Questions Surrounding the Asia-Europe Meeting
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
Finance ministers from the fifteen EU member states met with their counterparts from ten Asian countries in Copenhagen, Denmark this past week in preparation for the fourth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) that will be held over two days between September 23-24. For those who are unfamiliar with ASEM, it has widely been regarded as Europe's answer to APEC. While the forum was set up in 1996 under the justification of "building bridges between the continents", its focus over the past eight years has been largely limited to political and economic matters of state. At one point, lacking legitimacy and eclipsed by APEC, the initiative was in danger of disappearing. However, the "war on terrorism" has breathed new life into ASEM. Unfortunately, with most of the attention going to combat terrorism many fear that other important issues are being left out of the agenda.
ASEM members include the fifteen EU member states and Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The first meeting took place with much ado in Bangkok, Thailand in 1996. The main motivation behind this initiative was driven by the desire of EU countries to increase their economic stake in the so-called "miracle" economies of Asia and gain more political clout in the region. London was the venue for the second meeting which took place two years later amidst a slew of controversy that accused the EU of doing practically nothing to assist Asian countries in the economic crisis most hard hit in Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea. Eventually, the EU managed to calm the criticism and offer some economic assistance. Nevertheless, their lack of initiative put a huge question mark as to whether or not Europe could be relied on as a partner for Asia. The third meeting that took place in Seoul, Korea was not without controversy either. While ASEM members focused on reinforcing trade and investment little was pledged to combat some of the most serious problems facing the two continents. These included immigration, drug and human trafficking cartels, the widespread sexual exploitation of women and children, money laundering, poverty and disease. The implication for ASEM was that it was increasingly viewed as a forum that served government to government interests and ignored the true needs of their citizens. Asian and European NGOs remained largely excluded from the process and meetings took place behind massive barricades reinforcing the image of secrecy and exclusivity.
Although, this years ASEM finance ministerial meeting took place under similar security measures, it was largely free of criticism. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily because ASEM organizers and participants opened up the forum to the public. Nor was it due to government initiatives that sought to deal with the main concerns highlighted above. Rather it was because of the fact that there is less room for public debate and protest in the post-September 11 world. European and Asian leaders chose to focus on combating terrorism, an initiative with which few have objections. Those who do, often refrain from voicing their disapproval for fear of being labeled a terrorist sympathizer.
In the meeting, ASEM participants chose to emphasize the fight against terrorist financing. They pledged to develop a system that increases the transparency of money flows between the continents and agreed to widen access to information on account holders. In addition to this, ASEM states applied considerable pressure on Indonesia and the Philippines to do their lot in combating terrorism. The reason for this related to the two countries being singled out last week by an OECD international financial task-force that accused Indonesia and the Philippines as "not doing enough to stamp out money laundering" that finances terrorism. This sentiment was seconded by the Deputy US Treasury Secretary, Ken Dam, who stated that "improvements are still needed" in the two countries.
It is understandable why fighting terrorism remains a major priority for ASEM participants. Most efforts in the "war on terrorism" are taking place in Asia. Europe has been a primary lodging ground for suspected Al-Qaeda cells. In addition to this, much of the financing for global terrorism is suspected to have come from within both continents. As a result, Asia and Europe have a leading role to play in the effort to "stamp out" terrorism.
The question however, comes when one considers why the same efforts are not being put forward to eliminate international crime that deals in drugs, humans, and the sexual exploitation of women and children. If a system that increases the transparency of money flows and access to information on account holders can be set up to combat terrorism, why can't the same system be used to fight organized crime? After all, organized crime is a problem that affects more people in Europe and Asia than does terrorism.
Increasing criticism is being voiced from various European and Asian NGOs and communities about the lack of priority that the day-to-day problems of their citizens have in occasions such as ASEM. If governments truly seek to build a bridge between the two continents that is of value to the maximum number of people they need to tackle issues that will equip their citizens with the tools and health that allows them to utilize the bridge. As it stands today, the bridge seems to be one reserved for VIP interests only.