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Connectivity as the Key Feature of ASEM’s Third Decade

Published on 28 Mar 2016

By Mr Jean ASSELBORN, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Luxembourg

2016 is a critical year for Asia-Europe partnership as we prepare to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of ASEM in Mongolia at the Ulaanbaatar Summit in July 2016, which will also mark the beginning of ASEM’s third decade.

The 12th ASEM Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM12) which I hosted in Luxembourg in November 5-6 2015 and which was chaired by the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica MOGHERINI, was a key event in discussing the future direction of ASEM and paving the way for its next decade.

Under the meeting theme “Working together for a sustainable and secure future”, we reaffirmed that ASEM remained an important platform for political dialogue, economic cooperation as well as cultural and social exchanges between Asia and Europe. We also acknowledged the importance in mainstreaming connectivity into all relevant ASEM cooperation frameworks. We therefore agreed to further explore the establishment of a working group on connectivity as we commended the ever-growing activities on connectivity in the ASEM framework, which underline ASEM as an ideal platform for connecting Asia and Europe closer together.    

ASEM as the “institutional home” to connectivity 

Connectivity has so far mostly been dealt within regional organisations or at national levels. The EU for instance has established its border-free single market by providing a regulatory framework which seeks to guarantee the free movement of goodscapitalservices and people between its member states. These efforts have recently been complemented by specific work on the digital single market, the energy union as well as a single market for financial services. Infrastructure-wise, the EU’s single market has been enabled through the construction of the Trans-European Networks, a dense priority network of rail, road, energy and ICT infrastructure improving interconnection between the EU’s 28 member states.

Similarly the 10 ASEAN countries adopted in 2010 the “ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity” which seeks to provide for enhanced physical infrastructure development (physical connectivity), effective institutions, mechanisms and processes (institutional connectivity) and empowered people (people-to-people connectivity) which have been considered as vital building blocks in the establishment of  the ASEAN Community in November 2015.

For the rest of Asia, connectivity has so far mainly been on the agenda at the national level, as governments are trying to develop often basic infrastructure and to interconnect the various communities of large and populated countries. It was only two years ago that China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative had brought the item of interconnecting Asia and Europe onto the international agenda. However the subject of “connectivity between Asia and Europe” has so far not been addressed by any international forum other than ASEM and thus has no “institutional home”.

By bringing together representatives from all countries of Asia and Europe, ASEM is already a “connector platform” between Asia and Europe. In gathering expertise, know-how and experience from both continents around a very concrete and tangible concept such as connectivity, ASEM can create specific added-value and wealth to both regions and their peoples.

The significance of Asia-Europe connectivity was stressed by the ASEM summit in Milan in October 2014 with the Leaders underlining the contribution that increased ties could make to economic prosperity and sustainable development and to promoting free and seamless movement of people, trade, investment, energy, information, knowledge and ideas and greater institutional linkages. They noted the usefulness of an exchange of best practices and experiences. This was similarly reiterated and further discussed at the occasion of the ASEM Transport Ministers' Meeting in Riga, Latvia in April 2015 as well as at the ASEM Industry Dialogue on Connectivity in Chongqing, China in May 2015, which Luxembourg co-sponsored.

Setting the connectivity agenda in Ulaanbaatar

The challenge ahead of the 11th ASEM summit in Ulaanbaatar is to turn our Leaders’ words into policies and actions and at the same time to set the scope of the connectivity we all aim for. Recent conferences and meetings have tended to centre connectivity on obvious priorities: transport and infrastructure connectivity in order to build what transport ministers in Riga referred to as “the Eurasian multimodal transport corridors and supply chains”. The meeting in Chongqing ambitiously referred to the improvement and building of new “Eurasian land bridges, Trans-Eurasian transport corridors”, the upgrading of sea routes, high-speed rail links and work on an “information highway”.

But in addition to upgrading road, sea and rail links our Leaders at the Milan summit in 2014 expressed an interest to examine ways of enhancing digital connectivity between Europe and Asia. This interest was further recalled at the FMM12 in Luxembourg when digital connectivity was highlighted as a key element of connecting our two regions. The Foreign Ministers also emphasised that greater collaboration among ASEM partners in the area of capacity building and exchange of expertise in ensuring security and peaceful development of information and communication technology was essential.

The scope for a stronger digital connectivity remains therefore very high as our countries aim to develop further e-commerce and on-line trading opportunities, while a fair share of future communications will be satellite-based. Higher levels of digital connectivity will naturally contribute to bridging the digital divide and bringing our people closer to each other, the latter remaining one of the main goals of the ASEM process.

People-to-people connectivity

In 1996 in Bangkok at the first ASEM summit, 25 countries came together to promote the “new comprehensive Asia-Europe partnership for greater growth”. And 20 years later, ASEM has more than doubled its membership and organised hundreds of meetings and seminars in areas such as education, human rights, transport, tourism, culture, research, immigration, disaster risk reduction, renewable energies, nuclear safety and youth employment. This reflects how ASEM as a framework for dialogue and cooperation has adapted and grown over the years to address the challenges and discuss the opportunities of our times. By way of example, Luxembourg hosted on the side-lines of the FMM12 in November 2015, two groups that held timely discussions on current and highly relevant issues. “Youth employment” was the main topic at the first ASEF Young Leaders Summit, which successfully gathered over 100 young leaders from Asia and Europe.  Additionally over 30 journalists from the two regions participated at the 10th ASEF Journalists Colloquium to exchange views on “crisis reporting”.     

The success and the undeniable added-value of these events demonstrate that “people-to-people“ connectivity needs to be rightly strengthened over the next decade by further involving the youth, universities, parliaments, research institutions and the private sector which will surely contribute to, enrich and expand the ASEM process.

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