News and Views on the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) – Reaffirming Multilateralism and Supporting Connectivity
From Oct 18-19th, the 12th Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) summit was held in Brussels. The meeting brought together 53 Asian and European leaders to discuss various issues from free trade to climate change to connectivity. The summit is organized around the main agenda of maintaining multilateralism in the global order, which has been shaken up by the US-China trade war amidst American protectionism and China’s Belt-and-Road initiative.
This year’s ASEM Summit was fairly well covered by Asian and European papers unlike the last summit held on 15-16 July 2016 which was overshadowed by the Bastille Day (14 Jul) terrorist attack in France and the attempted coup in Turkey (15 Jul).
With the trade confrontation with the US in the background, the biennial ASEM Summit was widely celebrated among Chinese newspapers and scholars as an opportunity to push back against Trump and his policies. Calling ASEM “the highest-profile platform for dialogue” between Asia and Europe, China Daily called on the two continents to “join hands to resist US unilateralism”. The state-run English newspaper specifically picked up on the EU’s newly unveiled strategy on connecting Europe and Asia, urging China and the EU to discuss how the European initiative and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be coordinated and reinforced to benefit of “much larger parts of the world”.
Jiang Shixue of China’s Shanghai University described ASEM as “one more impetus for multilateralism” in his op-ed carried by China Global Television Network (CGTN) website. Jiang noted that “The most important topic of the summit […] was world trade” and “Asian and European leaders seemed to have formed a united front in support of free trade” against Trump. Kong Qingjiang of China University of Political Science and Law also saw ASEM as a needed boost for multilateralism at a time of great uncertainty and surging unilateralism. Though Europe was not as hard hit as China by Trump’s tariffs, Kong stressed that the EU needs to side with China to “shoulder the responsibility that is bestowed onto them in the aftermath of the US retreat” because Trump undermines the fundamental principles of the prevailing multilateral system. Wang Li from Jilin University in his CGTN commentary praised Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s visits to Europe pre- and during ASEM for being a “brilliant move in China’s diplomacy” as the trips showcased China’s commitment to “adjust[ing] the differences through negotiations” instead of unilateral moves. To Wang, the significance of ASEM Summit lies in “offer[ing] a rare opportunity for the leaders of both sides to meet, talk and reach consensus on the overarching issue to preserve a rules-based international order.
More broadly, Cui Hongjian of China Institute of International Studies wrote in Global Times about the advanced nature, expanding scope and “uniqueness” of the “wide, multi-level and multifaceted” China-Europe relations. In particular, Cui believed that the relationship has not yet reached its full potential and China and Europe, as “two great forces, two great markets, and two great civilizations”, could unleash more common benefits by “re-affirm[ing] their common interests and enhance[ing] mutual trust”.
Japanese media viewed the ASEM Summit differently. Yomiuri shinbun highlighted ASEM’s potential in terms of shaping the implementation of BRI so that Chinese investments would be made “in a way conducive to regional stability and development”. The Yomiuri editorial also put a strong emphasis on the relevance of Japan-France bilateral ties. In light of the fact that “Japan will host meetings of the Group of 20 major economies”, and France will chair the G7 meeting in 2019, the newspaper called on the two countries to closely coordinate their diplomatic moves to ensure synergies between the two groupings. In a more nationalistic tone, Mainichi shinbun equated the Summit to a platform for countries which share “universal values” such as Japan and Europe to collectively counter US protectionism and China’s massive foreign investments. Moreover, Mainichi pressed Tokyo and Brussels to capitalise on the momentum generated by the recent Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement to jointly “set high-quality norms” to safeguard the rules-based international system.
Korea reported the ASEM Summit mainly in the context of the tensions on the Korean peninsula. President Moon Jae-in travelled to Europe to ask ASEM member states to support the peace process between the two Koreas. “I believe that the link between Asia and Europe will be completed through peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said. Moon also lobbied, with varying degrees of success, his British, German, French and Italian counterparts for easing the international sanctions on the North as he saw real progress being made on denuclearisation. (Moon even invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang on behalf of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.)
However, Moon’s conciliatory policy vis-à-vis the North was criticised heavily by JoongAng Ilbo. In an editorial titled “Hope is not reality”, the JoongAng Ilbo, made a mockery of Moon’s self-identification of “messenger of peace”, arguing that the president fundamentally miscalculated European countries’ stance on North Korea. While Moon is convinced that loosening sanction would facilitate denuclearisation, the newspaper maintained that Europe does not see it that way. Instead, Europe, according to the editorial, firmly believes that “only tightened sanctions will lead to denuclearization” in a CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization) sense.
Of all Southeast Asian media, Vietnamese and Singaporean media gave extensive coverage of the ASEM Summit, in part because the EU-Singapore FTA and the EU-Vietnam FTA were signed at the sideline of the ASEM summit.
Beside strengthening ties with the EU, Vietnam also reaffirmed its commitment to cooperate with the international community to take on global challenges at the ASEM summit. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuân Phúc, made a speech at the second plenary session on Reinforcing the Multilateral System. He spoke on the importance of ASEM taking a pioneering role to promote multilateral co-operation and international order based on law. Vietnam stressed that ASEM should tackle environmental issues such as plastic waste, sustainability, and food security and accelerate the implementation of the Paris Agreement. He also reminded that developed members of ASEM should support developing countries in accessing financial resources and technology to invest in green energy.
The Vietnamese prime minister also held bilateral meetings with 12 other heads of governments from Mongolia, China, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland, Russia, Egypt and the UK to discuss ways to boost bilateral ties and deal with specific issues. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Phạm Bình Minh also held meetings with Cyprus, Sweden and Portugal, to seek their support for the quick ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EUVFTA) and to strengthen respective bilateral relations with these countries.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore also addressed the importance of supporting multilateral frameworks for international cooperation, global peace and stability, and economic progress. However, PM Lee said there is also a need to reform multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) to better reflect “the changed balance” in the global order. Moreover, WTO rules must also be updated and strengthened to better handle “new issues in technology transfer and e-commerce”. He also brought up other issues which require multilateral cooperation such as global financial governance, climate change as well as nuclear proliferation.
Singapore signed the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA), which will not only boost trade but also allow companies from both sides to bid for jobs at government entities of the countries involved. PM Lee hopes this will set the stage for an EU-ASEAN FTA to follow and to cooperate on cyber-security and smart cities. While EU and ASEAN can create more links by air through the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, ASEAN can also work towards better regional connectivity by settling the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal by the end of this year. PM Lee said that Singapore is keen to open its market to up and coming European economies like Poland, Estonia, and Croatia, and at the same time, believes Singapore has much to learn from Europe in areas such as technology and sustainability. Besides the EUSFTA, two other agreements – the Investment Protection Agreement and Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, were also inked between Singapore and the EU.
The two EU free trade deals with Vietnam and Singapore signaled that the EU and Southeast Asian countries remained committed to opening their economies and support rules-based trade. An article picked up by the Bangkok post reported that beyond liberalizing and opening economies, also on the ASEM’s agenda is “Asia connectivity strategy”, Iran nuclear deal, and the Korean peninsula peace process. Europe is also concerned with the human rights violations of some of its Asian partner countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia. Regarding the former, the summit urged for “the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return and reintegration of displaced persons”.
Indonesia and Thailand joined in to encourage and support multilateralism. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who attended the meeting in Brussels released a press statement that ASEM should be “a platform for building an inter-regional and intra-regional ecosystem for peace and stability” and for implementing international agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreements. Moreover, it should work on prioritizing connectivity amongst its partners. Vice President Kalla was optimistic that ASEM will be able to achieve its goals.
Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, reported after ASEM that world leaders’ response to Thailand’s proposed elections were positive. On the content of ASEM, he suggested that multilateral work should be based on “mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual interest”. He also signaled that Thailand is ready to assume chairmanship of ASEAN and host ASEM Seminar on Enhancing Human Capital for Sustainable Digital Connectivity next year.
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini held a number of bilateral meetings with several Southeast Asian leaders and counterparts. She met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to address the deterioration of democracy and rule of law in Cambodia, and also discussed with Myanmar’s Minister for International Cooperation on the grave human rights violations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states as well as the plight of the Rohingyas. Both Cambodia and Myanmar have been threatened with EU sanctions that will see them being withdrawn from the EU “Everything but Arms” trade arrangement.
When asked by the press whether ASEM’s agenda was targeted against the US, Mogherini, replied that the “ASEM is not “against” anyone” but also made clear that the EU has a clear agenda of supporting multilateralism, starting from the UN system, climate change action, trade and non-proliferation issues. All these are in clear contrast to US unilateral stance. Several European press highlighted Mogherini’s comments that the summit was not an “anti-Trump” meeting. However, European countries were also clearly of the consensus that the Asia-Europe partnership was in part meant to send a strong signal to Trump that Asia and Europe are committed to multilateralism and international cooperation. It was therefore interesting to note that the Wall Street Journal carried an article on the Summit headlining that “European and Asian Nations Join US’s Economic Pushback Against China”.
EU Council President Donald Tusk opened the summit by saying that “a world without rules is by definition a world of chaos”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also set the tone when she rebuked Trump’s “America First” approach to free trade and fervently defended the ability of free trade to create “win-win situations”. The free trade deal signed by the EU and Singapore was also positioned by Germany as a pushback against US protectionism and disregard for multilateralism. British media also perceived Merkel’s call for free trade as uniting in an act of defiance against Trump’s protectionist approach, similarly calling the trade deal between EU and Singapore a “clear rebuttal of rising US protectionism”.
The idea is for Europe and Asia to use their combined economic clout to tackle global challenges such as trade tensions and climate change. Irish media explicitly states that the main message of the meeting was directed firmly at Trump at a time when he is repudiating international trade, climate agreements and the role of the UN. Against the backdrop of bitter tariff disputes with Washington, leaders were expected to pledge their continued support to the global trading system based on the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Both German and British media stated that the EU also sought to shore up support for the Iran nuclear deal, expecting ASEM leaders to reaffirm their commitment to it.
The EU sees itself as being able to present a counterbalance to both the US and China by offering Asian countries alternatives in trade, infrastructure and digitalisation. A comprehensive proposal for the EU’s new “Asia connectivity strategy” was presented by Brussels, akin to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This strategy aims to improve transport, digital and energy links between the two continents while promoting environmental and labour standards. As Brussels media asserts, the European Commission’s Connectivity Strategy aims at improving hard and soft aspects of connection between Asia and Europe. Specifically, the new strategy seeks to expand existing transport connections to Asia, creating jobs, economic growth and benefits for the local communities. Details are still in the works.
However, several European countries also took the opportunity to stress that Europe’s desire to build a united front with Asia could be tempered by grave concerns about human rights issues in several Asian countries. British media pointed out that Amnesty International and several European lawmakers had urged EU leaders to call out their Asian counterparts for human rights abuses such as Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis and China’s internment camps for an estimated 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang. German newspapers stressed the challenge that European leaders face in maintaining good trading relations with Asian countries that have poor human rights records. Mogherini also warned Cambodia and Myanmar that they had to address election irregularities and the Rohingya crisis respectively, or risk losing their status as preferential trade partners.
France was particularly concerned with the North Korean issue, and French President Emmanuel Macron allied with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe for continued sanctions against North Korea. The Japanese Prime Minister wished to ensure that Europeans would not give in to the temptation to reduce the pressure on Pyongyang. British media also stressed the Korean détente, but from the perspective of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who hoped that world powers could reassure North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he had taken the right decision in committing to scrap his nuclear weapons programme.
China was particularly criticised for its trade practices by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who pointed out that Europe expects trade rules to be upheld and free trade must always be fair, equitable and based on rules. The EU claimed China distorted international trade by subsidising national companies, leading to oversupply in international steel and aluminium markets.
The final common thread weaving through European media is the hot topic of Brexit. Brexit was especially emphasised in media from Brussels and Ireland. Ireland portrayed the topic as having “dominated the press points”, pointing out that South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha had asked about negotiating a separate trade agreement with the UK. High Representative Mogherini had intervened immediately, stating that the UK would be unable to negotiate an agreement while it was still in talks on the terms of its departure from the EU. Irish media provided a different perspective on Brexit, listing potential bilateral partners British prime minister Theresa May had sounded out: China, Thailand, Korea and Singapore, among others. The UK hopes to replicate and improve on agreements with these partners once it has left the EU, and Irish media noted that British officials said all meetings were positive even with the Chinese prime minister.
Summing up, there were four broad issues raised by European countries: 1) utilising the Asia-Europe partnership to send a strong signal to Trump on multilateralism, trade and protectionism, Iran nuclear deal; 2) the idea of a “European” Belt and Road Initiative; 3) an emphasis on human rights violations in Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, North Korea and China; 4) discussions surrounding Brexit and the UK’s relationship with Asia from henceforth.
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