Asian and European leaders meeting in Vientiane this week have an opportunity for frank discussion on inter-regional issues of concern
The Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) this week in Laos will mark a good opportunity for leaders to discuss political and economic cooperation and a future direction so that the two regions can work constructively together.
The meeting this year is held against the backdrop of many incidents that will shape the future of inter-regional cooperation, including the ongoing crisis in the euro zone, the inconclusive trade talks held under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the re-emergence of territorial disputes in Asia.
If the leaders in attendance shy away from touching upon these critical issues, the meeting could be irrelevant.
Asem is one of the biggest gatherings of leaders from both regions. Those scheduled to attend this year include China's Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti.
At any rate, the active participation of national leaders from Asia and Europe is a welcome confirmation that Asem has regained momentum. Some of the Asem meetings in recent years have lacked active participation by some leaders, at a time when Asian countries were struggling to recover from the 1997 financial crisis, and the European Union was focusing on expansion and its own internal economic problems.
The Asem theme this year reflects an ambition that the regions hope to strive to achieve in the future. This year's meeting convenes under the theme "Friends for Peace; Partners for Prosperity". The meeting will also welcome new members including Norway, Switzerland and Bangladesh.
A multilateral forum such as Asem should help ease concerns that any single country - such as China - might play too predominant a role in the region. Europe's closer ties with Asia should provide a platform for both regions to prosper. The Asem meeting can also pave the way for new infrastructure for businesses to thrive. For instance, the Asem leaders can, at least, signal their intention to conclude the WTO's Doha Round of multilateral trade talks, which has been long overdue. The conclusion of the talks is crucial in order to gain the participants' faith in a free and fair international trade system. After all, Laos, the Asem host, is set to become a new WTO member after the country's National Assembly ratifies the agreement.
In addition, Asem provides a perfect forum for Asian and European leaders to exchange views on the euro-zone crisis and what Asia can learn from the European Union. The euro-zone crisis has affected Asian economies, as many countries in this region export a lot of products to the EU. The links are not limited only to trade in goods, but also financial and other services.
The idea of Asean's economic integration has also been, more or less, inspired by the EU model. But the debt crisis in the EU has, nonetheless, revealed the challenges faced when a group of countries decide on monetary integration.
The inclusion of Myanmar in the meeting should also mark a new chapter for EU diplomatic relations in the region. Prior to this, the EU's economic sanctions on Myanmar had become a thorn in the side in the context of the EU's relationship with Asean. EU and Asean trade negotiators faced a deadlock, for example, over how to include Myanmar in the planned Asean-EU free-trade agreement.
The opening up of Myanmar should mark a new chapter in both regional and inter-regional cooperation. The EU has floated ideas to create bilateral trade agreements with many Asean countries. The Asem should thus provide a forum for both sides to air their views and ideas on how these agreements should go forward.
On security and geo-political issues, the Asem can also provide a forum for leaders to sort out territorial conflicts. While Asean cooperation can be affected by disputes in the South China Sea, the flare-up of tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could affect the entire region.
These are among the issues that the leaders should discuss to help formulate solutions, thus making Asem a relevant forum to set directions for inter-regional cooperation in the future.
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