Events & News


ASEM Roundtable: Engagement, Enlargement, Expections


Please see the book for the list of speakers and their papers.


6 Aug 2010


Orchard Hotel, Singapore



Click here for the book published after the Roundtable (.pdf) 

ASEM photos1 

The ASEM Roundtable organised by the EU Centre in Singapore and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung on 6th August 2010 sought to address the central question – if and how the dynamics of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process would change with the enlargement to include Russia, an emerging economy and a former superpower, imbued with its own sense of history and place in the world, along with Australia, an activist middle-power perceived particularly by the Asians to have strong ties with the United States. The discussions also looked into the foreign policy objectives of these two countries and tried to understand how the participation in ASEM would fit into their overall foreign policy framework.

Participants in the Roundtable also reviewed the original aims and objectives of ASEM and how these have changed and evolved over the years. With the enlargement of ASEM from 26 members in 1996 to 48 members, almost double in number in a short span of 14 years, questions and concerns over the trade-off between broadening and deepening are inevitable.

What would be the limits of the enlargement and how could one manage and coordinate the ASEM comprising such a diverse group of members which do not fall neatly into two regional entities? Would ASEM and its summit meetings continue to have any value in the face of an increasing plethora of summits, forums, regional architectures, and functional groupings? These were some of the issues being discussed at the Roundtable. What follows here is an attempt to summarise a broad spectrum of views and reflect the key points that surfaced during the Roundtable.

Aims and objectives of ASEM

The original aims and objectives of ASEM when it was first conceived were very modest – to provide a platform for Asian and European leaders to meet to dialogue and get to know each other. The rationale for the need of such a meeting between Asian and European leaders was however imbued with strategic undertones and strong political symbolism. The rise of Asia as an equal partner to Europe, the need to engage a China that is fast opening up its economy, and bring China into as many multilateral frameworks as possible, the need to strengthen the global economic order by ensuring that there are linkages among the three engines of economic growth – North America,

East Asia and Europe, and specifically for Asia, to guard against a fortress Europe, and for Europe, it was to gain a strong economic foothold in Asia.

ASEM’s Development and Achievements

ASEM has grown beyond the initial economic interest and focus on trade facilitation and investment promotion. The ASEM dialogue process has broadened to include a wide array of issues, from anti-terrorism, anti-piracy in sea lanes of communication, to energy and climate change, interfaith dialogue, and exchange between employment and education ministers. The dialogue has also broadened beyond officials, ministers and political leaders, to business leaders through the Asia-Europe Business Forum, and NGOs and civil society activists through the Asia- Europe People’s Forum. The establishment of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) in 1997 has also helped to promote cultural, intellectual and people-to-people exchange. Researchers, academics and educators also benefitted from the Trans-Eurasia Information Network (TEIN) set up by ASEM members.

Yet, despite such “progress” in ASEM’s developments, there are valid criticisms with regards to the value-add that ASEM can bring to regional and global governance. ASEM has remained very much an informal talk shop. There are about 50 different meetings every year, but many of these do not translate into actual cooperation to address the various global problems and challenges.

Debates over Enlargement

While it seems easy to fully appreciate the first round of ASEM enlargement that was due in large part to the enlargement of the European Union from 15 to 25 and of ASEAN from 7 to 10, the later round of enlargements would seem to be more of a challenge to rationalise (beyond the need for numerical parity). While Australia and New Zealand because of their strong economic linkages with Asia and their strong participation in various Asia-Pacific regional architectures would make it natural for them to participate in the ASEM process on the Asian side, Russian application was a little more problematic. This is probably why a temporary third category was created to accommodate all the three new applicants. While Russia would have liked to participate on the European side, it is also not too overly concerned to get into the ASEM process through the “Asian door”.

The EU’s strict position that only EU member states could join ASEM on the European side is contentious and the EU may have to relook into this in the future should countries such as Norway or Switzerland apply to join ASEM.

Challenges – Coordination and Visibility

Enlargement to such a diverse group on the Asian side will bring about challenges to the coordination process within Asia. There is also concern that as a result of the enlargement, ASEM has lost clarity as an inter-regional dialogue.

Another perennial challenge to ASEM is its low visibility. Many people have never heard of ASEM and even politicians and parliamentarians on both sides seem not to be aware of the significance of ASEM for the improvement of inter-regional relations. There is broad consensus that ASEM has very little coverage or visibility in the media either in Europe or Asia. How to raise visibility and awareness of the ASEM process is a challenge for the people responsible for coordinating the process, and there is need for more information on ASEM to be made available in an interesting manner for people to take notice.

Expectations – what should and could ASEM deliver?

There are divergent views on what can be expected of the ASEM process in terms of delivery. Some observers argue that since ASEM was not set up to deliver on any concrete results but a dialogue platform that would lead to cooperation in other bilateral or multilateral frameworks, the fact that ASEM has been flexible and open enough to absorb a heterogeneous group and continue the dialogue process is in itself an achievement. ASEM should be an “embodiment of the spirit of dialogue”.

Others however feel that ASEM should at least act as a useful level for global governance, acting as agenda-setter or rationaliser. Asia and Europe should use the ASEM dialogue platform to achieve common positions on certain issues and then act in concert at global forums in order to help find solutions to common problems, and strengthen global governance.

The Way Forward

In looking ahead, it seems appropriate that ASEM should focus on the four “I”s: institutions, issues, identities and ideas.

First, it has to rethink how to advance institutionally in the face of enlargement. This need not be creation of another physical or concrete institution, but simply finding more effective ways of coordinating meetings and streamlining initiatives, and also focusing on how to use the existing institution, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) to support ASEM.

Second, reviving and revitalising the issue-based leadership approach to organise the initiatives and translate these into concrete long-term cooperation projects.

Third, ASEM could promote the development of multiple intraregional Identities among Asian countries. If Asia could get more dynamic and become more organised because of this, it would be a significant achievement of ASEM.

Last but not least, ASEM could become an ideas’ factory, an important forum for harnessing the diversity to generate new ideas, new thinking to help us address many of the new and complex challenges facing humanity.