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20 Years of Asia-Europe Meeting from 1996 to 2016: An Active Partnership – Ready for the Next Decades

Published on 24 May 2016

By Mr Frank-Walter STEINMEIER, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Germany

When I think about Asia, it is the busy street-life and the modern skylines of so many vibrant Asian cities which first come to my mind. They are the most visible signs of the Asia-Pacific’s steady rise and its impressive growth rates, which are also mirrored by the latest trade figures for Germany: in 2015, the German trade volume with the Asia-Pacific countries grew by 12.7% in imports alone, thereby amounting to a total trade volume of approximately 340 billion Euros. Trade between Asia and Europe is only one aspect. Connectivity is the new name of the game. This is where the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) excels: ASEM stands for networking, joining, connecting — ASEM is 100% connectivity.

ASEM was founded 20 years ago to create a place for Asia and Europe to meet and share ideas, to foster mutual understanding, cooperation and confidence-building — at the highest level of heads of state and government, as well as at the expert level, where numerous best practices offer insight into the other ASEM partners’ experience and knowledge. This is also true for the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), ASEM’s non-governmental pillar. ASEF brings together civil society from Asia and Europe, through various initiatives such as the “Asia-Europe Classroom” or the most recent “Young Leaders Summit”. ASEF is helping to connect the next generations with each other, and reaching out to the ASEM decision-makers, as we witnessed at our last meeting in Luxembourg in November 2015.

Looking at ASEM over the past decades, ASEM succeeded in keeping this original “ASEM way”. When I chaired the 8th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (ASEM FMM8) in Hamburg in 2007, I remember very constructive and lively discussions with my colleagues from then 45 countries on the current political issues of that time. I also recall that there were more than 60 bilateral meetings in Hamburg between foreign ministers from Asia and Europe, offering an excellent occasion to get to know each other, to sound out common ground — and also get an idea of the limits of common ground.

ASEM of today is even larger than it was in 2007, with now a more than a doubled membership, from 26 countries in 1996 to 53 in 2016, underlining how attractive ASEM is for countries in Asia and Europe. In addition to the growing ASEM-membership, also the issues we discuss have multiplied and evolved further, thereby keeping track of the shifting challenges of today’s world. This is actually one of ASEM’s greatest features: always ready for change, flexible, open to new members and issues, and adapting quickly.

For example, when Germany introduced the new idea of a social dimension in ASEM with the first ASEM Ministerial Meeting for Labour and Employment (ASEM LEMC1) in Germany, our ASEM partners immediately joined in to discuss the issues of decent work, social protection, international social standards and fair trade. The very active ASEM dialogue on social issues was being sustained over the past years, with regular follow-up meetings in Indonesia, the Netherlands, Viet Nam and most recently in Bulgaria. ASEM has proven to be a transparent laboratory where ASEM partners can test ideas and concepts. If they are successful, there is follow-up; if not, then it was worth a try.

Another remarkable development in ASEM is the introduction of innovative approaches: the ASEM Transport Ministers’ Meetings (ASEM TMM), initiated in Lithuania in 2009, sustained in China in 2011 and most recently in Latvia in 2015 (and to be followed-up in Indonesia in 2017), introduced a new concept: not only the ASEM-Transport Ministers gathered in Riga, but also other connectivity-stakeholders, such as the private sector, international finance institutes and scientists, actually inspired us for our current Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairmanship. We will invite the OSCE members as well as partners of the OSCE for a special OSCE connectivity conference in May 2016 in Germany, and build on the OSCE’s asset as a geographical bridge between Asia and Europe.

Good connectivity is also needed for prosperity and growth and for building trust and stability. All these elements are essential for Asia and Europe, when we join efforts to share the responsibility to address the challenges of our times. Migration is one of these challenges. I repeat my plea that a country’s true strength has to be measured by its willingness and ability to assume responsibility, also beyond its own borders. Furthermore, we are increasingly faced with new conflict structure, with eroding orders, with conflict less between states and more and more often between states and non-state actors. For that reason we need to bridge rifts and to build bridges and solid networks, also among Asian and European partners.

The current challenges in Asia-Pacific might be different ones than those in Europe. Still, Europe and Asia should continue, also within the ASEM framework, to work together for global responsibility, as a step-by-step process fostering dialogue and stability. Europe has to take Asia’s views into account, and vice versa. The challenge for the 21st century statecraft will be to devise joint solutions for global issues. I trust that Asia and Europe will continue to be strong partners in this challenge and will keep ASEM as a relevant and indispensable forum in this endeavour.

With ASEM cooperation, we are not looking for front-page news. It is rather the long-term and patient weaving of ties and networks that we work on, connecting Asia and Europe in an active partnership — ready for the next decades.

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This article is part of theASEM 20th Anniversary Bookon “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 the11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM11) in July 2016 in Mongolia.