Written by Enrico D’AmbrogioThe 10th ASEM summit will take place in Milan, Italy on 16 and 17 October 2014. The 51 members will come together under the theme ‘Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security’, with the forum also seeking to enhance its impact and visibility.
ASEM at a glance
The first Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit was held in Bangkok, Thailand, in March 1996. At that time it involved 26 partners: the 15 EU Member States as well as the European Commission, and the seven members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus China, Japan and South Korea. Since then, summits have been held every two years, alternately in the EU and Asia.
After several rounds of enlargement, today ASEM consists of 51 members, including: 29 European countries (27 EU Member States, plus Norway and Switzerland); 17 Asian countries (the 10 members of ASEAN, Bangladesh, China, Japan, India, Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan); as well as Australia, Russia, New Zealand, together with the ASEAN secretariat and the EU. Croatia and Kazakhstan are to join ASEM during the Milan summit, bringing ASEM’s membership up to 53. Turkey has also shown interest in joining.
ASEM potentially covers all issues of common interest to Europe and Asia. It is an informal process of dialogue and cooperation, based on equal partnership and enhancing mutual understanding. Because of its informality, no formal or structured agenda is foreseen. ASEM represents a forum for sharing information and building confidence, rather than a tool for negotiation and problem-solving. As for working methods, ASEM established the Asia-Europe Cooperation Framework (AECF) in 2000. ASEM has no secretariat, and the only institution set up was the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), based in Singapore, which promotes mutual understanding through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
The ASEM dialogue addresses issues of mutual interest, divided into three pillars: political; economic and social; and cultural and educational (with the latter the most active). Besides the summits, numerous meetings take place, including ministerial meetings, senior officials’ meetings, and others. The Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership (ASEP) Meeting, normally convened on a regular bi-annual basis alternately in Asia and in Europe before ASEM Summits, is part of this process. An Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF) and an Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) also take place.
The ASEM Dialogue Facility was created by the European Commission in 2008 in order to enhance support for the established ASEM process, to strengthen ASEM coordination and provide a solid platform for sustainable ASEM cooperation.
ASEM: a major share of world population, GDP and trade
ASEM countries made up 62.5% of the world’s population in 2012 (Eurostat). The EU-28 plus Norway and Switzerland represented 7.3%, while the non-EU/EFTA ASEM countries were 55.2%. ASEM countries generate more than half of world GDP: in 2012, 57% of global gross domestic product (GDP) was created in countries participating in ASEM. The EU-28 plus Norway and Switzerland produced roughly a quarter of world GDP, while the non-EU/EFTA ASEM countries produced almost a third.
ASEM accounts for 62% of world trade. EU trade with ASEM partners has increased by 50% in the last seven years. The EU is also the biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Asian region.
However, there are big differences between ASEM countries. In 2012, the GDP per capita of the EU-28 plus Norway and Switzerland was close to €26 700 per inhabitant, whereas for the non-EU/EFTA ASEM countries, GDP per inhabitant was close to €4 700. Poverty in Asia remains a significant challenge, since the region is home to two thirds of the world’s poor.
Asia matters to Europe
Both Asia and Europe are interdependent and interconnected. Asia has become the EU’s main trading partner, accounting for a third of its total trade, a growing figure. More than 26% of EU outward investment goes to Asia.
As for trade in goods between the two sub-groups, there is a clear imbalance. The combined exports of the EU-28 plus Norway and Switzerland to the non-EU/EFTA ASEM countries reached €562 billion in 2012 (China and Russia accounting for half of this). At the same time, imports reached €809 billion (China and Russia together made up almost two thirds of the total). This makes a total trade figure of €1.37 trillion.
Asia matters to Europe in political and security terms too. Half of the European Union’s ‘strategic partners’ are located in the region (China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea). However, the EU has been more a trade partner than a political partner for countries in Asia, especially in comparison with the US. A free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea entered into force in 2011. The EU is currently negotiating FTAs with Japan, India, Malaysia, Thailand (suspended in June 2014) and Vietnam. Negotiations with Singapore for an FTA have concluded; procedures to bring it into force are expected to be completed no earlier than spring 2015. The EU and China started negotiating an agreement on investment in January 2014.
Looking for convergences
The 10th ASEM Summit comes at the right time to pursue greater convergence among its partners on global issues such as climate change, in view of the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conferences – COP20 in Lima in December 2014 and COP21 in Paris in December 2015. Further issues to be discussed could be the post-2015 framework for poverty eradication and sustainable development, and the post-2015 Hyogo framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The Summit could also serve as a forum to reaffirm the shared interest in promoting peace and security in Asia and Europe, and the importance of respecting international law, including in the maritime area, in the light of recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China and East China Seas. In addition, Europe and Asia need to cooperate in order to better connect the two continents (the so-called ‘New Silk Road’) and to face common challenges, such as fighting religious extremism and terrorism, as recalled by the outgoing President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.
Challenges for ASEM
ASEM has been criticised for its inability to move from dialogue to action, and to deliver results and impact. The need for renewal and revival, maximising its potential, has been identified, with the whole process having very little visibility. That is why the last Foreign Ministers’ Meeting created a working group tasked with drafting a new ASEM press and public awareness strategy.
In addition, there is a plan to introduce a retreat session at the 2014 ASEM summit, in an effort to make it more like an EU summit where leaders interact with each other without their staff, rather than sitting and listening to lengthy prepared statements, as was often the case at recent ASEM Summits
Attendance at Summits varies considerably. In particular, low levels of EU attendance are common at ASEM Summits and EU-ASEAN ministerial meetings when these take place in Asia. This goes in hand with the issue of a ‘crowded’ Asian regional environment, which includes ASEAN, the East Asia Summit (EAS), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the BRICS.
The EU has not yet been able to define clear strategic interests or take position on many issues dear to Asian countries. Perceived as a mere trade partner for many of them, it has not been able to propose multilateral agreements, like the US has done with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A first step to change this perception could be the recent appointment of a dedicated EU Ambassador to ASEAN.
The European Parliament and ASEM
The European Parliament is a member of ASEP, with the Delegation for relations with the countries of South-east Asia and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) being its contact point.
The most recent European Parliament resolutions on ASEM date from early last decade. MEPs nevertheless referred to it in the resolution of 15 January 2014 on the future of EU-ASEAN relations, stressing that ‘the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership (ASEP), as the existing channels for dialogue between the EU and ASEAN, should be upgraded at governmental and parliamentary level and further extended’.