Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEM: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEM: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Article excerpt

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is a forum and a process involving the fifteen EU member states and the Commission, and ten East Asian countries. It is a product of the emergence of East Asia as an economic powerhouse in the 1990s, and the commercial embrace of Asia by many European countries. However, with the advent of the Asian economic crisis, the economic motivations underlying ASEM could not but be questioned. ASEM has seemingly survived the worst of the Asian economic crisis. But what lies ahead? Can ASEM continue without a fundamental reassessment of its basic rationale? This article is an attempt to chronicle the genesis and development of ASEM, and examine the challenges that lie ahead.


ASEM is the acronym for the Asia-Europe Meeting, a co-operative framework established in March 1996 between Europeans as represented by the fifteen European Union (EU) member states plus the European Commission, and Asians as represented by ten East and Southeast Asian states comprising China, Japan, South Korea, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. ASEM was to be a symbol of Asia's and Europe's rediscovery of each other after a long period of relative neglect. It was first conceived to be the bridge between Asians and Europeans. The declared aim of ASEM was to reinforce the weak link in the triangle of relations between East Asia, North America, and Western Europe. These three regions were then depicted as the growth engines driving the world economy. While transatlantic and transpacific ties were well-established, strong ties between Europe and Asia were missing. To fill this gap, the idea of an Asia-Europe Meeting was initiated by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in October 1994.

There were many reasons behind the alacrity with which the idea of ASEM was taken up. Among them were the development of East Asia into an economic powerhouse, the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, the fears of a fortress Europe, and mutual interest in maintaining an open and multilateral trading system and countering American unilateralism. It was further argued that a balanced relationship among these regions would promote and ensure greater stability and prosperity in the world.

The inaugural Summit Meeting of ASEM in Bangkok in March 1996 got off to a good start. The range of initiatives and activities that followed engendered an ongoing process involving summit meetings, ministerial and senior officials meetings, and also expert meetings in various functional areas of co-operation. All these are now collectively referred to as the ASEM process. The plethora of activities in the wake of the Bangkok Summit reflected the initial enthusiasm and optimism of the parties involved. However, scepticism with regard to the long-term sustainability of the process, and criticisms about ASEM being more form than substance, have also been commonplace.

Below is an attempt to re-examine the underlying rationale of ASEM and explain its genesis and development thus far. It has been four years since the first Asia-Europe Summit was launched in Bangkok. What has been ASEM's achievements and what are the challenges that lie ahead in view of the various changes now taking place in Europe and Asia?

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Was ASEM a product of the post-Cold War world? Hans Maull and Akihito Tanaka believe that the realities of the changing power structure in the post-Cold War environment provide the backdrop for ASEM. More specifically, they offer the following reasons behind the genesis of ASEM:

* The growing complexity of power relations in a post-Cold War world where military power has lost its old dominance, and economic power and other forms of "soft power" have grown in importance.

* The rise of new actors such as China, leading to a general diffusion and dissipation of power in world politics. …

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