By Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (Director, EU Centre in Singapore)
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 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was launched in 1996 with the modest aim of bringing together leaders from Asia (then represented by ASEAN member states plus China, Japan and Korea) and Europe (as represented by the EU and its member states) to dialogue, strengthen understanding and foster cooperation between the two regions.
However, after an initial euphoria portrayed by the media as Asia’s and Europe’s rediscovery of each other, and a flurry of activities and initiatives, political interest in ASEM appears to have wane. ASEM has become more of a bureaucratic exercise, with everyone going through the processes and procedures of meetings and summits without much passion or enthusiasm. The rapid enlargement of ASEM in part due to the respective enlargements of ASEAN (ASEAN grew from 7 to 10) and the EU (from 15 to 27), and the addition of “Asian” members – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Mongolia, and then Australia, New Zealand and Russia – to provide certain numerical parity between Asia and Europe, did not help in deepening the engagement or engendering stronger political interest.
Hence after almost two decades of ASEM, criticisms abound. ASEM suffers from a problem of visibility. Perception surveys in some of the ASEM countries reflect a serious lack of knowledge about the ASEM process. Academics and analysts lament the lack of concrete deliverables and question the depth of the dialogue process which seems more like a series of monologues since leaders came with prepared scripts to be read out during the 5-10 minutes allocated to each at the Summit. More time was spent by the senior officials poring over the Chair’s statements which read more like a combination of motherhood statements and a laundry list of what is happening around Asia and Europe, and what need to be done
In the run-up to the 10th ASEM Summit to be held in Milan in October this year (2014), efforts have been made to bring about more visibility to ASEM, and to address some of the criticisms. For instance, in response to the loss of informality that is supposed to be the hallmark of ASEM, and to encourage real dialogue, the idea of a retreat for the leaders during the Summit was endorsed. It was also suggested that less issues be included in the agenda and that the Chair’s statement should be kept short providing only a broad summary of the discussions.
These incremental ideas, while representing attempts to keep the ASEM process alive will however not be enough to create the conditions for Asia-Europe partnership to flourish and thrive. To energise the Asia-Europe partnership, we need to fundamentally transform the officious and ritualistic Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to A Swinging and Eclectic Marketplace (Asem) of the 21st century.
The New Asem – A Marketplace for the Exchange of Ideas and Policy Transactions
The new Asem should become a marketplace in which different groups, be they political leaders, officials, experts, business or corporate leaders, civil society actors, can come together to pursue common but diverse goals. The common overarching goal is to build stronger connections between peoples, groups and institutions in Asia and Europe with different interests – be it for artistic and cultural exchange, research collaboration, concrete business transactions, policy learning and transfers. This new Asem can truly reflect the initial spirit behind ASEM – an informal, open, dialogue process leading to cooperation and concerted actions in other forums. It should be a vibrant marketplace for exchange of ideas, knowledge and services and for building networks and connections.
The seeds for such a transformation of ASEM can already be found if one takes into account the numerous initiatives and platforms that have been created under the broad ASEM ambit. Beyond the ASEM summits, there are also the Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF), the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) and many other forums and meetings. However, how to ensure the visible connections of these different forums, and bring the various initiatives together in a way to create the visibility and dynamism that are so sorely needed is the question.
To truly transform ASEM, one perhaps could start by thinking of it more along the format of the annual Davos meeting organised by the World Economic Forum (WEF). The idea of a summit of leaders from Asia and Europe was after all conceived in Singapore in 1994 during the WEF’s Europe-East Asia Summit. Whereas the Davos summit maybe built too much from the old Washington Consensus, dominated by big businesses and top companies, the new Asem can give space for more diverse views and smaller players. The Davos meeting is therefore only used as a reference point, and not necessarily to be adopted wholesale for this new Asem.
Building on the earlier ideas that came out in the 2006 review of ASEM on the clustering of issues and applying issue-based leadership, the biennial ASEM summit should be organised around these ideas. It could start with a closed door retreat strictly for the heads of state and government of the ASEM members to engage in frank discussions that can help to foster understanding and build trust. This will be followed by parallel / concurrent sessions of various topical issues proposed and led by different ASEM members. The topics for each concurrent session must be supported by at least six ASEM members, three from each region. To ensure interests and participation, each ASEM member must support at least one of the sessions and for those countries with the resources and interests, they can support up to three sessions but not more than that so as not to create an over-domineering presence of any member state. The ASEM members who supported the topics will be collectively responsible for identifying and inviting the speakers / panelists and participants for the session. The number of people attending each session can be capped, but must include in principle participants from different sectors of society. To further satisfy the demands for more openness and wider participation, all the sessions (except the closed door retreat) should be webcast live and online viewers should also be allowed to join in the discussions and debates.
Bilateral meetings between leaders at the sideline of ASEM summit, an important current feature, will continue to be organised around the concurrent sessions. Exhibitions and cultural events can also be incorporated and built into the new Asem. Small and medium enterprises, and start-ups in particular should be encouraged to use this marketplace to pitch their business ideas, find new partners and grow their businesses. And think tanks and experts should be engaged to help with this transformation of another ritualistic summit meeting to a vibrant marketplace of exchange and interactions.
In between the biennial forum, Asem’s presence must be actively maintained online. A virtual or e-marketplace must complement the real marketplace. In the 21st century, virtual communities are important add-on to organic communities and networks. The possibilities afforded by Web 2.0 technologies must be harnessed to serve a younger generation that embraces a more open-source and more participatory culture of collaboration and knowledge generation. The current ASEM Infoboard as the name suggests is a rather dated 20th century tool to provide information. It should be transformed to a more dynamic platform to help build and sustain virtual Asem communities.
The current environment in which ASEM is operating in is markedly different from the environment in the mid-1990s leading to its birth in 1996. The characteristics of ASEM has also changed with its rapid enlargement. It is no longer the bi-regional entity that the EU wanted to believe when it was a meeting of the EU and its member states and East Asia comprising ASEAN + 3. It is now an entity with a sprawling membership stretching the Eurasian landscape, and extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Its membership comprise states with different political and economic systems, at different levels of socio-economic development and embracing different worldviews, a mini-United Nations as some would put it.
This diversity can be both a strength and a weakness. It can be a strength if indeed every opportunity is made to mobilise the diverse experiences, knowledge and resources, and use the informality of ASEM to create as many inter-connected network structures (both real and virtual) to underpin the Asia-Europe partnership and cooperation in addressing different challenges. Such networks that are agile and flexible are probably better than formal institutions in responding to uncertainties and volatilities in our environment. At the same time, the diversities and competing interests within ASEM can also be a weakness because it easily degenerates into a lowest common denominator, rudderless, slow-moving forum that nobody takes seriously.
Rhetorically, ASEM members (and perhaps not all of them) will continue to sing the tune of ASEM being an important forum to link Asia and Europe. But without a fundamental rethink, ASEM will not be a very useful, much less, important forum for the 21st century world as more and more of such summits and meetings proliferate. The political symbolism invoked in its earlier days of Asia’s and Europe’s rediscovery of each other, and being the forum for strengthening the third leg of the world’s economy will begin to fade and will not sustain the process if no efforts are made to inject some new energy into it. Transforming ASEM to a hip and dynamic marketplace where a constellation of networks can be built through the different clustering of interests, issues and interactions is not only worth exploring, but is in reality a return to the original spirit of ASEM.