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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (October 8, 2004)

ASEM: Timely Dialogue Across Civilisations

Valerie Engammare (Research Fellow, The Evian Group) and Jean-Pierre Lehmann (Founding Director, The Evian Group)

As the Asia-Europe Meeting's summit started yesterday in Hanoi, one must ask whether it might not be appropriate to bring ASEM to an end. Launched with much fanfare in Bangkok in 1996, it has turned out to be a big disappointment. The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum - which now also seems to be petering out - did have a considerable impact in moving forward the global economic agenda and in innovating new concepts of regionalism. ASEM, however, has achieved nothing and made no impact. While APEC attracted not only officials, but also business and opinion leaders, most businesses in both Asia and Europe are quite unaware of ASEM. The intellectuals who initially took to it with enthusiasm have seen the project hijacked by bureaucrats.

ASEM suffers from a lack of focus, commitment, political leadership, popular support and interest, and coherence. The fact that something calling itself "Asia-Europe" should exclude India is clearly an aberration of monumental proportions. The lack of political commitment and leadership dooms ASEM to insignificance. Nor should one expect any change. Europe's political leaders are a pretty parochial lot, and Asian political leaders, for the most part, have no interest in Europe. As an Asian government leader put it to us, tactlessly, but honestly: "Our first priority is China and the US, then come other Asian nations, with Australia and Europe competing for what attention remains."

It is probably the lack of focus, however, that is principally responsible for ASEM failing to make any impact. While APEC, as its name indicates, was conceived as an economic forum, ASEM was meant to be more ambitious. Thus, it rests on the so-called three pillars: economic, political and social. Its political pillar meant that Taiwan and Hong Kong had to be excluded, which in turn, however, weakens the economic pillar, given the importance of their economies.

So should ASEM be scrapped? From what we have written here so far, it might seem that the answer is "yes". We believe, however, that this would be unfortunate. In an age of "clashes of civilisation", of the emergence of new, very powerful global players - especially China - of Europe's decline, and of the unilateralist tendencies of the United States, scrapping what was meant to be a forum for closer Asia-Europe relations would be sending a negative signal.

So, ASEM should be retained, but it should be revisited and refined. The economic pillar should be dismantled. It is useless or, at best, replicates work and initiatives taken elsewhere. Indeed, with the proliferation of regional and bilateral trade agreements, ASEM just adds to the alphabet soup.

We also believe that the political pillar should be abolished. The manner in which it has been used has resulted in it becoming a major obstacle to dialogue, and has increased tensions. Abolishing it would solve the membership issue, allowing other Asian and European countries to join, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. ASEM could then become a forum for dialogue and a think-tank, bringing together opinion leaders from across the Eurasian continent to focus on critical issues of common interest, and identify means to enhance understanding, peace, justice, prosperity, human rights, democracy and social development. If ASEM succeeded in giving birth to ideas, it would be a significant contribution.

The Eurasian continent has been the birthplace of most of the world's leading civilisations. Not only are we witnessing clashes of civilisation but, indeed, the very essence of civilisation is under attack. Promoting understanding and tolerance across civilisations would surely be highly inspiring, and would ensure ASEM's place in the global policy firmament.

(Originally appeared in the October 8, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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