The ASEM Regime and its Participants' Interests

01 စက်တင်ဘာလ 2002

Published in Asia Europe Crosspoints


From an historic and institutional context and given the recent developments which have occurred in Asia and Europe, starting a process of cooperation between the two regions is a complex one. Since the Peoples Republic of China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam form the Asian region of ASEM, and the 15 member states of the European Union together with the European Commission make up the European side, the task of committing to, complying with, implementing and managing an institution of interregional cooperation is enormous. (1) For these reasons, observers declared the first meeting of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), held in Bangkok in 1996, a milestone and an historic event in Asia and Europe relations, a relationship which dates back to the times of the Roman empire, when silk from China, traded on the silk routes, was as expensive as gold.

Unlike other interregional exchanges, such as the EU-ASEAN (2) dialogue or the dialogue between the EU and the Mercosur, the member states of ASEM have agreed to cooperate in a wide variety of areas which cover the economic, political and cultural fields. (3) A further characteristic of ASEM is the form in which cooperation takes place: European and Asian member states agreed to adopt elements of the so-called Asian way as a modus operandi of the process. ASEM is the first interregionalism of its kind and further interregional approaches are being modelled after it. (4) The resulting process and the ASEM-polity itself, the institutional order and normative basis of the cooperation can best be characterised as an experiment in international relations.

The Membership Question and its Relevance for the Cooperation

Though ASEM stands for 'Asia-Europe Meeting' not all countries of Asia and Europe take part in the process. For example, Russia and India do not belong to the ASEM regime. The ASEM process brings together the fifteen member states of the European Union plus the European Union (EU), the 10 Asian government leaders from the countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam, together with the Peoples Republic of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The EU is represented by the European Commission and the Presidency of the European Council. The involvement of so many participants makes the harmonisation of interests extremely difficult.

The question of who should belong to the Asia-Europe Summit (as the meeting between Asian and European Heads of State and Government in 1994/1995 was called) became of major importance to those who conceptualised the process and continues to be a hotly debated topic. In order to solve the potential problem of conflict between the individual ASEM participants, the process has been conceived as an interregional one. The ASEM process aims to coordinate cooperation between the two regions.

But who belongs to these regions and why? Different definitions of what constitutes a region exist and it is a specific characteristic of the ASEM process that the issue of membership is viewed within the parameters of territorial and practical criteria.

On the one hand, the ASEM process is promoted as being an open one which allows any European or Asian country to participate. In the mid 90s, the member states agreed that ASEM membership would be enlarged in due course. On the other hand, practical considerations, together with political and economic considerations, have influenced the issue of membership from the very beginning and have led to the current status quo. Although the practical considerations have never been officially defined, they are the reason why seven years after its inauguration, the ASEM process is characterized by a de facto moratorium on membership. This development is the result of the various and divers interests of the 26 members. But limiting membership to the founding participants enabled the members to both strengthen and deepen the process of interregional cooperation.

Each member state has specific objectives and many states have changed their position towards ASEM. Some countries' have been deeply involved from the beginning while others have played a minor role. Certain countries interest has waned as the process has unfolded while others (e.g. the PR China) have developed a keener interest. (5) In order to analyse the degree of engagement of each member state, it is pertinent to pose the following questions:

  • What is the specific nature of the relationship between the member states?
  • What are their respective objectives for ASEM?
  • Which ASEM members play a dominant role in the process and why?
  • Have members acquired areas of common interest?
  • Who are the potential new members of ASEM?

What is the specific nature of the relationships within the ASEM process?

Apart from the desire to deepen economic cooperation, the European and Asian members had at least two additional and region-specific motives to embark upon a cooperative venture.

On the Asian side, member states intended to use the ASEM process as a diplomatic mechanism enabling Asian participants to cooperate on a country-to-country basis with individual EU member states. In addition, the ASEAN countries hoped that the fact of PR China's participation would appear more attractive for the Europeans to engage with Asia. The Europeans and, in particular, the EU-Commission were seeking to further develop a common European policy towards the Asian region. (6) From its very beginning, therefore, the ASEM process has struggled with two different perceptions of interregional cooperation which manifests itself in the form of institutional asymmetry. For Asian participants, inter-regional cooperation was viewed as operating on an intergovernmental level. This form of cooperation renders country to country negotiation more effective. In contrast, the Europeans saw ASEM as enhancing the development of two interdependent regions: one European and one Asian. (7)

This divergence between the two regions is, inter alia, related to the different forms of intraregional cooperation and regionalisation that has developed within the two regions. Member countries of the EU have agreed to a cede a certain amount of national sovereignty and have created supranational institutions such as the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Council and the European Parliament. In contrast, because no functional equivalent or institutionalised regional community exists on the Asian side, an institutional asymmetry developed between the participants.

The Respective Interests of the ASEM Member States

One of the key objectives of the ASEM process is to deepen cooperation between member states located in two very different regions. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between these states by geographical location and ask whether this influences their approach to the process.

The Asian Side

The Asian participants of the ASEM process can be loosely divided into two sub regions: Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Each of the two regions is represented by two ASEM Coordinators. Each coordinator is appointed by their respective regions and is charged with "facilitating the coordination of the ASEM process". (8)

Northeast Asia

The three Northeast Asian participants (the PR China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) are heterogeneous. In contrast to their Southeast Asian partners, they have not formed a regional organization such as ASEAN. Nevertheless, for the first time in their respective history, all three countries belong to a group which is represented alternately by one of them through the appointment of a Northeast Asian Coordinator.

The PR China

The People's Republic of China is one of the most important actors within the process. Without the participation of Beijing the process would not have begun in the first place. One of the primary objectives in forming ASEM was the engagement of China or, to put it in the words of a Southeast Asian diplomat, "to coax China into the mainstream of world affairs". But although Beijing agreed to participate in the first ASEM Summit in Bangkok in 1996, Chinese input was initially low. In contrast, there has been a noticeable sea change in PR China's dealings with ASEM in the last few years. Shen Guoliang, Senior Research Fellow at the 'China Institute for International Strategic Studies', describes Beijing's interest in the ASEM in the following terms:

  1. Because of the colonial history between Asia and Europe, any cooperation in the areas of the economy, politics and culture which is on an equal footing is a historic event.
  2. ASEM will further a process of multipolarisation and by this help to establish a new political and economic world order.
  3. ASEM will counter-balance the influence of the United States of America (USA) in the region.
  4. ASEM lays the basis for an Asian-European partnership which will lead to the enhancement of common interests and the adoption of common positions.

According to Shen there are also areas of conflict. Asia and Europe do not agree on issues such as the relative importance of political and security dialogue within the ASEM process and the liberalization of trade and investment. Zhang Yunling, Director at the 'Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' in Beijing, highlights the importance of European technology, which the Chinese government hopes to acquire with the help of the ASEM process. Beijing, for instance, took the lead in the 'Study Group on Enhancing Technological Exchanges and Cooperation' and has hosted 'Asia-Europe Experts' meetings on Technological Cooperation'.

Senior Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the Chinese Communist Party have expressed interest in the ASEM process. But they stress the importance of the process as a mechanism which allows for interregional cooperation with the Europeans without the participation of the USA. This is why the Chinese government is interested in the politico-strategic dimension of the process. The increasing interest of Beijing in ASEM coincides with the more prominent role being played by the PR China in the overall process. Not only did the PR China become an ASEM Coordinator but it also hosted several meetings at the ministerial level. As the ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting in 2002 made clear, the PR China is further increasing its input into ASEM by acting as a co-sponsor in all "key ASEM initiatives" for the coming ASEM Summit in Copenhagen. (9)


Although the government of Japan refused to support the Malaysian idea of an 'East Asian Economic Group' in the early 1990s, the Japanese government did agree to become part of the ASEM process. It thereby facilitated a de facto formation of an East Asian regionalism which, in turn, led to the development of the ASEAN+3 dialogue. (10) According to Senior Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the holding of the ASEM Summit in Bangkok was significant as it established a forum in which "countries that were subject to colonization" could have a frank and open dialogue on an equal footing with their European counterparts.

Although talks at the ministerial level have taken place between the ASEAN and the EU, for the first time a regular dialogue at the Head of State and government level was initiated between Asia and Europe. This is why Japanese diplomats take the view that ASEM contributes to confidence building between the participants and political stability within the Asian region. Japanese diplomats in the Foreign Ministry stress the importance of the 'political dialogue' dimension of ASEM and is increasingly interested in forming ASEM type fora at the global level e.g. at the United Nations (UN) or the World Trade Organization (WTO). In this sense, the political aspects of ASEM are what interest the Japanese the most.

In contrast, the powerful Finance Ministry strongly opposes the ASEM process because it does not see any positive results emerging from ASEM's economic cooperation. Senior Officials are convinced that the multilateral and regional approach of ASEM in the areas of trade and investment is contrary to Japanese interests. In their view, multilateralism is "very difficult to implement" and could result in the loss of important bargaining power at global fora such as the WTO. Therefore a bilateral approach to economic cooperation is the preferred option.

Overall, Tokyo's interest in the ASEM process has waned over the last number of years. In contrast to the PR China's increasing co-sponsorship of high profile meetings, Tokyo has agreed to take a leading role in only one of the new initiatives mooted for the ASEM Summit in Copenhagen, 2002. Given the highly problematical relationship between the PR China and Japan, the ASEM process will come under increasing pressure to resolve the countries' mutual differences. This will only increase should Beijing continue to use ASEM as a mechanism to promote its interests in the Asian region while Tokyo recoils from any deeper participation.

The Republic of Korea

South Korea has been a keen supporter of ASEM. During the first ASEM in Bangkok, the South Korean President, Kim Young Sam, successfully lobbied to ensure that ASEM III would be held in Seoul. South Korea further flagged its interest by submitting a proposal for the establishment of an 'Asia-Europe Vision Group' (AEVG). The group consisted of "persons of high calibre and international reputation in Asia and Europe who take part as individuals contributing an international and intercontinental perspective, rather than representing the views of their particular country or region".

The AEVG, whose aim was to provide views and ideas for the future course of the ASEM process, was initiated at the ASEM Summit in London in 1998 and presented its report to the Foreign Ministers in Berlin in 1999. But though the report was published and presented to the leaders in Seoul, during ASEM III in 2000, not all participants were happy with its content. The Chinese government objected to the reference that the South China Sea was a region of potential conflict in Asia. The reaction of Beijing towards the report of the AEVG is indicative of the problems with which Asian ASEM countries are confronted when engaging with the ASEM process. Very often individual state interests run contrary to and hinder the development of a common Asian ASEM position.

Lee Dong-Hwi from the 'Institute of Foreign Affairs And National Security' in Seoul considers the continuing rivalry between the PR China and Japan as the "basic factor" or reason why the South Korean government is involved in the ASEM process. Although mutual economic interest on the part of Asia and Europe in their respective markets was the motivating factor for the founding of the ASEM process, political considerations form the "sub-code" of continuing cooperation.

According to Lee, Seoul's basic strategic objectives within the ASEM are twofold:

  1. The development of a Northeast Asian "solidity" against the ASEAN.
  2. Coping with the rivalry between the PR China and Japan.

Nevertheless, Senior Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade fear that using ASEM as a mechanism for intensifying the cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the PR China could, in fact, worsen relations between the states if, for instance, Beijing feels pressurised. As the third ASEM in Seoul demonstrated, the South Korean President Kim Dae-jung successfully used the meeting to rally international support for his Sunshine policy towards North Korea. For the first time in its history, ASEM leaders adopted a document which dealt specifically with an area of security. The ratification of the 'Seoul Declaration for Peace on the Korean Peninsula' has been partly a result of Seoul's determination to enhance cooperation between the Northeast Asian ASEM participants.

Southeast Asia

The seven Southeast Asian countries of ASEM, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia (11), Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam (12), are all members of the ASEAN. Nevertheless, the regional organization ASEAN is not a participant in ASEM. Therefore the most recent members of ASEAN, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, have not automatically become ASEM members. The level and intensity of the Southeast Asian ASEM countries' involvement in the process differ in practical scope and conceptional input. Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are more interested in ASEM than Malaysia, Indonesia or Brunei Darussalam.


The ASEM process and the first meeting of the Heads of State and Government were initiated by the government of Singapore. Only after Singaporean diplomats talked with their French counterparts about an 'Asia-Europe Summit' were the remaining ASEAN countries informed about the plans for a meeting between Asian and European leaders.

Singapore's objectives in the ASEM process were outlined in the 'Asian Discussion Paper' December 1995, and which was mainly drafted by Singaporean diplomats. The paper emphasises the interest in building a forum which enables Asian and European participants to cooperate on an interregional level. Because East Asia and North America are linked through the APEC process, "the first and most fundamental purpose of the Asia-Europe Meeting is to bridge this missing link." (13) The missing link thesis was promoted in January, 1995 by the Singaporean Prime Minister during a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in which he stated: "The missing link is between Europe and East-Asia. This is the missing side of the triangle which could be formed by North America, Europe and East Asia." (14)

In order to build this link several policy areas are specified in the discussion paper. Beginning with the potential economic synergy between the two regions, the following priority areas are identified:

  1. Strengthening the multilateral trading system and the principle of open regionalism;
  2. Reducing trade barriers and promoting trade and investment liberalization and facilitation;
  3. Promoting investment;
  4. Strengthening cooperation in infrastructure development;
  5. Promoting scientific and technology cooperation, dialogue and cooperation on global environmental and development issues, the cooperation of the business sector;
  6. Developing human resources and eliminating poverty by enhancing development cooperation.

Through the enhancement of mutual understanding, further cooperation on cultural and educational can take place. In the area of politics and security, the discussion paper underlines the task to build a new security framework following the end of the Cold War. It stresses the necessity to deepen interdependence, cooperation, dialogue and the coordination between Asia and Europe. In that respect ASEM should enhance cooperation in the political, security and social fields and supply a forum to "discuss the roles of Asia and Europe in the world arena", while at the same time (a). Review political and security situations in Asia and Europe; (b) promote the democratisation, revitalisation and restructuring of the United Nations system and (c) deepen understanding of the respective security challenges in Asia and Europe through interregional dialogue.

In addition to statements made in official documents, Singaporean diplomats identify further reasons for their governments' interest in ASEM: (15)

  1. To guarantee an improved engagement of the EU in Asia and Southeast Asia.
  2. To develop a mechanism of cooperation that prevents any future potential conflicts between Asia and Europe.
  3. To construct an 'Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation' (APEC) type cooperation mechanism which helps to counter the economic influence of the USA in Asia.
  4. To develop a basis for a mutual economic engagement that is strong enough to sustain Asian-European cooperation even in times of economic recession.
  5. To engage with the increasing influence of the PR China in the areas of economic and security issues through an Asian-European cooperation initiative.
  6. To prevent a possible future reduction of military engagement by the USA by "engaging the Asian region in a more cosmopolitan kind of initiative".


The first ASEM meeting of the Heads of State and Government took place in Bangkok in February, 1996. Together with Singapore, the Thai government was the most active one on the Asian side in conceptualising ASEM. As the former Foreign Minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan, points out, the need for ASEM must be seen in the light of security needs in Asia. Because of the rising level of European trade and investment in the Asian region, the EU has an interest in ensuring the stability of the PR China, the security of the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. (16) Furthermore, Senior Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasize the politico-strategic interest in establishing a counterweight against US influence following the end of the Cold War. At the same time, Thailand's diplomats made it clear that they expected the process to enhance trade relations between Asia and Europe. In that respect the government in Bangkok expected the EU-member states to lower trade tariffs unilaterally and was therefore most interested in the concept of open regionalism.

The Thai government also feared the development of a 'fortress Europe' resulting, inter alia, from the implementation of European Monetary Union (EMU). To counter possible protectionist tendencies was another reason why Thailand's government supported the idea of ASEM. Bangkok wanted to engage the Europeans, thereby deepening interdependence between both regions.

But Thailand's government does not only want to use ASEM as an instrument for furthering cooperation on the regional and interregional level. At the same time, Bangkok uses ASEM as a forum which enables the ASEM participants to formulate common positions towards international organizations, like the WTO. Unfortunately, the ASEM Foreign Minister's Meeting in 1999 was not able to come to a collective decision in relation to the appointment of a new Secretary General of the WTO during. Nor was Thailand successful in forging a common Asian ASEM position in relation to a millennium trade round during the ASEM Economic Ministers' Meeting of the same year.

The Philippines

According to the Philippine Foreign Ministry, their interest in the ASEM process stems from the importance of ASEM's political dialogue pillar. In that respect the government's involvement in the ASEM process lies in the "strategic benefit" ASEM lends to the issue of the South China See. Senior Officials expect that specific cooperation programmes and initiatives will help to make ASEM a workable confidence building institution on a region-to-region level. In the economic sphere, Philippine diplomats expect a further enlargement of its trading links with the EU-member states with the help of the 'Trade Facilitation Action Plan' (TFAP), which aims to reduce non-tariff and transaction costs between ASEM economies. On the whole the ASEM process, in concert with the 'ASEAN Free Trade Area' (AFTA) and APEC initiatives, will serve as a kind of catalyst to allow the Philippine economy "to improve its global competitiveness". Furthermore it is in the interests of the Philippine government to pursue the all EU and EU member states' trade and industry programmes available through the ASEM process.


The interest of Vietnam's government in the ASEM process can be split into two categories: political considerations and economic considerations. Firstly, the government in Hanoi wants to make use of ASEM as a mechanism which could facilitate deeper integration of Vietnam into the regional and world economy. In that context, Vietnam hopes to use ASEM as an instrument to promote its future membership in the WTO. Vietnamese diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs underline the fact that Hanoi's involvement results from its potential to attract European trade and investments. Secondly, the government and the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam want to use the process as a tool to overcome the "unilateralism of the USA" and install a "multilateral order" in the region. As Senior Officials point out this is why "ASEM may even gain security functions".


Like all other ASEM countries the government of Indonesia has not published an official ASEM policy document, one which would describe the government's objectives within the process. But Senior Officials at the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs make it clear that Jakarta has lost interest in the process. Ever since the Asian economic and financial crisis hit, foreign policy has played a less important role in Indonesian politics. Due to the economic and social impacts of the crisis, the government hopes to use ASEM to receive development assistance from the Europeans. Like their colleagues in Thailand, Indonesian diplomats are convinced that Asia and Europe have a chance to build a forum that enables regional and interregional processes of coordination. Indonesian diplomats believe, that at least in the long term, ASEM will gain more political weight on the international level because the USA does not participate.

The European Side

In terms of international trade, the member states of the EU represent a phalanx towards the world. (17) Unlike trade policy, the EU has policy competence in the field of development cooperation. But in the field of foreign policy, a united front or a common EU foreign policy is confronted with a plethora of obstacles. The EU is not a state, many member states are reluctant to cede control of their foreign policies and certain member states wish to maintain their traditional and special relations with certain parts of the world. For many reasons, the question of defence policy is extremely problematical.

If one tries to analyse European interests in the ASEM process, through studying the most recent EU-Asia Strategy from September 2001, can be misleading. This is because dealing with ASEM means dealing with 26 actors. The process does not consist of only two actors, namely Asia and Europe, but of 26 actors that belong to two regions. One of those 26 actors is the EU, represented by the European Commission and the Presidency of the Council. Cooperation within the ASEM process does not take place between the EU and ASEM-Asia but between the EU, plus its 15 member states and ten Asian participants. Therefore it would be wrong to expect that the New Asia Strategy is a reflection of ASEM policy of the entire European region. The Commission's proposition "that we should set an overall strategic framework for our relations with Asia in the coming decade" (18) and its proposals for implementing the strategy is from the perspective of only one of the ASEM participants.

In contrast to the Asian side, the European side is not represented by Coordinators. These Asian Coordinators represent the interests of territorial sub regions like Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. The EU-Commission and the Presidency of the Council are the two European Coordinators. This is why at both the national and supranational level, the EU plays an important role in the ASEM process. Any analysis of the European participants' interests in ASEM needs to be done as well on the national as on the supranational level.

The Member Countries of the European Union

As with the Asian side, not every European participant of ASEM shows the same level of interest in the process. Greece for instance has not co-sponsored a single ASEM initiative and Greek diplomats do not hesitate in confessing the low interest of their government in Asia. This is due to the complete absence of economic relations with any country in the Asian region.

Other EU member states like Italy were actively engaged in the ASEM initiative at an early stage. Rome cosponsored the 'Forum of Venice on Culture, Values & Technology' in January, 1996. During the Summit in London in 1998, the host country made use of ASEM to demonstrate the UK's interest in Asia. The UK presented itself as an economic "powerhouse" and Asia's "gateway" to Europe. It was Tony Blair's government that proposed the 'ASEM Trust Fund' as a new ASEM initiative. Apart from the UK, France and Germany have actively supported the ASEM process. Both countries lobbied their European counterparts and the EU-Commission to start the ASEM process in 1996.

Looking at the historical background of the ASEM process, it becomes obvious that ,for European participants, economic self-interest was the critical factor which led to the "New Comprehensive Asia-Europe Partnership for Greater Growth" (19) outlined in Bangkok in 1996. The rationale for European participation in the ASEM process has to be analysed against the perception, which held great sway at the time, of a so-called Asian 21st century. Formulated in the beginning by the German Asienkonzept der Bundesregierung in 1993, Asia became more and more important to European foreign policy makers.

Because of the economic dynamism within the Asian-Pacific region, the potential for intensified economical cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, and technology was immense. The Europeans were also greatly concerned by the threat of competition from the USA and Japan. They feared that European companies might lose contact with the region's burgeoning developments. The complexity of European interests in the Asian region became apparent with the publication of 'the Asia Strategy Project' by the Swedish government in 1999. The global economy, institutional capacity building, overall quality of life, the environment, human rights and regional security are listed as relevant indicators of a "Perspective on Asia". (20)


For Germany, the identification of Asia as a new region of focus for German foreign policy was politically driven. It was necessary to secure "Germany's future" (21), while at the same time promoting a global policy that promoted peace. Within this overall context, Bonn emphasized the importance of (a) initiating a dialogue with the newly founded APEC process; (b) deepening its relations with the PR China and (c) strengthening relations with Asia in the areas of society and culture. (22)

Although initially the Bundeskanzleramt reacted reluctantly to Singapore's proposal (see ante), ASEM I was regarded as an important event for German interests. The amount of concrete follow-up measures - the participation of the private sector in the new 'Asia-Europe Business Forum' (AEBF); the founding of the 'Asia-Europe Foundation' (ASEF) to which Germany contributed more than any other EU member state and the participation of the PR China in the ASEM process - triggered ASEMania in the Asian Departments of the German federal bureaucracy.

Following the Asian economic and financial crisis, the Asian fever was already abating when the Heads of State and Government met in London during ASEM II in 1998. While the short-term economic gains from cooperation were waning, the potential long-term strategic quality of the ASEM process as a tool for German foreign policy became more important. Particularly because the USA is not taking part, German diplomats hold the view that the ASEM process carries with it an emancipatory dimension, one which provides the ASEM participants with the means to interact on a new basis.

In this context, the French role in the ASEM process is an important one because Paris views ASEM as a mechanism to multipolarise international relations following the end of the Cold War. Jacques Chirac, who took part in all three ASEM Summits, frequently espouses the need to create a "multipolar world". (23) During one of the closed sessions at ASEM II in London, the leaders of Germany and the UK declared their preference for a multipolar World Order.

In its new Ostasienkonzept, the German Federal Foreign Office argues that the importance of regional and security issues in Asia have increased. Inasmuch as developments in Asia have had global repercussions, it is in the interests of Germany to exert its influence within the ASEM process. This is why the Federal Foreign Office considers the political dialogue between the leaders and the Foreign Ministers the centrepiece of ASEM and lists four priorities for a "German East Asia policy":

  1. The peaceful solution to the conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
  2. The promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
  3. The establishment of fora for consultation and cooperation in order to solve global issues.
  4. The promotion of German economic interests. (24)

According to German diplomats, the broadening of the ASEM process through the participation of civil society actors is also part of the German position vis-à-vis ASEM. While the Asian side declined the request by Asian and European NGOs for a 'Social Forum' to be included in the official ASEM process, the German government agreed to financially support the 'ASEM People's Forum' in Seoul prior to ASEM III. Thus European governments are willing to support the ASEM process and, equally, support the participation of civil society actors within the official ASEM process. The interest in and increasing importance of the civil society sector within the ASEM process can be seen at the EU-level as well. In 2002, the EU Commission for the first time financed a meeting of Asian and European NGOs.

The EU Commission and the EU Council

The role of the EU in the ASEM process is complex. The most important factor, at the interregional level of cooperation, is that the EU Commission and the Presidency of the Council are the two ASEM Coordinators on the European side. Since the Coordinator of Northeast Asia, the Coordinator of Southeast Asia and the Presidency of the EU Council rotate, the EU Commission is the only actor in the ASEM process that has all the institutional knowledge of the ASEM process". According to a German diplomat this is an important position of power, since the Commission has a "quasi right of proposal on the European side." Asian diplomats, for example, officials from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put it more bluntly and state that the Commission is the "brain of ASEM". In contrast, Malaysian diplomats hold the view that the EU Commission plays a "redundant" role in the ASEM process since "ASEM is about statist actors".

The role of the EU-Presidency is important as well. Individual member state officials, working in the Consilium in Brussels and the 'Asia-Oceania Working Group' responsible for coordinating national ASEM policies, maintain that the European ASEM agenda is worked out through intergovernmental mechanisms. Nevertheless, ASEM leaders have so far been allowed to pick upon any topic they want to discuss during their multilateral meetings and follow their own stream of consciousness. Therefore each European Head of Government is not expected to parrot the EU official position but instead can highlight areas of common interest. An illustrative example is the comment made by the President of France who, according to a diplomat involved in a long closed session between the leaders, exclaimed during the ASEM in London in 1998 that the first human right is the right to eat. Apart from those issues on which a European united front or a common policy exists, the European leaders are certainly prepared to discuss issues on which the EU does not represent the "block" - as Asian diplomats describe the so-called single voice of the EU.

Do the Member States Acquire a Common Interest?

Through analysing the role and importance of the political dialogue pillar within ASEM, the question as to whether or not ASEM members acquire common interests and formulate common positions in relation to specific issues can be addressed.

Political dialogue moved to the centre of ASEM proceedings during the Foreign Ministers' Meeting in 1999 in Berlin, when security issues like the Korean Peninsula and the missile-tests of North Korea and the developments in Russia, Cambodia, Kosovo, Myanmar, East-Timor and the South China Sea were discussed. Since then, political dialogue is of rising importance within the ASEM framework. During ASEM III in Seoul in 2000, the leaders decided that the bi-annual Meetings of the Foreign Ministers would now become annual.

The Seoul meeting resulted, for the first time, in a common position being adopted by all of the 26 participants in relation to a security issue. The 'Seoul Declaration for Peace on the Korean Peninsula' not only "encouraged" South Korea and North Korea "to continue building on the success of the Summit (inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, 13-15 June 2000) for the sake of peace and security in the region" but "welcomed the recent positive developments in relations between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States". Furthermore, the Seoul Declaration refers to ASEM as a de facto actor in international relations for the first time and thereby endeavours to define its relation towards third actors. As one European diplomat put it, the Seoul Declaration has a quasi-binding force and can be used as a tool, for example by the South Korean government, to remind ASEM-participants of their encouragement towards the Sunshine-policy of President Kim Dae-jung.

But the analysis of the policies within the ASEM in the field of political dialogue reveals that a foreign policy of the EU towards Asia will be a mixtum compositum of the individual foreign policies of the EU member states and at the EU level. The behaviour of the European states, at least until now, does not suggest that they will coordinate their foreign policies or use an interregional approach in shaping foreign policy towards Asia. Although the EU Commission in its first 'Asia Strategy' paper in 1994 stressed the importance of adopting an interregional approach, the individual positions adopted by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands towards North Korea during the Seoul Meeting was crucial to the success of the Declaration. In direct opposition to France, the aforementioned EU member states decided to normalize their relations with the government in Pyongyang.

Jacques Chirac's opposition to the idea of establishing diplomatic relations with the DPRK, in the absence of any guarantees from the government in Pyongyang to improve human rights, together with the EU Commission's opposition, revealed how split the Europeans can be. In the end, the views of both European ASEM Coordinators were ignored. The whole event is indicative of the importance of individual member states within the ASEM context. After all France was president of the EU Council in 1994 when the Singaporean government floated the ASEM idea and this proposal happily dovetailed with France's views on a multipolar world order. This behaviour on the part of major EU member states exemplifies the de facto inability of the European ASEM actors to coordinate their policies and, as a result of this behaviour, develop a common foreign policy towards Asia. The manner in which the debate on reform of the UN evolved within ASEM is a good indication of how the political dialogue pillar of the process can be used by individual member states to search for a "common ground". (25). This example needs to be analysed for two reasons. On the one hand, the fact that the issue of UN reform emerged within the context of ASEM indicates that severe clashes of interest between EU member states is hindering Europe's ability to agree on an agenda for reform. As Germany and Italy do not agree on the need for reform of the UN Security Council, the whole issue has been blocked for years within ASEM.

Nevertheless, because of a Chinese initiative at the third meeting of the ASEM Foreign Ministers in 2001 in Beijing, the participants agreed to meet on the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York. (26). Having failed to discuss the issue of UN reform during a meeting in New York in June 1996, the ASEM foreign ministers agreed to convene an international forum on the issue. For the first time in five years, the ASEM actors agreed to search for common ground and for a common position with regard to an international issue.

The success of the Beijing meeting marked the rising importance of the PR China as an actor within the ASEM process. Whereas a conflict of interests on the European side prevented debate on UN reform for years, Beijing made it possible to break the deadlock so that states no longer talk about New York but talk in New York. As analysis of the UN reform issue reveals, the political dialogue pillar of the ASEM process has been harnessed by certain member states to develop a common position which will be deployed at the UN: a development the founding fathers of ASEM did not foresee.

The 'Declaration for Peace on the Korean Peninsula' and the UN meetings suggest that individual member states can successfully use ASEM as a tool to discover common ground and develop common interests. This is not to say that the process has been successful from the EU Commission's perspective, who had also been hoping to use the process to develop "a stronger coordination within the Union" (27) - as outlined in the first 'Asia Strategy' from 1994.

In fact the development of the ASEM process during the last seven years has shown that interregional relations will take place between more than two actors. As the number of bilateral meetings within the ASEM process increases, it appears that individual nation states are using an interregional approach to international relations in order to cooperate bilaterally.

Potential ASEM-members

Though the German Foreign Minister made it clear in 1997 that an enlargement of ASEAN will not directly lead to an enlargement of ASEM, the ASEM Foreign Ministers in 2002 recommended that the whole issue should be discussed at the ASEM in 2004 in Hanoi. For the first time in ASEM's history, three potential candidates - Cambodia, Laos and the Union of Myanmar - have been officially mentioned. (28) The Southeast Asian ASEM participants and Malaysia, in particular, are successfully lobbying for the inclusion of all ASEAN countries in the ASEM process. At the same time, European diplomats and the EU Commission hold the view that, as a natural outcome of EU enlargement, all new EU member countries will automatically become ASEM participants.

This is why the enlargement of ASEAN and EU will play an important role in any future enlargement of the ASEM process. As the development of the ASEM process has made apparent, it is likely that any new members will already belong to the ASEAN and the EU. Whether countries like Russia, India, Pakistan and Switzerland, - to mention only a few of the over 20 countries who expressed their interest in joining ASEM - will become ASEM participants at some point is still too early to tell. But the fact that, ever since the first meeting of ASEM in 1996, leaders and diplomats cannot agree on the issue of enlargement indicates that, for well into the first decade of the 21st century, ASEM will not be open to those Asian and European states who like to participate. In that sense, the process is, and will remain for a long time to come, a closed shop.


1 See: Bersick, Sebastian, 'Zur Politik der interregionalen Beziehungen: Das Beispiel des ASEM-Prozesses'. Inauguraldissertation am Fachbereich Politik- und Sozialwissenschaften der Freien Universität Berlin. Forthcoming.
2 Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Founded in 1967. The ASEAN is not a member of ASEM, but all Southeast-Asian participants of ASEM are members of the ASEAN.
3 See for a first comparative analysis of Interregionalism: Hänggi, Hainer, Interregionalism in Comparative Perspective. Paper prepared for the international conference on "Interregional Relations" at the University of Freiburg, Germany, 31 January/1 February 2002.
4 For example, the Europe-Africa or Cairo Summit (composed of the OAU and Marocco) and the EU-LAC (composed of the Rio Group and the Caribbean Community) or the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation.
5 The country specific information used in this article has been, inter alia, obtained from official documents and interviews between 1999 and 2000 with Asian and European ASEM-experts from the respective ministries.
6 According to the EU-Asia Strategy, the main reason for closer political relations with Asia (being defined as consisting of 26 different countries in East, Southeast and Southasia) is the task to develop a Common Foreign and Security Policy. See: Mitteilung der Kommission an den Rat. Auf dem Weg zu einer neuen Asien-Strategie. KOM(94) 314 endg./2, Brüssel 27.07.1994. And: European Commission, Communication from the Commission, Europe and Asia: A Strategic Framework for Enhanced Partnerships. In: Panorama, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Manila, 4/2001, pp. 57-95.
7 At least this is what the EU-Commission had in mind. Diplomats from EU member states in 1997 described the cooperation within ASEM as a country-to-country modus.
8 Asia-Europe Cooperation Framework 2000, paragraph 22.
9 See: Fourth ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Chair Statement, Madrid, 6-7 June 2002, paragraphs 6 and 7.
10 Within the ASEAN+3 (APT) dialogue the ASEAN meets the PR China, Japan and South Korea. After a first meeting of the Heads of State in December 1997, they meet regularly once a year. A Joint Declaration from 1999 names economic, social and security issues as policy areas for cooperation.
11 The government of Malaysia is interested in the ASEM process for mostly economic reasons. Within the Foreign Ministry, the Department of Trade and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry Senior Officials underline the importance of ASEM in the context of trade policies. Because the PR China and Japan take part in ASEM, Malaysian diplomats argue that their position towards Europeans is stronger than in the ASEAN-EU dialogue.
12 The involvement of Brunei Darussalam within the ASEM process is very low key. The government has promoted no follow-up measures. Nevertheless, official government institutions like the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Primary Resources underline the importance of the overall process.
13 The Asia Europe Meeting. An Asian Discussion Paper.
14 Goh Chok Tong, Europe-Asia Partnership for Growth, World Economic Forum, 28.01.1995, Davos, p. 2.
15 See: Bersick, Sebastian, ASEM: Eine neue Qualität der Kooperation zwischen Europa und Asien, Münster, 1998, pp. 50-53.
16 Pitsuwan, Surin, What political measures are necessary, to ensure a continuing and well balanced economic cooperation between the two regions? - An Asian perspective, in: Singh, Bilveer, von Hofmann, Norbert (Eds.), Europe and Southeast Asia: What will be the common future?, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Singapore 1996, p. 23.
17 Foundations of this united front are mainly the Common External Tariff (CET) and the Common Commercial Policy (CCP). See: Pfetsch, Frank R., Die Europäische Union. Geschichte, Institutionen, Prozesse. Zweite erweiterte und aktualisierte Auflage, München 2001; Woyke, Wichard, Europäische Union. Erfolgreiche Krisengemeinschaft, Odenbourg 1998; Nugent, Neill, The Government and Politics of the European Union, Third Edition, London 1994.
18 "Communication from the Commission, Europe and Asia: A Strategic Framework for Enhanced Partnerships". In: Panorama, 04/2001, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Manila, p. 57.
19 Chairman's Statement of the first Asia-Europe Meeting,
20 See: Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Ed.), Our Future with Asia. Proposal for a Swedish Asia Strategy. Stockholm 1999.
21 The Federal Government's Conception on Asia, Art. I, 1,
22 Ten Aspects of German Policy towards Asia,
23 See the speech of Jacques Chirac during ASEM III: "(...) d'un monde multipolaire dans lequel l'Union européenne et l'Asie joueront un rôle majeur". Discours de Monsieur Jacques Chirac, Président de la République Francaise. Lors de la Cérémonie officielle d'ouverture du 3ème Sommet Europe-Asie. Seoul-Corée, 20 Octobre 2000, p. 3.
24 See: Auswärtiges Amt (Ed.), Aufgaben der deutschen Außenpolitik. Ostasien am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, Mai 2002, p. 14. And: Auswärtiges Amt (Ed.), Aufgaben der deutschen Außenpolitik. Südostasien sowie Australien, Neuseeland und Pazifische Inseln am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, im Mai 2002.
25 In the paragraphs 8 and 9 of the AECF 2000 it is stated: "[The] ASEM process should: enhance mutual understanding and awareness through a process of dialogue and lead to cooperation on the identification of priorities for concerted and supportive action (...) Reflecting the common desire to strengthen the political dialogue between Asia and Europe, this should be fostered by highlighting and expanding common ground (...)".
26 In order to strengthen cooperation on issues addressed by the UN, they [the Foreign Ministers] decided that before sessions of the General Assembly, ASEM partners would hold consultations at the appropriate level in New York or other agreed places to exchange views on agenda items. Such consultations could also take other agreed forms. Chairman's Statement of the Third ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Beijing, China, 24-25 May 2001, paragraph 6.
27 See: Kommission der Europäischen Gemeinschaften, Mitteilung der Kommission an den Rat, Auf dem Weg zu einer neuen Asienstrategie, KOM(94) 314 endg./2, Brüssel, den 27.07.1994, p. 3.
28 Fourth ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Chair Statement, Madrid, 6-7 June 2002, paragraph 11.