The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) remains a relatively unfamiliar strand of international cooperation. Despite its modest profile, ASEM has been a forum for dialogue and cooperation between Asia and Europe for two decades, and has expanded in size and scope along with the evolving nature of Asia-Europe relations and interactions. It now brings together 51 member states, along with the EU and the ASEAN Secretariat, and fosters economic, political, and cultural cooperation between its members.
This month (15-16 July), the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting concluded in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The Summit marked the 20th anniversary of ASEM and covered a wide range of topics. As was noted in the Chair’s Statement: “Leaders…exchanged views on the current political and socio-economic situation in the world and their respective regions, and discussed ways and means to address the existing and emerging challenges to international and regional peace, security, stability and sustainable development.” It also offered an opportunity to reflect on the past and future of ASEM and leaders “reviewed the progress made and achievements gained since the inception of ASEM in 1996, and set the course for further enhancement and evolution of the inter-regional process in the next decade.”
The need for a new course is pressing, as it is widely accepted that ASEM will have to continue to evolve if it is to stay relevant. Indeed, a study on the organization’s future, commissioned and financed by the European External Action Service and presented to ASEM Senior Officials in September 2015, urged ASEM leaders to “refine ASEM’s vision, including clear objectives and strategic priorities, in a short, simple and visionary “Ulan Bator Declaration,” outlining ASEM’s new narrative of relevance in the 21st century, to be adopted at the 20th anniversary summit.”
Although the need for a new narrative is widely accepted, the lack of strategic and geopolitical congruence both within and between the two regions means that there is no desire to move beyond the informal nature that has characterized the ASEM Process to date. Indeed, the Chair’s Statement affirmed the value of this structure along with the need to maintain it. As for the Ulaanbaatar Declaration, adopted by leaders at the summit, it envisions ASEM preparing for its third decade by reinforcing its partnership, focusing on cooperation for tangible benefits, fostering connectivity, and promoting informality, networking and flexibility.
As a core element of the Declaration as well as the overarching theme of this year’s summit, connectivity is seen as central to the future of ASEM. The Ulaanbaatar Declaration, for example, stated that “connectivity will be mainstreamed into all ASEM cooperation frameworks,” while the study on the future of ASEM listed recommendations to boost the connectivity elements of the dialogue process. Connectivity is a popular theme in contemporary international politics and covers a wide range of initiatives. It can refer to economic connectivity (for example trade facilitation measures or market integration), infrastructure connectivity (rail, road, and air connections) or to what is known as soft connectivity (people-to-people exchanges and interactions taking place outside of or alongside official channels).
Economic and infrastructure connectivity have long been the domain of inter-governmental cooperation, and are unlikely to be a major feature of the ASEM Process as they are better addressed and enhanced at the bilateral or regional level. Soft connectivity, on the other hand, is a newer concept – and one that is coming to be seen as increasingly important in a plethora of institutions, ASEM included.
The European Union’s Erasmus Programme, an intra-European student exchange scheme established in 1987 and aimed at fostering student mobility and understanding, is the archetypal soft connectivity program. It has proved so popular that it has recently been expanded to include all elements of the EU’s education, training, youth, and sport schemes, has been rebranded as Erasmus+, and given a budget of more than 16 billion euro for the period 2014-2020. Other notable examples include the United Nations University, a think tank and postgraduate institute devoted to the UN Charter objectives of peace and progress, and Model United Nations (MUN), a student simulation of UN meetings.
Beyond their immediate aims, such programs help make inter-governmental cooperation more relevant and accessible to ordinary citizens, and it is no surprise that international institutions and organizations increasingly see them as a way to add value to their activities and make their cooperation efforts more sustainable and durable. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, has made socio-cultural cooperation one of the three main pillars of its nascent ASEAN Community, and last year’s ASEAN Summit concluded with the issuing of the so-called “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centered ASEAN,” which committed members to continue developing soft connectivity pathways.
Being an informal dialogue process, as opposed to an international organization, it would be natural to expect that ASEM would lag behind when it comes to soft connectivity. While this assumption contains a grain of truth, soft connectivity has always been a part of the ASEM Process. The Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), for example, was established independently as an inter-regional civil society network and holds independent summits alongside ASEM ones. In addition, ASEM has steadily expanded its own efforts in this domain, and a whole host of initiatives are run under the aegis of the Cultural, Social, and Educational Cooperation pillar through the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), ASEM’s only permanent institution. These include permanent programs and ad-hoc projects in culture, education, sustainable development, economy, governance, and public health that facilitate the sharing of experience and the strengthening of ties and cooperation between Asia and Europe.
In tandem with these initiatives, there has been an increasing emphasis on engaging youth in the ASEM Process. This engagement is being taken seriously because, as the study on ASEM’s future noted, “youth might not be in the category of the most influential stakeholder, but they are definitely the most promising…increasingly leaders have come to recognize the importance of youth in improving visibility and impact.”
A clear recognition of this importance is the alignment of official ASEM events with youth events. Last year, for example, the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (FMM) was held in conjunction with the Asia-Europe Foundation’s first young leaders’ summit. The summit brought together more than 100 youth representatives from 51 different countries, active in academia, business, and the public and not-for-profit sectors. Over five days they met with key ASEM policymakers as well as business leaders and innovators to consider entrepreneurialism and employment from the perspective of Asia and Europe. The summit concluded with a dialogue between the youth representatives and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Subsequently, in a somewhat unorthodox interaction, representatives from this youth summit presented a call for action that they had drafted to the assembled Foreign Ministers at the FMM. The document urged that further attention be given to connectivity between Asia and Europe, stressed the need for governments to help engender an entrepreneurial culture within the region, and urged them to invest in entrepreneurial capabilities so as to prepare youth for the future ahead. At the same time, the young leaders called on the Ministers to further incorporate their voices and opinions into the ASEM process.
This call seems to have been heeded, as this year’s Model ASEM – the 7th student simulation of the leaders’ deliberations organized by the Asia-Europe Foundation – was held in Ulaanbaatar just before the actual summit. In an encouraging sign of engagement, the Chair’s Statement of the Model ASEM was presented to official representatives of the actual Chair and four of the participants went on to address the plenary session of the summit – a first. The willingness of ASEM leaders to undertake such initiatives is evidence of their commitment to expand soft connectivity between Asia and Europe and to broaden the scope of ASEM’s activities. This was further underscored by the Ulaanbaatar Declaration, which states that “all cooperation initiatives and mechanisms should encourage people’s engagement, especially that of youth and businesses, in ASEM’s activities.”
Although soft connectivity may at first glance seem to be a challenging concept to translate into tangible and impactful outcomes, its popularity and the ever-growing number of initiatives in this field suggest that it has an intrinsic value. In particular, it is seen as a way of making formal political and diplomatic processes more tangible and meaningful to youth. The example of the Erasmus program, which is easily one of the EU’s most popular initiatives at the grassroots level, highlights this. Given the lack of awareness of ASEM, and the increasing importance of Asia-Europe relations and interactions (between them the ASEM member states now account for approximately 60 percent of global output, trade, and population), the need to sustain and further develop such soft connectivity schemes within the ASEM Process is pressing. This is only exacerbated by the non-binding and informal nature of ASEM, which precludes the possibility of it formulating direct problem-solving interventions that would visibly impact ordinary citizens’ daily lives. Set against this backdrop, connectivity initiatives could yield large rewards in terms of profile and relevance.
The Ulaanbaatar Declaration, with its commitment to youth engagement, recognizes this, and the unique effort to integrate the young leaders’ summit and the model ASEM into the formal ASEM Process is therefore praiseworthy. More will need to be done to make ASEM’s new narrative of relevance for the coming decades tangible – cooperation needs to be expanded, more substance given to that cooperation, and coordination improved – but soft connectivity efforts will be central to increasing ASEM’s relevance, stature, and impact and ensuring that it survives and prospers in the decades ahead.
William Turner was the representative for Switzerland at the Asia Europe Foundation Young Leaders’ Summit and participated in the 7th Model ASEM.