The 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit was held in Milan on 16-17 October 2014. While the Summit brought together close to 50 heads of states / governments from Asia and Europe to exchange views on Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security, it was the meeting between Russia and Ukraine on a possible gas deal that stole the show.
As ASEM expands rapidly from 26 members in 1996 to 53, encompassing countries covering the Eurasian landmass and stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, its sheer numbers and diversities call for a fundamental rethink to move the ASEM process forward.
This commentary evaluates the outcome of the 10th ASEM Summit and the leaders call for fresh thinking that could pave the way for ASEM to be transformed into a more informal but bustling Asia-Europe marketplace. Please download a PDF version of the commentary here.
Just before the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit held in Milan on 16-17 October 2014, the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, jointly penned an op-ed waxing lyrical about the importance of ASEM. The premise for their optimism is that Asia matters for Europe, and Europe matters for Asia as in economic terms, Asia has surpassed the North American Free Trade Area to become the EU’s main trading partner.
The EU as the chair of this year’s ASEM summit has spared no effort in trying to make this year’s meeting a “success”. It has tried to raise the visibility of this event by supporting several events leading to the summit, in particular two high level conferences in Brussels in July and September. The ASEM Dialogue Facility – a funding instrument established in 2008 – to support hosting and participation of ASEM activities and strengthen coordination by ASEM stakeholders to raise visibility and awareness of the ASEM process – was fully utilized in the lead-up to this year’s Summit.
A number of events were also held in October in Italy to create the buzz. This includes the Asia-Europe Parliamentary Forum held in Rome on 6-7 October; and in Milan, just before the Summit, there was Model ASEM to engage youths (8-11 Oct); and Asia-Europe People’s Forum (10-12 Oct), a gathering of civil society activists and non-governmental organisations. The Asia-Europe Business Forum (15-16 Oct) was held back to back with the Summit and there was also the Asia-Europe Labour Forum (16-17 Oct) and a parallel Think Tanks’ Workshop and Editors Roundtable on 16 October.
In short, there was no shortage of ASEM-related events. But what really was achieved, and what can we expect from the ASEM process moving forward?
Expectations and Delivery Gap
Having followed the ASEM process for 20 years – from a modest idea that emerged in 1994 in Singapore to bring about informal meeting between the leaders of East Asia and that of Europe to what ASEM is today, a forum bringing together 51 Asian and European countries, and two regional entities, the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat – it is fascinating to see where ASEM will be heading next.
ASEM has gone through what I see as typical of many of the multilateral forums that began in the post-Cold war era – an initial period of excitement followed by heightened expectations, and then a sense of disappointment and retrenchment. Much of the excitement and then disappointment is due to official rhetoric and academic discourses that “talked up” the process, raising unrealistic expectations, but is also a reflection of the increasing challenging and competitive environment for multilateral institutions. There is therefore a need to rethink ASEM to arrest the declining interest as other forums evolved. The leaders in the 10th ASEM Summit realized as much and hence conclude in its Chair’s statement with a call for fresh thinking on how to move the ASEM process forward.
ASEM is symptomatic of the changing times – the increasing importance of Asia and the emerging markets and the general diffusion of power. Van Rompuy and Barroso got it right in acknowledging the importance of Asia and Europe to each other. And precisely because of this rising importance that one sees a proliferation of various forums between EU and its member states with Asia and key Asian countries, and also the rise of intra-Asian and Asia-Pacific frameworks.
As a forum of 53 diverse member states covering the Eurasian landmass and stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is difficult to see how ASEM which does not even have a functioning Secretariat can have any real impact on global governance and addressing common challenges. And with no real desire from majority of the members to transform its current loose framework to anything more formal and institutionalized, ASEM will remain low key and low impact. We should therefore not be expecting any concrete deliverables beyond joint political declarations on potential cooperation and partnership and statements on issues of common concern. ASEM will remain very much a talk-shop and not a platform for action. At best, it can use its convening power to engender robust exchange, strengthen understanding and facilitate concrete actions in other arenas.
The logic of big numbers and great diversities within ASEM will likely preclude any specific or concrete projects that will be of same priority to all 53 members. As van Rompuy himself said in an interview, “not all participants are equally interested in all issues”. Hence, any tangible cooperation must be built on clusters of projects driven by smaller groups of ASEM members.
With this broad understanding, the chair and host of the 10th ASEM Summit had made an effort to raise the visibility but downplay any expectations. The focus is on informality and inclusiveness by facilitating a series of side meetings and dialogue, and providing a platform for different groups from youths, civil society activists and academics to business leaders and trade union and labour leaders to come together in Milan.
The 10th ASEM Summit – Meetings, meetings and media
The 10th ASEM Summit marked the beginning of a more pragmatic approach towards acknowledging the limits of what ASEM can achieve and at the same time, making the most out of the forum in terms of visibility and political symbolism.
The decision to invite the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko to Milan and have a meeting with Russian President Putin together with key EU leaders to discuss the situation in Ukraine and broker a gas deal for Ukraine for the coming winter can be seen positively as an astute move to show that what happens in Europe also matters for Asia. It is also symbolic of a marketplace where deals can be made.
The Poroshenko-Putin meeting stole the headlines, particularly in many European papers, resulting in ASEM becoming more of a sideshow. But again, one could also see it in a more positive light that the summit garnered much more interest from the press, and for the first time in recent years, the ASEM summit was actually reported or mentioned (though not elaborated or explained) in media outside those of ASEM members, including the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune. All in all, the media coverage of this year’s ASEM summit was quite extensive in terms of the numbers of articles but admittedly, very few of the articles made a genuine effort to explain ASEM.
Another meeting that had unfortunately escaped the press, but is worth mentioning in the context of EU-Asia relations is the informal EU-ASEAN leaders meeting before the ASEM Summit. This meeting was a reflection of the EU’s recognition of ASEAN’s centrality in the regional architectures in the broader Asia-Pacific region, and paved the way towards an EU-ASEAN strategic partnership. A further indication of the importance of this partnership is that the EU will soon nominate its first Ambassador accredited exclusively to ASEAN.
As expected, the national press of Asian countries primarily reported on the activities of their leaders in Milan, the remarks they made at ASEM and the bilateral meetings they have had. However, it was also in the Asian media that there were much more emphasis and mention on the interdependence between Asia and Europe, and the need to have pragmatic cooperation, primarily in the areas of trade and investments, but also addressing common challenges.
Did all these media coverage really make a difference in making people think differently about Asia-Europe relations? This is hard to tell but if going by an encounter that I had in Milan, much work still needs to be done. I was in Milan on 10-11 October and also during the summit, but did not sense any “excitement”. The Milanese pretty much went on with their daily lives quite unaware of what was really going on. One Milanese I met thought it was Obama who was coming to town.
Mongolia 2016 – A new Silk Route towards a bustling Marketplace?
Richard Youngs in his blog remarked that the 10th ASEM summit “had a distinctly Eurasian bent” with Kazakhstan becoming its 53rd member, and members talking of connectivity and “a New Silk Road to bolster relations between Asia and Europe” . Also of interest is that Turkey and Ukraine have both applied to join ASEM, and it is likely that their applications will be discussed and perhaps even approved in the 2016 summit to be held in Mongolia.
The 11th Summit in 2016 will also mark the 20th anniversary of ASEM since its debut in Bangkok in 1996. What can we hope for and what can we realistically expect?
A bold vision for ASEM is to transform the summit meeting of government leaders to an Asia-Europe marketplace for different exchanges, interactions and transactions, something which I have written in an earlier commentary. To create a bustling marketplace, instead of having separate forums with their distinctive audience such as civil society activists in AEPF, business people in AEBF and unionists and labour leaders in AELF, it is better to bring all these peoples together with the senior officials and political leaders into one central arena. Visibility can be enhanced by broadcasting and web-streaming live their exchanges.
For a real transformation from the current Asia-Europe Meeting to the idea of an Asia-Europe marketplace, there is a need to engage the different actors from the very beginning of the planning stage. The chair of the next summit should be prepared to draw in a diverse group of people (from think tanks, business sector, trade union and NGO sector) into the planning committee and not let the process be driven by senior officials alone.
A more gradual shift in the direction of ASEM is to consider “minilateral” summits within the big summit. After a brief opening session in which all the heads of states/governments and their officials gather for pleasantries and photo-ops, four to five concurrent sessions on different topics can then be planned. The topics for the concurrent sessions will be decided through a two-key system – first, it is must be supported by at least three Asian and three European members to maintain an Asia-Europe character, and that they received the most number of votes from the members.
Again the 10th ASEM Summit had seemingly taken a step in this direction by including in the Chair’s statement, an indicative list of ASEM members interested in specific cooperation areas. Around seven subjects from Disaster management and mitigation, Water and waste management, to SME cooperation, Renewable energy and energy efficiency to cooperation in Higher education and Vocational training and skills development have made the list of having the support of a good number of ASEM members from both the Asian and European side.
The 10th ASEM summit welcomed two more countries, Croatia and Kazakhstan, and further expanded ASEM into a forum of 53 members. Two more countries, Turkey and Ukraine, have also submitted their applications and would be considered for membership in the 2016 summit. No other inter-governmental organization has that kind of diversities spanning the Eurasian landmass and stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. ASEM countries made up 63% of the world’s population, generate more than half of the world’s GDP and account for more than 60% of world trade. ASEM could truly become a bustling marketplace. A new silk route – through land and over water – is fast becoming a reality as trade and investments grow between Asia and Europe. ASEM members should build more linkages and connectivity to underpin this growing trade and investments, and ASEM should be the marketplace where Asia and Europe come together for fruitful exchanges not only of goods and services, but ideas and knowledge that can help shape a common future.
Asia and Europe meet in Milan, DW article online, 16 October 2014
Chair’s Statement of the Tenth Asia-Europe Meeting, Milan, 16-17 October 2014
Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso. “ASEM’s 10th Summit Most Important Yet” in Nikkei Asian Review, 15 October 2014
Richard Youngs. “Eurasia and the ASEM Summit”. Posted October 23, 2014
Yeo Lay Hwee. “Transforming the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to A Swinging, Eclectic Marketplace (Asem)”, EU Centre Commentary Series, 29th July 2014
 Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso. “ASEM’s 10th Summit Most Important Yet” in Nikkei Asian Review, 15 October 2014
 Asian members – 10 ASEAN countries, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Kazakhstan; European members – 28 EU member states, Norway and Switzerland.
 Asia and Europe Meet in Milan, DW, 16/10/14 (www.dw.de/asia-and-europe-meet-in-milan/a-17998633)
 Richard Youngs. “Eurasia and the ASEM Summit” (http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=57000)
 Yeo Lay Hwee. “Transforming the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to a Swinging, Eclectic Marketplace (Asem)”