEM remains essentially as it was intended when it was first conceived – an informal forum for dialogue and networking.
What was worrying with the rapid enlargement a few years back was that increasingly, even the informality and the value of dialogue – which is supposed to be ASEM’s strength – is slowly being eroded as too much effort was spent on drafting and getting consensus on a formal Chair’s statement. To restore informality, ASEM summits and foreign ministers meeting now include a half day retreat to allow leaders and foreign ministers to bring up sensitive issues and encourage genuine dialogue.
Hence, while the plight of the Rohingyas and the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border did not make it to the formal Chair’s statement, the issue was certainly discussed. The EU High Representative also issued a declaration on behalf of the European Union to highlight the situation in the Rakhine state and at the same time supporting the way forward as outlined by Aung Sun Suu Kyi during the ASEM FMM.
It was also gratifying to note that not long after the ASEM FMM, and perhaps also with pressure from the US and China, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an initial deal for the possible repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas back to Myanmar. This is of course just the beginning of a process of managing a long standing problem, but is a positive step nevertheless, which hopefully Asian and European partners would continue to work to support Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Moving forward – connectivity the key
So what can we expect from ASEM moving forward? For those hoping to see ASEM transform into a more institutionalised entity with a high profile, they will be disappointed. ASEM as a whole will move in a glacial pace, but it has begun to address more sensitive issues in the informal setting as reflected in the 13th ASEM FMM. At the same time, practical cooperation to deliver tangible benefits can still be fashioned under the ASEM connectivity framework, which has emerged as a central theme since the last foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg in 2015.
Pushed to some extent by China because of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the “connectivity” idea has now been “multilateralised” within ASEM. Moving away from purely physical connectivity, ASEM connectivity is defined as bringing countries, peoples and societies together not only through roads and rails, harbours and airports, but also institutional, socio-cultural links, digital connectivity and people-to-people ties. To deliver on connectivity that can really benefit the peoples, ASEM leaders will have to proactively engage the different sectors of society, businesses, civil society and educational / research institutions.
To conclude, the 13th ASEM Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) have shown that it is not possible to shy away from difficult and sensitive issues if Asia and Europe are serious about “strengthening partnership for peace and sustainable development”. With an unpredictable America, if Asia and Europe do not step up their game, and engage each other seriously, peace, stability and prosperity may not be sustained. Asia and Europe has to shoulder more responsibility to manage the tremendous changes and challenges and ASEM is definitely one of the platforms for them to do so. At the same time, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in his speech at the plenary session, Asia and Europe should also use ASEM to build a new type of Asia-Europe partnership that is focused on “pragmatic cooperation” in the fields of connectivity.