By Mr ZENG Peiyan, President of CCIEE*
The global economy has experienced intricate and volatile developments in recent years. The economic growth forecasts have been repeatedly downgraded and the growth rate of world trade is dropping sharply. Developed economies are on a weak recovery and still fraught with destabilising factors such as the debt crisis and population ageing. The growth of emerging economies slowed significantly while economic and financial risks are piling up. In a time of post-crisis, the world economy risks the possibility of entering into a “new normal” of prolonged low-speed growth. All countries are faced with the urgent task of finding new paths to sustain growth and withstand risks. Against such a background, connectivity has become the new focus of both Asian and European countries.
The Eurasian continent, as one of the pioneers of continental connectivity, opened up the Silk Road 2000 years ago. With the deepening of globalisation and informatisation, countries around the world have become more integrated with each other than ever. Asia and Europe are neighbouring continents with high economic complementarity and extensive trade ties. The two continents are faced with common challenges of propelling structural reform and realizing economic recovery. Enhancing Asia-Europe connectivity is not only a natural choice for regional cooperation and economic integration, but also a strategic initiative for promoting economic vitality and strengthening development momentum, in view of both future and practical needs. As Chinese President XI Jinping pointed out, “The connectivity we talk about today is not merely about building roads and bridges or making linear connections of different places on surface. More importantly, it should be a three-way combination of infrastructure, institutions and people-to-people exchanges and a five-way progress in policy communication, infrastructure connectivity, trade link, capital flow, and understanding among peoples. It is a wide-ranging, multi-dimensional, vibrant and open connectivity network that pools talent and resources from all stakeholders.”
At the same time, a number of issues in Asia-Europe cooperation need to be addressed. A pressing one is that missing links among many countries impede economic development and cooperation. Take the China-Europe freight train for instance. Since its launch in 2015, more than 1000 shifts have already been run. However, the cost of time and resources remains high, due to the frequent switch of trains and rails and the vast differences in customs clearance procedures. This in one way shows that Asia-Europe connectivity stills faces obstacles and hindrance.
Asia is the world’s most economically dynamic region while Europe is the world frontier in innovation and integration. As the interdependence among economies in the two regions is increasingly intensified, the internal need to enhance Asia-Europe connectivity grows stronger. With the large size of the economies in the two continents, their enhanced connectivity will not only strengthen regional economic vitality, but also inject new impetus to global sustainable development.
Connectivity is the necessary condition for trans-regional economic cooperation, trade, investment and personnel exchanges. Experience indicates that regional connectivity will vigorously generate positive external benefits and “1+1>2” multiplying effect. If the Eurasian continent is fully connected, the region will become the world’s biggest common market which will unleash great external economic bonus for all regional countries. The promising new pattern of unified market, comprehensive industry and modern logistics will provide great opportunity for long-term common growth.
Established 20 years ago, ASEM has developed into the main platform for dialogue and cooperation for 53 Asian and European members. Its high-level, broad representation and flexible formats have proven to be effective in pursuing common interests and promoting win-win cooperation. On the other hand, with the flourishing of new regional and trans-regional cooperation mechanisms, a loose dialogue mechanism like ASEM faces more challenges than before, especially when it lacks focus and concrete cooperation. In order to play its full role under the new circumstances and better respond to the calls of its members, there is a growing urgency for ASEM to strengthen coordination mechanisms and promote concrete cooperation.
Connectivity provides a window of opportunity to prioritise and consolidate all-round cooperation so as to fulfil the true potential of ASEM. As Mr GOH Chok Tong, one of my old friends and the former Prime Minister of Singapore said, “As the EU and Asia continue to deepen their respective regional integration, they also look beyond their immediate region and create synergistic opportunities.”
The prospect of ASEM connectivity is promising. However, as a grand and systematic project, it will also be faced with various challenges, such as how to match up the complex infrastructure plans and fill the financing gaps, how to harmonise policies and regulations while meeting various development aspirations and so on. As an old Chinese saying goes, “A real man should constantly strive for self-perfection.” To accomplish the systematic project of connectivity, we need all members within the region to make concerted efforts. Strategic planning, sincerity and a strong determination to build a community of shared responsibilities and destinies are core to the success of a well-connected ASEM.
ASEM members have come up with numerous ambitious development plans in recent years, such as the EU Infrastructure Investment Plan, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We are pleased to note that infrastructure connectivity has in the past few years taken the lead and produced satisfactory outcomes particularly in the areas of transportation, telecommunication and energy. Large-scale joint projects in these areas have not only tremendously fuelled local development in the short term, but will also benefit more nations and peoples in Asia and Europe in the long term.
Chinese Premier LI Keqiang pointed out at the 10th ASEM Summit that “connectivity leads to prosperity”. ASEM members agreed to list connectivity as a standing agenda item of ASEM at the 12th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (ASEM FMM12) in 2015. The ASEM Industry Dialogue on Connectivity held last May in Chongqing, China, expressed strong solidarity for ASEM connectivity. These positive steps will certainly facilitate connectivity cooperation across the region.
The era of “Great Connectivity” is already at our doorstep. It’s a historical process and a driving force for development. At the important juncture of the 20th Anniversary of ASEM, we should join hands to advance this process and strengthen the force for opening a new chapter of the Asia-Europe cooperation.
*China Center for International Economic Exchanges
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.