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The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) – a meeting of minds or mindless monologue?

By Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (Director, EU Centre in Singapore and Senior Research Fellow, SIIA)

This article was first published in the magazine Asia Views.

The 8th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit took place in Brussels, the “capital” of Europe on 4-5 October. This meeting which brings together 46 countries (27 EU member states, 10 ASEAN member states, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and the latest additions – Australia, New Zealand and Russia) and two regional organisations (the European Union and ASEAN) should have created quite a stir. By all account, this should be an impressive gathering – taken together, ASEM members account for 60% of world population, 50% of global GDP and 60% of world trade; four ASEM members are permanent members of the UN Security Council, and 12 ASEM members are also in the G20.

Not all the heads of state or government showed up for the party. Still with 32 national leaders, the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso and the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, gathered at the Royal Palace, one expects some sort of buzz. Instead what we get are pre-written statements, endorsed during the meeting and a 26-page chair’s statement that mentioned almost all global challenges and issues facing us and yet say nothing consequential. There was also the usual rhetorical call for more effective global economic governance while the picture from the media is one of currency strife with China, and China gaining the upper hand by telling the EU to stop pressure over its currency.

The ASEM 8 summit appeared to be very much overshadowed by the EU-China summit. China and the yuan dominate most of the headlines.

The initial excitement about the enlargement to include Australia, New Zealand and Russia, did not translate to anything news worthy. It was all quiet on the western front – Australia, the only new member represented by its head of government, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was unable to inject any activism or enthusiasm. The other two new members, New Zealand and Russia were only represented by their Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively. The “silence” from these new members was all the more puzzling considering the fact that they have tried on several occasions to join the ASEM, and only finally “admitted” in 2010.

ASEM has since its creation in 1996 been faced with all sorts of criticisms. But the perennial problems that ASEM faced is its lack of substance, and hence difficulty in profiling and enhancing its visibility. Defenders of ASEM remind that ASEM’s value is supposedly not so much to “deliver” concrete results, but instead the focus is on dialogue. Its informality, flexibility and multi-dimensionality are supposedly the key to a good dialogue that would engender knowledge and strengthen mutual understanding of each other. Yet, one could not but have doubts as to how such informal dialogue can take place amongst 48 partners, and how much mutual understanding has been generated thus far?

The China-bashing that seems to take place at this summit, the stereotypes and misperceptions that we continued to hold towards each other perhaps reflect our inability to have a genuine dialogue – one that

starts with mutual respect. Instead what we have been engaged in thus far is more of a monologue, a situation in which everyone talks and no one listens. It is one in which we are too eager to sell our ideas and persuade others to accept our beliefs and assumptions and not willing to listen and open up to different perspectives and explore new ways of looking at issues.

With enlargement of the ASEM to 48, the so-called informality of the summit is hard to maintain. Making set speeches, reading from text, this is not dialogue. ASEM has to move beyond summits and more resources should be spent on activities and exchange between youths, think tanks, educators, parliamentarians / politicians, opinion leaders, to engender real dialogue and understanding.

Over the last few years, ASEM has catalysed and facilitated a plethora of dialogue and initiatives between Asians and Europeans. How to deepen these dialogues and shift the focus away from the summits and ministerial meetings to a more comprehensive engagement of the peoples from Asia and Europe is the challenge. While summit will continue to be needed for sending political signals and for the concerting of efforts, the frequency of the summits could perhaps be reduced and the working method reviewed. Statement coming out from summits should be inspirational not rhetorical. It should be short and sharp and not one that looks a summary of discussions or minutes of meetings.

There is no doubt that Asia and Europe need to engage more with each other. Asia-Europe relations will continue to grow and develop with or without ASEM simply because of the rising significance of Asia, and the increased interdependence. Whether the two regions will develop a constructive partnership that will complement each other’s growth and contribute to global governance for peace and stability will depend on our political vision and resourcefulness, and most importantly our ability to engage in genuine dialogue.​