ASEM summit to focus on Myanmar, Asia-Europe ties

ASEM summit to focus on Myanmar, Asia-Europe ties


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Global security issues, including joint Asia-Europe counter-terror measures, nuclear tensions with North Korea and failed international efforts to end military rule in Myanmar will head the agenda of the  Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to be held in Helsinki.

The September 10-11 gathering, bringing together leaders from 13 Asian and 25 European Union states – plus the European Commission – is also expected to take decisions on widening ASEM membership to bring in more Asian and European states.

The EU wants its future members Bulgaria and Romania to join ASEM while India, Pakistan, East Timor as well as Australia and New Zealand are on the list of Asian states eager to participate in the forum.

Current Asian members of ASEM include Japan, China and South Korea plus the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN): Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In addition, ASEM leaders will urge a revival of the crippled World Trade Organisation (WTO) effort to clinch a new deal to break down global trade barriers and issue a joint commitment to fight climate change.

The conference’s over-arching objective, however, is to inject more life and dynamism into the 10-year old ASEM relationship, initially launched in Bangkok in 1996 in the heyday of the Asian economic boom and now rapidly running out of steam.

Finnish diplomats – representing the current EU presidency – say the two-day meeting will take stock of the last 10 years of the “multi-layered and multi-faceted” ASEM relationship but also strive to come up with new ideas for the future.

“This is a time to look forward and see where we should be headed,” said a Finnish diplomat. One key challenge was to make ASEM “more visible and relevant,” he added.

That may not be easy, however. While trade and investment ties between Asia and Europe are booming – together ASEM members represent 50 percent of global GDP and 60 percent of world trade – political and diplomatic relations between the two regions are lagging behind big business.

A report commissioned by the Japanese and Finnish foreign ministries, which will be the basis for leaders’ discussions in Helsinki, lays bare the gaps in the relationship.

While it has been broad-ranging, Asia-Europe ties have not been deep, says the report, adding: “The dialogue process has … stayed at information-sharing level and has not moved into substantive cooperation.”

Other veteran ASEM-watchers agree with the analysis. Many Asian countries expected the EU to become a powerful global player but last year’s failure of the EU constitution, coupled with the bloc’s continuing economic trials, have tarnished Europe’s international reputation, says David Fouquet, whose Asia-Europe-Project website keeps track of developments in the two regions.

A meeting of EU leaders with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will not result in a lifting of the EU’s long-standing arms embargo against Beijing, Finland’s Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said.

Asked if the EU would meet China’s repeated demands for an end to the ban on arms sales, imposed in protest at Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Vanhanen said: “Not at this meeting.”

While European companies and exporters continue to be attracted by Asia’s red-hot markets, the bloc’s leaders have been too distracted by their internal problems and the focus on the immediate neighbourhood to really concentrate on Asia.

In addition, while Europe is currently in “reflection mode” over its future, high-growth Asian economies are engaged in a dizzying race to forge stronger inter-regional trade and political bonds, often either brokered by China or centering around it.

One sign of this flagging ASEM diplomacy is that while diplomats from the two regions meet regularly, “Asia‘s top leaders hardly ever travel to EU headquarters in Brussels,” says Fouquet.

The two sides have also often clashed on human rights – and especially on how best to deal with the generals in Myanmar.

After months of squabbling, EU governments agreed two years ago to open the ASEM forum to Myanmar, a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) whose other participants are in ASEM.

Myanmar’s Foreign Minister U Nyan Win is expected to come to the Helsinki meeting, with the EU agreeing to waive its visa ban on the country’s leadership for the course of the meeting.

But signalling EU distaste for Myanmar‘s ruling junta, Germany‘s vice-chancellor Franz Muentefering told a meeting of ASEM labour ministers in Potsdam, near Berlin, of his “greatest concern” over the human rights situation in the country.

Muentefering said that “state-tolerated forced labour is unacceptable and must be actively fought” in Burma.

The EU has repeatedly called for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who leads Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, and has been under detention since May 2003.

Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) that Myanmar’s continuing failure to bring in democracy and violations of human rights were also causing concern in Asia.

“Everybody is frustrated, including the Asian countries which are becoming very frustrated,” said Tuomioja.

Reflecting this view, a commentary in the Asia Times newspaper referred to Yangon’s hardline government as “Myanmar: ASEAN’s thorn in the flesh.”

 

 

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