Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Europe Must Find Its Place In Asia’s Growing Regionalism

When they meet in October, Asian and European leaders must review, analyze and reflect on the dizzying array of regional integration initiatives on Asia’s political and economic agenda. The continuing drive for European integration is proof that building stronger ties between nations is vital for regional and global peace and security. However, as they search for closer intraregional links, Asia and Europe must also engage more actively with each other — or run the risk of drifting apart. The eighth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Brussels provides an ideal opportunity to highlight Asia-Europe relations.

Launched in 1996, ASEM is the only forum where Asian and European leaders, foreign ministers and other policy makers meet regularly to discuss common challenges. Despite frequent contacts, however, the Asia-Europe partnership has lost momentum and is in urgent need of renewal and revival. Both Asia and Europe stand to gain from an enhanced relationship. Europe cannot meet its aspirations of becoming a powerful global actor without engaging more actively with a rising Asia. Tackling key global challenges of the 21st century requires the active participation of Asia’s leading powers. And as Europe enters a period of economic austerity and cutbacks, Asia’s dynamic economies offer a huge and lucrative market for European technology, services and goods.

Europeans are already the biggest investors in Asia.

Asian nations, meanwhile, need to boost sales in Europe to maintain their impressive growth rates and European development aid is important for Asia’s smaller and poorer nations. Asian investments in Europe are increasing and a growing number of young Asians are studying in European universities. The European Union is often cited as an inspiration by Asia’s oldest regional organization, Asean. The EU’s experience and knowledge on the nuts and bolts of regional cooperation in both economic and security issues can be increasingly useful for Asean as it steps up its own integration drive.

Finally, in an interdependent and multipolar world, Asian governments cannot afford to ignore Europe even as they build stronger ties within their neighborhood and with the United States.
World attention is understandably focused on the impressive flurry of regional integration initiatives and proposals being tabled by Asian leaders. Europe is also on the move, however, with the EU’s new Lisbon Treaty and the appointment of a European “high representative for foreign and security policy.”

However, it is Asia’s debate on building a new “regional architecture” that intrigues a closely watching world. Recent Australian calls for an Asia-Pacific Community and Japanese proposals for an East-Asia Community have yet to be debated seriously. But integration in the region is gaining momentum through enhanced cooperation between governments, businesses and people.

Asean dominates the landscape — and intends to remain center stage. The organization, with its headquarters in Jakarta, is engaged in a fast-track road to further integration among its 10 members. Determined to remain the pivot around which the current debate on regional architecture revolves, Asean leaders meet regularly with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea for an Asean plus Three dialogue that focuses on economic, political and security issues. Separately, Asean leaders and their six counterparts (Asean plus Six) from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand meet for discussions on broad strategic political and economic issues within the East Asia Summit. Most watched in Europe are suggestions by Singapore and Indonesia for opening up the East Asia Summit to the United States and Russia or, alternatively, creating an Asean plus Eight forum that would meet every two to three years to coincide with a meeting of APEC in Asia.

Adding to the integration momentum, the “noodle bowl” of Asian free trade agreements keeps getting larger, with discussions under way on an East Asia-wide FTA and a recent US announcement that it is entering negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal that would includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.

Canada, Malaysia and Mexico are also set to join.

For Europeans the challenge is clear: As Asians build new regional alliances and partnerships, Europe must make sure it is part of the game and acquires a seat at the top table. Ensuring that happens is not going to be easy. Despite their strong trading links, Europeans have been unable to transform their economic strength into a stronger political presence in Asia. Thus, if Europe is to step up its engagement in Asia, it must be made part of Asia’s new regional architecture.

Asia Sentinel By Shada Islam a Brussels-based journalist

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