Monday, October 4, 2010

Better late than never as Australia participates in ASEM

Almost 14 years after it first applied, Australia joins the 48-member Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) next week, with appointed Prime Minister Gillard making her first appearance on the international stage.

Gillard’s participation in ASEM on Oct. 4-5 draws attention to Australia’s drive to strengthen engagement with both Asia and Europe. It also boosts ASEM’s credibility as a forum for informal dialogue and consultation between the two regions.

ASEM participants account for 60 percent of the world’s population and 60 percent of world trade.

Australia does not want to miss out on this huge forum, which brings together not only government leaders and policymakers but also businesses, parliaments and civil society groups, providing opportunities to try out new means of cooperation and new ideas to resolve pressing global problems.

ASEM leaders in Brussels will issue a statement on improving global economic governance, achieving sustainable development, combating global warming and meeting aid targets. It is expected that the summit will pledge to work towards global peace and security.
Following up on the first steps towards financial consultation taken in Beijing in 2008, a separate ASEM declaration will seek to further develop high level Asia-Europe cooperation on restoring market confidence and boosting economic recovery. Global and regional flashpoints, including North Korea and Burma/Myanmar will be reviewed.

Significantly, Australia, New Zealand and Russia will be officially welcomed as new ASEM members. Gillard’s decision to make the ASEM summit the first international port of call demonstrates “the importance that Australia places on integration and engagement with Asian countries,” says Brendan Nelson, Australia’s Ambassador to the European Union. “Modern Australia sees itself as part of Asia — and is also designing a broader engagement with Europe,” he says.

Gillard became the first female prime minister of Australia in June, and following deadlocked elections in August, finally secured the right to remain in the job as head of a minority government.

Australia has long had an interest in joining ASEM — it put in a bid in 1996 and 1998 — but was turned down, by among others former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahatir. Australian officials expressed disquiet at not being included and officials were at pains to emphasize the country’s integration with East Asia and determination to be an important link between Asia and Europe.

The fact that Australia’s 2008 membership request went through unopposed “shows just how far Australia and Asians have come,” says Ambassador Nelson. “We applied again because we were impressed with the ASEM summit in Beijing in 2008 and its handling of the global financial crisis.”

Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU Council, will chair the two days of talks, with Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme by his side. Other European leaders are expected to turn up although the final tally has yet to be made.

However, Asian attendance is expected to be patchy. The presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines are not coming because of domestic concerns, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is preoccupied with the Commonwealth Games and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and New Zealand’s John Key have also declined the invitation. Gillard and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao can therefore expect to be in the spotlight.

The Brussels meeting will make statements on sustained recovery, trade liberalization, climate change, financial regulation, counterterrorism and antipiracy — but those looking for quick breakthroughs are likely to be disappointed.
However, ASEM with its 48 members — “G48” — will also Asian and European leaders to consult on preparations for the G20 Summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12 and in review the state of play on climate change negotiations ahead of the conference in Cancun, Mexico, on Nov. 29-Dec. 10.

ASEM’s key mission is to provide an opportunity for leaders to get to know each other, build trust and seek opportunities for collaboration. ASEM includes most of the world’s powers — although Australia’s “great and powerful friend”, the US, is not a member.

Joining ASEM deepens Australia’s ties with Asia but allows “us to be more creative with Europe by working on deeper engagement which goes beyond trade,” said Ambassador Nelson. “This is part of Australia’s role as a “constructive, influential middle power,” he says.

In fact, given its affinity with Asian countries and common values with Europe, Australia is expected to play a distinctive role in Asia-Europe dialogues. Joining ASEM means Australia can interact in a single forum with key partners in each region, try and influence agendas and deepen relations with both sets of interlocutors.

However, such engagement is not without its challenges. Although political discussions have become more intense in recent years, they are often marred by disagreements over human rights, with Asian countries bristling at Europe’s policy of sanctions against Burma/Myanmar and EU statements on human rights violations in other countries. Given its different values and society from many of its Asian neighbors, such discord is also a challenge for Australia’s persuasive diplomacy.

Australia could develop issue-based leadership within ASEM, taking the lead on some issues in which it has a special interest, with a small number of ASEM nations to drive an issue. It could also build on its reputation as a mediator — including among Asian states — bringing together broad coalitions. Australia and the EU, meanwhile, could combine their soft power assets to work more closely on development aid, peace promotion and conflict resolution.

ASEM’s agenda coincides with the Australian foreign policy focus on global governance, disarmament and sustainable development, Ambassador Nelson says, adding: “We think ASEM is an impressive forum — and Australia has a good story to tell on 30 years of reform and work on building an open economy.”

By Shada Islam Brussels-based journalist who covers Asia-Europe relations for several newspapers. Philomena Murray is Jean Monnet chair ad personam at the University of Melbourne and writes on Australia, Asia and the European Union. Jakarta Post

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