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Opinion & Analysis
POSTED | 11:19 AM | 16-08-2016

Forging greater connectivity between Asia and Europe

Some commitments and ideas reflected in ASEM 11 documents deserve to be universally known, writes Ioan Voicu.

In spite  of specific governmental  appeals to  contribute to boosting the  visibility of cooperation between Europe and Asia, mass-media demonstrated  too much discreetness  about the results of the recent (15-16 July) 11th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM 11), which took place in Ulaanbaatar, capital city of Mongolia, under the theme 20 Years of ASEM: Partnership for the Future through Connectivity.

Leaders and delegates from 51 Asian and European states, as well as high officials from the European Union and ASEAN attended ASEM 11.

A young forum

Since its first session in Bangkok, in 1996, with only 26 participating countries, ASEM continues to deal with political, economic and cultural issues, with the objective of strengthening the full spectrum of relationships between its current 53 partners, in a spirit of mutual respect and equality.

The results of ASEM 11 in 2016 have been summarized in two comprehensive documents adopted by consensus: the Chair’s Statement (45 long paragraphs) and the “Ulaanbaatar Declaration” on the Future of ASEM, marking the ASEM’s 20th Anniversary. 

Some commitments and ideas reflected in these documents deserve to be universally known.

Assessing the history of a relatively young forum without headquarters or permanent secretariat, leaders from two continents, as well as from Australia and New Zealand, noted with satisfaction that in the past 20 years the ASEM process has successfully stood the test of time and has proved its vitality and relevance through steady enlargement of its ranks and promotion of cooperation between the two regions in various fields. 

A strong commitment was reaffirmed to further deepen the partnership between the two regions while preserving the informal and flexible nature of the ASEM process, and to implement substantial human-centered cooperation projects in the areas of common interest with a focus on greater connectivity, wider inclusiveness, creating opportunities for all and more tangible outcomes.

During a period of serious crisis of multilateralism in our pluralistic world the explicit commitment of 51 countries and two  major regional organizations  to reach more tangible outcomes is highly topical, having in mind that the existing ASEM documents  defining its mandate continue to be drafted in  too general  terms and are quite repetitive by their  very content.

Many United Nations (UN) documents mentioned in ASEM statements are much more specific and action-oriented, but ASEM’s participants’ firmly expressed political will to contribute to the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change has an undeniable diplomatic value for future negotiations on these crucial issues, even if the commitment is formulated in vague language.

Specific commitments

A special mention should be made about the original  engagement in the bi-regional cooperation between the Danube and Mekong regions as a promising  model in transforming shared challenges related to food, water and energy security into opportunities for inclusive growth and sustainable development.

A salutary and useful commitment stated by ASEM 11 concerns the agreement to pay increased attention in the future to improving skills, employment and active engagement of young people in the economy and society.

A well-articulated and clear-cut decision was formulated to mainstream connectivity between Asia and Europe in all its dimensions, including political, economic, digital, institutional, socio-cultural and people-to-people, into all ASEM activities.

An interesting idea emphasized by practically all participants in ASEM 11 was the need for a comprehensive approach in countering terrorism and violent extremism, without associating them with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group.

In this connection, Asian and European leaders reaffirmed their resolve to combat terrorism financing, as well as abuse of Internet by terrorist groups. They also stressed the importance of

preventing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism, and controlling trade in and flows of conventional arms.

From the Ulaanbaatar Declaration, which is a less descriptive and a more programmatic document than the Chair’s Statement, the first idea deserving attention is the positive assessment according to which ASEM is a unique platform for dialogue and cooperation between Asia and Europe, being an important factor in shaping the global setting in the 21st century.

Indeed, addressing the challenges faced by both regions, as well as at the inter-regional and global levels, and promoting effective multilateralism and strengthening other multilateral processes, all these factors recommend ASEM as a significant diplomatic forum on the universal arena.

The Ulaanbaatar Declaration contains the decision to designate an ASEM Day ‘Asia meets Europe/Europe meets Asia Day’ to be  celebrated  annually on March 1 or any other day during the first week of March , as appropriate, with a view to underlining ASEM’s importance and raising its visibility. 

That celebration would help to keep in mind for eternity that ASEM was officially established on March 1, 1996 at its first summit in Bangkok.

The Declaration also conveys a vibrant appeal to energize ASEM, to promote further connectivity, mutually beneficial partnership and cooperation between Asia and Europe with a view to building an inclusive, sustainable and radiant future for our peoples and to ensure a peaceful life and shared prosperity for present and succeeding generations.

Higher visibility and effectiveness

Beyond the obvious optimistic content and tone of the two ASEM documents succinctly analyzed above, it should be nevertheless recalled that during ASEM I in Bangkok, in March 1996, the 26 participants agreed, inter alia, to cooperate in promoting the effective reform and greater democratization of the UN system, including the issues concerning the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and UN finances. In this connection, the Bangkok Meeting agreed to the initiation of a dialogue between representatives of participating nations of the ASEM in New York to consider the vital question of the UN reform.

In reality, this commitment still remains on the waiting list for an unpredictable period of time. This is regrettable, as in 2016 Asian and European leaders themselves highlighted in Ulaanbaatar the key role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security, promoting inclusive and sustainable development, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and effectively addressing current and emerging global challenges. 

Reiterating the importance of building a more effective multilateral system based on international law, ASEM pledged to continue to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and their universality, promoting disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

From the reality of unaccomplished commitments it appears that an urgent determination for more innovative and galvanizing diplomatic efforts is needed to find a more workable organizational identity for ASEM to enable it to  fully implement its promises. Informality should not lead to passivity. A more creative approach from its 53 participants is of cardinal importance in order to give tangibility to ASEM’s foundational mandate and ideals.

It should not be forgotten that the ASEM members now account for approximately 60 percent of global output, trade, and population and their diplomatic movements should generate a higher political visibility.

If there are meaningful consultations under ASEM’s auspices at the UN, it would give this forum instant and useful visibility among 193 countries.

In 2016, ASEM is expected to offer a more persuasive recognition of its own political relevance and of its growing strategic importance as a primordial vehicle able to promote partnership for dialogue and cooperation between two continents which are strongly confronted now with serious challenges.

These challenges have also been critically assessed by over 750 participants, representing social movements, people’s organizations and citizens from 42 countries across Asia and Europe who joined together in July 2016 in Ulaanbaatar at the 11th Asia Europe People’s Forum. The conclusions of this non-governmental forum have been summarized in a Final Declaration with the symbolic title “Building New Solidarities: Working for Inclusive, Just, and Equal Alternatives in Asia and Europe.” 

The 12th ASEM Summit will be held in 2018 in Brussels, Belgium, and will be chaired by the European Union. Can the 12th ASEM Summit become a really memorable event? It depends on the visibility, credibility and practical impact of action-oriented events to be sponsored under the auspices of ASEM itself on the basis of Ulanbaatar commitments.

In multilateral diplomacy adequate and purposeful preparation is the best component of fruitful summitry. To be genuinely successful, ASEM has to be more proactive and less reactive in approaching regional and global issues, thus increasing its diplomatic potentiality during the current era of global vulnerabilities, perplexities and discontinuities.

Dr Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand.


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