Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Asia-Europe meet faces waning Western interest

Lee Kim Chew, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The European Union's waning interest in the eight-year-old Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is palpable. Judging by signals from a preparatory meeting last week, it is now highly doubtful that all EU leaders will attend the fifth ASEM summit to be held in Hanoi on Oct. 8.

Strong participation from the Europeans would be a show of political commitment to ASEM, but EU members are locked in a contentious dispute with ASEAN over Myanmar's entry.

The EU is blocking Myanmar's participation unless the military regime in Yangon frees Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and includes the opposition groups in drafting the country's new Constitution.

But ASEAN insists on unconditional membership for Myanmar, the same as it does for Cambodia and Laos. The EU, after all, is inducting 10 new members into ASEM following its enlargement last month.

There is broad agreement on both sides that Myanmar should not be a hurdle to ASEM goals to foster closer ties between Asia and Europe, but there is no easy way out of the impasse.

For ASEAN to agree to exclude Myanmar would mean the 10-member grouping succumbing to a divide-and-rule policy that will ultimately weaken it.

Nguyen Dang Quang, director-general and chief executive of the secretariat in Hanoi preparing for the summit, said: "We are trying to find an appropriate solution to the issue. The aspiration is to admit 10 EU and three ASEAN members all at one time without any conditions."

But there is no sign that the dispute will be resolved any time soon. One EU diplomat told me there is "a real risk" that the Hanoi summit may not take place. "Both sides have painted themselves into their own corners," he said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder plans to attend the Hanoi summit, said Felix Schmidt of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German political foundation in Vietnam.

So too French President Jacques Chirac.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, is staying away, apparently to show his displeasure with the Yangon regime, according to European diplomats.

Britain joins Holland, Denmark and Sweden in strongly opposing Myanmar's membership in ASEM.

These mixed attitudes in the EU show just how much oomph ASEM has lost since its 1996 inaugural summit in Bangkok, when it got off to a roaring start helped by the fact that Southeast Asia's tiger economies were then on the upswing.

European interest however waned after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and in the last seven years, ASEM's political and economic impact has much diminished.

To compound the difficulties, the EU is now deeply preoccupied with its own enlargement and ASEM has dropped further down in its priorities.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who initiated the ASEM process eight years ago, regretted in a recent speech that Europe's relations with Asia had suffered from "benign neglect". "Europe's fundamental priorities are internal, followed by relations with America. So too are Asia's fundamental priorities internal and trans-Pacific," he noted.

But this is not to say that ASEM is doomed. Stefan Hell of the EU's European Studies programme in Hanoi is one person keeping his fingers crossed: The coming ASEM summit will hopefully "prevent the EU from becoming too preoccupied with its own internal affairs", he said.

But there will be challenges: An enlarged informal forum with 39 members will be hard to manage, especially when it has no secretariat with its own permanent staff.

The Vietnamese, who this year hold the chair, are working hard to make sure the summit goes well. Among the projects they are working on is a China-Germany initiative, to add a "social pillar" in ASEM to bring together the EU and Asian labor ministers and trade unions.

To renew European interest in ASEM, some EU members have also proposed that it be turned into an international forum to counter what they deem as the United States' unilateralism.

As Schmidt said: "There is great interest in Europe for a multipolar world. ASEM could be seen as important contributor to balance U.S. unilateralism."

It is unclear though if this will sit well with ASEAN members. Even as he lamented declining European interest in Asia, PM Goh said Singapore would not support any move to "gang up" against the U.S.

"That would be foolish and self-defeating, the surest way to marginalise ourselves," he warned. Instead, he proposed that Europe and Asia forge a consensus and work closely with the U.S.

But given the sharp differences among ASEM members over U.S. policies, that consensus is another long shot.

Whither ASEM? October will tell.