The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is coming of age. Twenty years, for an international grouping – informal though it might be – is still young. But reaching this age is an indication of ASEM’s usefulness and relevance. ASEM still serves the purpose for which it was designed some twenty-two years ago, even though the world has changed tremendously during the last two decades.
Twenty-two years ago, in October 1994, Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, during his visit to Paris, floated the concept of an organisation that would serve to develop and strengthen relations of all kinds between Asia and Europe. His idea was that the world was shaping itself into three major trade groups, namely North America, Asia and Europe. The links between Europe and America were long-standing and strong; the links between America and Asia were being structured around the (then) newly launched APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation); the relations between Asia and Europe were the “weak link” of this triangle.
The Prime Minister’s idea was to launch a summit meeting in 1995 or 1996 that would be followed by similar summits every second year. Certainly, there were already ministerial meetings between the European Union and ASEAN, but firstly, these didn’t include other important Asian countries, and secondly, the European Union representation at these meetings by the troika wasn’t really satisfactory from the Asian perspective. There were also such meetings between the European Union and countries of North-East Asia, separately. Thus the need to organize a multilateral dialogue between these two regions was obvious. Mr Goh Chok Tong suggested that Singapore and France, both founding members of ASEAN and the European Union respectively, make a joint proposal to their regional partners to that effect.
France took over the rotating presidency of the European Union for the next semester. We agreed that we should try out the idea on our respective partners and then discuss it again bilaterally and see how we could go forward.
The concept appealed to President Jacques Chirac, who was elected in 1995, succeeding François Mitterrand. He decided to implement it. He appointed François-Xavier Ortoli, a former minister and a former head of the European Commission who knew Asia well, as a special envoy charged with convincing our European partners to go along with the idea of the Asia-Europe Meeting.
It worked out very well, and on the Asian side the Prime Minister of Singapore was also able to convince Asian countries of the validity of this concept. The first summit was convened in Bangkok in 1996.
Since then, ASEM has grown. The number of “partner” states has increased steadily, as new states have joined the European Union (which comprised 15 states in 1995 compared with 28 in 2016), while the scope in Asia, first limited to South-East Asia and East Asia, has expanded to include important countries in South Asia and Oceania. Having started out with 26 members, ASEM now boasts 53 “partners”, as there is no membership as such.
This very expansion is a brilliant confirmation of ASEM’s relevance.
During the last twenty years, the world has changed tremendously: some countries have emerged from poverty and under-development, while others are in the process of achieving this within a decade or less, especially in Asia. The European side, then confined to “Western Europe” (even though the Iron Curtain had fallen a few years before), now includes most of the Central European countries. And Russia has joined ASEM. This expansion on both sides bears testimony to the fact that a dialogue in this format is as necessary now as it was twenty years ago. It helps reduce tensions, it promotes understanding, and it compels both sides to strengthen their own internal coordination – a feat in itself. Neither Asia nor Europe is a monolithic bloc: within each bloc, partners have their differences. Talking to each other in groupings makes us transcend these differences, or at least try to do so.
The 20th anniversary is a good opportunity to take stock and reflect upon the successes and failures of ASEM, to draw lessons from them, and to look ahead to the future. This will naturally be high on the next summit’s agenda. The leaders of our continents will have to find new horizons for ASEM to aim for.
Interestingly enough, one of the new things that ASEM is focusing on nowadays is connectivity. One might say that connectivity is what ASEM has been all about since its very inception. Perhaps it wasn’t worded like that twenty years ago, but the whole concept was already at the basis of the informal grouping. Bringing people closer, getting them to understand each other better, to accept their differences and to overcome them when necessary – and all this through dialogue. The tremendous progress of technological tools of connectivity in the last twenty years has not rendered ASEM obsolete. But we need to update and adapt our software to this new technological environment.
Of the main successes of ASEM, I would highlight the variety and diversity of the dialogues and exchanges that take place under its aegis at various levels. There are exchanges in almost every realm of knowledge and human activity. From politics to global warming, from sustainable development to scientific research, from transport to culture, no subject seems to be beyond its scope. The Asia-Europe Foundation - ASEF - plays a very important role in this regard and we should make the most of this excellent tool to promote further contacts between the two regions.
Unlike other continents, Asia and Europe are linked together by geography, so much so that the border between the two is not always clearly defined. A few countries can even be said to belong to both continents. The word Eurasia has existed for a long time and it is a word that makes sense and describes a reality. Nonetheless, during long periods of history, the two sides of this double continent appear to have grown and matured “back-to-back”, turning their back to one another. The need for them to face each other is still strong. This is our common mission within ASEM.