The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) stands for 55% of global trade, 60% of global GDP, 60% of the world’s population, 65% of global production, and 75% of global tourism. Figures such as these are published every two years on the occasion of the biennial ASEM summit, but in and of themselves they say very little. They are merely an indication of the substantial widening of the process, from a limited gathering of 26 participants in 1996, to a sizable forum of 53 partners at present, including countries from Europe, Central-, South-, Northeast- and Southeast-Asia to Russia, Australia and New Zealand. Still, today the 22-year old ASEM process faces the same challenges as it did during its early years. The forum lacks in public awareness and visibility, its track record as well as work in progress are not easily quantifiable or obvious, it is criticized for being little more than a talking shop, member countries disagree on the forum’s core objectives, and the summit mainly serves as an umbrella for bilateral meetings that are deemed more important than the region-to-region or multilateral ones. Nevertheless, the forthcoming 12thASEM summit, to be held in Brussels on 18-19 October, might imbue the forum with new vigour.
ASEM’s agenda remains broad, with the upcoming summit in Brussels in October this year seeking to address trade and investment, sustainable development and climate, and non-traditional security challenges. What does catch the eye, however, is that strengthening connectivity between the two regions will be a major focus of discussions. Connectivity itself has been addressed in ASEM before. For example, the Trans-Eurasia Information Network (TEIN), launched at the ASEM3 summit in Seoul in 2000, has successfully enhanced interconnectivity between European and Asian research and education networks, and is currently in its fourth phase. People-to-people and educational exchanges have taken place under the ASEM banner, in particular through the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). Transport Ministerial Meetings have been organized since 2009, and in 2016 a Pathfinder Group on Connectivity saw the light, aiming in the first place to outline the scope of the concept. In spite of these initiatives, there is plenty of space to achieve more, in particular in the light of China’s increasing influence and activity.
As of the 2010s, China has been aiming to place its stamp on the ASEM connectivity agenda, not least to find synergies with its own Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China was behind initiatives such as the Chengdu Declaration on Green, Secure and Efficient Asia-Europe Connection (2ndASEM Transport Ministers’ Meeting, 2011). Beijing also sponsored the ASEM Industry Dialogue on Connectivity, held in Chongqing in 2015, floating ambitious ideas on improved Eurasian land bridges, transport corridors, sea routes and rail links, while at the same time promoting people-to-people exchanges, policy coordination, and trade and capital flows.
For a long time Europe’s response was missing in action, so to speak. The EU was wary of China’s geopolitical intentions, concerned about overlaps with the EU-China dialogue, held back by intra-European divisions, or generally undecided about whether to cooperate or compete with Beijing. But there is no doubt that the EU has become increasingly preoccupied about China’s Westward push through BRI projects, with investments in over 80 countries including in Europe. Europe’s concerns have been that these investments are actually loans, tied to Chinese companies, with limited benefits for local countries and lacking a transparent bidding process.
On 19 September 2018, however, the European Commission released a Joint Communication on connectivity between Europe and Asia. Clearly intended to be the basis for a European response to the BRI, the paper aims to feed into discussions at the upcoming ASEM summit in Brussels, after discussions in the European Parliament and the European Council. The strategy emphasizes that connectivity has to be economically, fiscally, environmentally and socially sustainable, comprehensive across sectors and financial frameworks, and based on international rules and an open and transparent investment environment. The implementation, and eventual success, of the strategy will depend on the envisaged increased funding allocated to Asia-Europe connectivity as part of the EU’s investment framework for external action, in addition to private investments. Nonetheless, if agreed, the new strategy not only offers a European alternative to BRI, but it also opens up avenues to cooperate with China and find synergies.
In the light of the above, ASEM provides a perfect forum to discuss European and Asian approaches to connectivity. The forum can provide a level playing field in order to set objectives, share practices and exchange ideas. Furthermore, the creation of partnerships at the bilateral, region-to-region, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder levels is vital in promoting connectivity. Bringing together all these different dimensions and stakeholders, it is here that the ASEM process can fulfil its envisioned complementary function, and overcome some of the justified criticism. After 22 years, ASEM can substantially and tangibly contribute to making Asia and Europe meet.