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Enhancing a Comprehensive Asia-Europe Partnership in the 21st Century

Published on 29 Jun 2016

By Mr PHAM Binh Minh, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Viet Nam

ASEM – a crucial platform for dialogue and cooperation

Exactly 20 years ago, ASEM was founded by 26 Leaders from Asia and Europe as a bridge that connects the two continents. 20 years is not a long period of time compared to the 700 year-old relationship between Asia and Europe. Yet we can be proud of what we have accomplished so far. ASEM has grown beyond our initial expectations and established itself as a crucial platform for dialogue and cooperation. Being the largest cooperation forum between the two continents, ASEM has been instrumental in forging links and multi-layered cooperation for peace and development.

As one among the few inter-regional fora established after the Cold War, ASEM has been and continues to be an important factor in shaping the global setting in the 21st century. ASEM is transforming itself to include new elements of cooperation and integration. And, the Forum is gradually bringing vital benefits to its members in their endeavors to sustain peace, security, stability and economic recovery, and to respond to global challenges. Overcoming barriers and differences, ASEM so far has evolved to become a big family of 53 members. The sense of community among ASEM partners is becoming even stronger with the increasing shared interests that are peace, stability and cooperation for sustainable development and prosperity in both continents.

ASEM in the 21st century: opportunities and challenges

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the world continues to witness profound changes that give rise to new issues and challenges to multilateral fora and mechanisms, including ASEM.

The world economy is undergoing fundamental transformations with emerging economic paradigms. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution coming to the fore, new mindsets, policies and practices are taking shape in ways that foster green, sustainable and innovative development, and closely link economic growth to development. In the “multi-centered” setting and amid the observable trend towards democratization in international relations, numerous existing regional mechanisms have been consolidated alongside with the formation of many new ones. They are more diverse and flexible by nature.

At the same time, the unprecedented development of globalisation and information technology is deepening interdependence among all players and promoting linkages at all levels. All nations tend to enhance cooperation for accelerated economic restructuring and expansion of space for development, and to better position themselves in the new setting. Asia and Europe are witnessing strong growth of partnerships and next-generation free trade agreements.

Global challenges are growing with greater complexity. They cannot be dealt with by any individual country or region. There have been a series of burning issues such as increasing poverty and development gap, climate change, natural disasters, salinisation, population ageing, urbanisation, the water - energy - food nexus, etc. In our view, addressing them is both an imperative need and an impetus for stronger cooperation to ensure sustainable development in each member country and the two continents.

This undoubtedly requires ASEM partners to enhance cooperation and connectivity. We need to search and promote fresh impetus for development with broader and deeper as well as cross-sectoral approach.

Towards a human-centered, dynamic, connected and resilient ASEM community

Against such backdrop, first and foremost, ASEM needs to reform itself and lift up cooperation with a view to asserting its crucial role in the evolving multi-polar world. We should work more closely together to develop a truly effective, equitable, and democratic global governance. This represents an objective demand amid the unceasingly changing regional and global landscapes. And, it is also a demand for an enlarging ASEM with more diverse interests and concerns.

At the 10th ASEM Summit (ASEM10) in Milan in October 2014, our Leaders tasked their Ministers and Senior Officials to make recommendations on the future direction of ASEM to be submitted to the 11th ASEM Summit (ASEM11) in Ulaanbaatar. It is time for us to shape a common view and take bold actions to deepen Asia - Europe cooperation in building an ASEM community that better lives up to the expectations of the people in both continents.

Firstly, we need to define and promote new elements for cooperation to enhance ASEM's effectiveness, relevance and in-depthness.While undertaking the three pillars of cooperation in a well-balanced manner, we should give our special attention to promoting sustainable development factors and associating them with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the enhancement of ASEM's resilience. Based upon a common denominator of shared interests and accommodated differences, political dialogue should offer incentives for cooperation in response to global challenges and those in the two continents.

Challenges to peace and security can also be seen as the opportunity to promote constructive dialogue, build common rules and norms of conduct, and uphold international law enforcement. In economic development pillar, we should place our emphasis on efforts to accelerate economic restructuring in every member country, and promote regional linkages, connectivity, and innovative growth for sustainable, innovative and inclusive development.

We should also work to promote people-to-people connectivity through education, tourism, social and cultural exchanges in ways that foster greater understanding and harmony between ASEM members. This will enable us to achieve sustainable social well-being with due attention given to the most vulnerable groups, namely children, women, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Secondly, it is critical to develop a new concept and a comprehensive approach that ensure the harmony between the informal nature and the efficiency of ASEM cooperation and create concrete outcomes. To make it possible, we need to identify cooperation priorities and design action plans to realize ASEM vision with specific time-frames for implementation, ranging from 5 to 10 or 20 years. At the same time, initiatives and projects within each area of tangible cooperation and coordination among various areas need to be promoted to narrow the development gaps in ASEM and provide capacity building to its developing members.

Thirdly, all cooperation initiatives and mechanisms should be human-centered so as to encourage people’s engagement in ASEM’s activities and provide them with tangible benefits.In this endeavour, we should work to engage youths and businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises. Their huge potentials and innovation will start up new ideas and initiatives, thus bringing ASEM cooperation into reality. This is key to ASEM’s success in the future. To this end, initiatives and events such as the ASEF Young Leaders Summit in Luxembourg, Youth CEOs Dialogue in India and the ASEM Youth Week in Viet Nam are best practices that should be multiplied.

asem in Viet Nam’s comprehensive multilateral diplomacy

For Viet Nam, ASEM cooperation is of great importance to our reform, development and far-reaching international integration. ASEM is home to 19 out of 25 strategic and comprehensive partners of Viet Nam, making up 70% of our FDI and international trade, and 80% of international tourists to Viet Nam. 14 out of 16 FTAs signed or under negotiation by Viet Nam are with ASEM partners. This enables Viet Nam to become a crucial link in the large economic integration network of 60 partners, 47 of whom are ASEM partners.

We are also working closely with ASEAN members to promote the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with the EU, paving the way for an ASEAN - EU Strategic Partnership. On the other hand, we are making every effort to fulfil our commitments made in numerous FTAs between ASEAN and its partners, and promote ASEAN - EU FTA negotiations, etc. This also provides Viet Nam with a better position to promote Asia-Europe integration.

The next 5 to 10 years will be crucial to Viet Nam's future development and international profile. We will host the APEC Year 2017, fulfil our commitments to the World Trade Organization by 2018 and realize those in numerous next-generation FTAs. Viet Nam will assume ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020, and is currently running for the UN Security Council non-permanent membership for the 2020 - 2021 term. These showcase our strong determination to undertaking far-reaching international integration and comprehensive multilateral diplomacy - one of the major pillars of Viet Nam's foreign policy. In that endeavour, Viet Nam is committed to working closely with ASEM partners to lift up the Forum's cooperation towards an ASEM community, which is human-centered, dynamic, connected and resilient by nature. 

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This article is part of the ASEM 20th Anniversary Digital Publication 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 the11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM11) in July 2016 in Mongolia.