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6th Jun 2020

Europe and Asia seek stable relations in troubled times

  • EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini at the opening of Friday's EU-ASEM summit (Photo: European Commission)

Overshadowed by the 28 European Union countries struggling to seal a deal on Brexit, leaders from 51 European and Asian countries meet in Brussels for the 12th ASEM summit on Friday (19 October).

Covering two-thirds of the world's economic output and governing more than half of the world's population, the Europe and Asian leaders' summit is a chance for world-leaders to discuss global issues - without the United States being at the table.

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  • 'Asia is the boom region in the world', says Jo Leinen MEP, who heads the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China (Photo: EUobserver)

"Asia is the boom region in the world. They are interested in a rules-based system" Jo Leinen, MEP and chair of the European parliament's delegation for relations with China told EUobserver ahead of the summit.

"They want a global order where you have clear commitments and clear guidelines and I think they match with the interests of the European Union," he said.

"As the Trump administration is getting more and more unpredictable, causing insecurities and damage, everybody is looking for coalitions and partners for a stable relationship. ASEM is a perfect opportunity to come together and show unity in fundamental principles of international relations," he added.

Intergovernmental

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is an intergovernmental body established in 1996 to improve relations between Asia and Europe.

It has 53 partners: 30 European and 21 Asian countries, the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat.

It includes big and influential nations like China, India, Russia, Japan as well as the European Union, Australia and New Zeeland - but it is not a body that can make binding decisions.

So while the media coverage this week has focused on the stalled Brexit negotiations, very little attention was devoted to the ASEM summit.

"It is more a forum for mutual understanding and information," explained Leinen - adding that that was still something.

"What such a big coming together of two continents could agree on [is the] 'global good', on common objectives – the better the world order will be and the better we can manage the global challenges that everybody faces. Even the biggest countries are too small to manage them," he said.

The Asia-Europe summit is held every two years. Friday's meeting will be chaired by the European Council president Donald Tusk, and have commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also representing the EU.

Global conflicts

And while Europe's attention was focussed at the EU summit on the domestic challenges of Brexit, migration and Italy's budget deficit, Asian states' own relations are not all harmony and peace.

Some of the worlds most complicated and severe conflicts are in the hands of the leaders who will be around the table on Friday, such as South Korea's dealing with its nuclear northern neighbour, China's conflict with neighbours in the South China Sea and Myanmar's Rohingya crisis, just to mention a few.

"Ironically enough, the one place where Europe and Asia could be on the same page is on saving the WTO. Despite growing views to the contrary, the WTO is still the only viable institution that provides a rules-based mechanism for dealing with global trade disputes," deputy director of Carnegie Europe, Lizza Bomassi, pointed out ahead of the summit.

The official agenda include talks on trade and investment, connectivity, sustainable development and climate, security challenges such as terrorism, non-proliferation, cyber-security and irregular migration.

"Lately we are also dealing with the new world of the internet. We are all depending on computers and hackers all over the world are really a risk for public life, for industries and for companies. We need a rulebook for good behaviour in the age of the internet," said Leinen.

Bilaterals

More concretely, the summit will be used to negotiate and sign several bilateral deals and hold bilateral meetings in the margins.

The European Union plans to sign a free trade agreement with Singapore, while in the process to finalise a trade pact with Japan.

The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced bilateral meetings in Brussels with leaders from the Visegrad countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, as well as with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Italy's Giuseppe Conte and Austria's Sebastian Kurz and EU commission president Juncker.

Meetings between Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and German chancellor Angela Merkel have also been announced.

On the eve of the summit, the commission presented an EU-Vietnam trade and investment agreements for signature.

"By adopting them a few hours before welcoming the participants in the ASEM summit in Brussels, the commission shows its commitment to open trade and engagement with Asia," Juncker said.

Connectivity

"I trust that we have common interests in, for example, the Europe-Asia connectivity plan," Leinen suggested.

The European commission published a new strategy for connecting Europe and Asia in September, ranging from transport and energy to the digital economy.

The strategy could be seen as a response to China's massive "Belt and Road" initiative, which many European officials are increasingly wary of.

"Huge investments are at stake on connectivity. The Belt and Road initiative by China sets the pace and the EU's connectivity strategy is the alternative model proposed by the European Union," Leinen said.

Another European headache is related to Chinese investments in European businesses, including companies producing strategic important products.

"Buying into them allows China to transfer such technologies back home as part of its "Made in China 2025" strategy. This is about intellectual property rights. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has repeatedly criticised China's disregard for such rights," commented Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

The German government is now curbing such acquisitions for strategic reasons while a European initiative on the matter has not been tabled.

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ASEM: Global Partners for Global Challenges

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EU and China perform tricky diplomatic dance

EU and China relations kicked off 15 years ago after signing a strategic partnership. Trade has increased dramatically but human rights and other issues remain tricky as the two seek to defend international law and international trade.

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