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The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): A Bridge between East and West

Published on 05 Oct 2015

By Mr GOH Chok Tong, Former Prime Minister of Singapore

When I became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1990, the Cold War had ended and the world was transiting to a new order.  Asia was experiencing a period of unprecedented high economic growth: Japan and the so-called “Asian Tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – led this wave, followed by the re-emergence of China and India.  In Europe, the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty on 1 November 1993 laid a firm foundation for closer economic and financial integration.   With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendency of North America, East Asia and Western Europe, a tri-polar world order was taking shape.

I was of the view that if we could connect these three economic blocs together like a triangle, the result would be a more stable geopolitical environment for all.  North America and Europe already had longstanding institutional linkages, by virtue of their shared history and culture.  North America and East Asia had also begun to forge closer ties under the aegis of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).  However, the missing institutional link that was needed to complete the triangle was closer relations between Asia and Europe. 

Europe’s interest in Asia had dwindled after the withdrawals of France from Indochina and of the UK from territories east of the Suez in the last century.  On Asia’s part, colonisation had dampened its enthusiasm for closer relations with Europe.  Partly because of this, Western Europe was trading and investing less in Asia than in the US.  In 1994, North America accounted for 25% of the EU’s total trade volume, whereas its total trade with 10 countries in East Asia (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan and South Korea) made up only 8% of the total. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Europe/East Asia Summit held in Singapore in October 1994 provided an occasion for me to seed the idea of closer dialogue between Asia and Europe at the leaders’ level.  European leaders then had limited contacts with a China which was not yet fully opened to foreign investments and imports.  In its July 1994 Communique, “Towards a New Asia Strategy”, the European Commission sought to “accord Asia a higher priority than is at present the case” and to “strengthen its economic presence in Asia in order to maintain its leading role in the world economy”.  Similarly, Asia wanted Europe’s investments and access to its markets.  Given Singapore’s close relations with ASEAN, China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific as well as with Europe, I thought that we were well-placed to seed the idea of an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).  

During my official visit to France in October 1994. I proposed to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur the idea of establishing a regular summit for leaders from Europe and Asia to meet, to get to know each other and to develop ties between the two regions.  He was receptive.  The French were due to assume the EU Presidency in January 1995.  Prime Minister Balladur undertook to sell the idea to the EU member states, and I, in turn, did likewise with Asian leaders.  I secured the ASEAN leaders’ support for ASEM a month later on the side-lines of the APEC summit in Bogor, Indonesia.  Later, we secured China, Japan and South Korea’s buy-in.  On their part, the French delivered their side of the bargain. The inaugural ASEM summit was launched with great success in Bangkok in March 1996.  15 countries from Europe and 10 countries from Asia participated. The European Commission was also present.  Our discussions were candid, fresh, free-flowing and productive.  The informal nature of the dialogue allowed leaders to establish a high level of comfort and familiarity with one another.  It proved to be one of ASEM’s abiding strengths.  

ASEM – vision and reality

This proved fortuitous as ASEM was tested very early after its birth, when Asia was hit badly by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997.  At the second ASEM summit in London in 1998, Europe sought to understand the genesis of the Asian Financial Crisis and showed concern and continued interest in its Asian partners.  Our European partners demonstrated their commitment to Asia and the ASEM process by establishing the ASEM Trust Fund at this summit.  It was a show of faith.

As the EU took on new members, ASEM’s membership inevitably expanded.  The cosiness of the early summits was lost.   ASEM came under severe criticism for the lack of focus and substance.  Interventions became increasingly scripted and mundane, and several ASEM summits showed poor attendance.  But I think this diffusion of ASEM’s focus was only one part of the story.  A more important reason was the increased direct contact between European and Chinese leaders after China lifted its bamboo curtain. ASEM as a meeting venue for them had lost its salience.  Another reason was the preoccupation of European leaders with more pressing domestic and EU problems.  ASEM cohesion was also tested when Myanmar’s application to join ASEM was blocked by the European partners.  Both sides locked horns on this for a while.  It was finally resolved with the admission of Myanmar in 2004.

We should not lose faith in the founding vision and value of ASEM.  As the meeting point of a resurgent Asia and institutionally important Europe, Asian and European leaders continue to see ASEM’s long-term strategic value. I am therefore confident that ASEM will continue to remain relevant. 

Since its founding, ASEM’s operating environment has been fundamentally altered by the Asian renaissance, the Eurozone crisis and recently, the global war on terror.  Whatever else may change, ASEM’s raison d'être of strengthening Asia-Europe links remains.  Trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), once in force, will propel the economic ties between Asia and the US, and Europe and the US respectively.  But there is no similar initiative between Asia and Europe yet.  ASEM therefore holds the key to realising an Asia-Europe answer to the TPP and TTIP. 

ASEM should also tap on the diverse civilizational strengths of Asia and Europe to address global challenges, such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and the rise of radical Islam, which uses terror, violence and killings to advance its cause.  The diversity of input can only add to a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the perspectives of different countries. This in turn will enhance the resilience of individual ASEM partners to these challenges.

These are major undertakings that will occupy not only the current generation of leaders, but also future generations.  Yet, leaders are not permanent members of ASEM; only their countries are.  All the more cause then, for a forum like ASEM, for old, new and future leaders to continually develop their ties and understanding of each region’s challenges and aspirations.

Our interactions over the last two decades have laid a strong tradition for this process to continue.  ASEM has thrived as a dialogue forum because of its informality and flexibility.  I think that we should not seek to transform ASEM into a more structured and bureaucratic body.  Given its large size and diverse membership, ASEM’s objectives are best served by fostering collegial dialogue and a genuine desire for cooperation.  ASEM should continue to be viewed as a process.

The next lap 

Singapore is deeply committed to the ASEM process and will contribute its energy and ideas to ensure that ASEM remains credible and effective.  Singapore will also continue to support the Asia-Europe Foundation in its mission to strengthen people-to-people ties, and cultural and academic exchanges between the two regions. 

As ASEM sets to commemorate its 20th Anniversary in 2016, its future looks bright.  ASEM continues to attract new members – Croatia and Kazakhstan were admitted into ASEM in 2014, bringing ASEM’s total membership to 53.  Turkey and Ukraine have also started their applications.  These facts are a testament to ASEM’s continued value. Indeed, ASEM has effectively become a commonwealth of nations from Europe and Asia!

As a community of Asian and European nations, I believe that there is much untapped potential in ASEM. We should continue to strengthen our side of the triangle.  In the words of Rudyard Kipling, “there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth”.  Europe and Asia must celebrate differences even as they explore common grounds.  As the EU and Asia continue to deepen their respective regional integration, they should also look beyond their immediate region and create synergistic opportunities.  Such habits of cooperation have only positives and no negatives.  They will reinforce the peace and prosperity that our people need to lead a rich, balanced and fulfilling life. 

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This is the inaugural article from the ASEM 20th Anniversary Book on “20 Years of Asia-Europe Relations”. This will be followed by a series of articles by leaders and experts from Asia and Europe on the past, present and future of ASEM. Selected articles from this series will be compiled and published as a book by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which will be launched at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM11) Summit in 2016 Mongolia.