C3S Paper No. 0076/2016
Twenty years of striving to strengthen understanding, trust and cooperation between two continents through political dialogue, economic cooperation and socio-cultural exchange is a remarkable effort. In the course of these two decades, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), as the pre-eminent trans-regional forum in this part of the world, has come a long way for its modest beginnings in Bangkok in 1996 attended by 25 Asian and European leaders.
Today, it has 53 members, and more than 200 of their representatives gathered in Guangzhou on May 9-10 for the Media Dialogue on Connectivity held for Promoting Public Awareness and Partnership. It was a milestone on the eve of the ASEM’s 11th Summit scheduled in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, in July 2016.
The Dialogue – hosted by China and co-sponsored by Mongolia, Pakistan, New Zealand and Singapore – saw intensive input, insight and interaction on the progress made, work in progress, and the challenges and promises ahead. Being there for the occasion provided me a ringside seat.
In the course of its journey towards a comprehensive partnership between Asia and Europe, connectivity has emerged as the priority. The importance of connectivity for economic prosperity and sustainable development was emphatically reiterated at the 10th summit in Milan. This has given rise to a debate on asserting ASEM as the “institutional home of connectivity,” which has continued in Guangzhou; albeit, only in the context of the Media Dialogue. It is certain to be more intensely deliberated at the upcoming summit in Ulaan Baatar.
Connectivity is inconceivable without having media as, at least, a stakeholder if not a partner. There are those who feel that the media should be the fourth pillar of ASEM to complement the political, economic, social and cultural pillars.
Recognition of the media’s role in promoting public awareness is an outcome of a series of initiatives during the last two years towards intensifying Asia-Europe connectivity. These include ASEM’s Think Tank Symposium, Industry Dialogue on Connectivity, Symposium on the Eurasia Transport and Logistics Network, and the Seminar of ASEM at 20-Challenges of Connectivity.
The Dialogue was intended for media representatives to review the progress of connectivity and set out the role and potential of the media in enhancing the visibility of ASEM, advancing connectivity as the pivot for a vibrant revival of ASEM and promoting people-to-people linkage in Asia and Europe.
The Dialogue for involving the media towards the success of connectivity should be viewed in the context of the situation in Europe, the condition of Asia and ASEM’s performance so far – none of which are heartening.
Europe is facing a deep existential crisis triggered by terrorist strikes in its capitals, a possible Brexit, refugees pouring in and the consequent revival of Fortress Europe with even more fortified walls that make nonsense of the European Union’s common policies such as human rights and non-discrimination. There is a revival of racism as well as stiffer social, political and economic barriers. There is hostility to “outsiders” and doubts over the EU’s unity, cohesion and efficacy of Schengen visa.
In Asia, despite the high rates of growth and GDP, there is rising economic inequality, deprivation of access to social and economic justice and wealth and income disparity within and between nations. Poverty and inequity remain key concerns for most countries and there is a divide in Asia marked by the “developed,” “developing” and “underdeveloped.”
Europe wants Asian goods, services and resources. It wants to leverage Asia, and Asia’s advantages, deficits and compulsions of (under) development to recover and reinforce its own economic prowess. Asia, in turn, grasps the partnership in the hope of reducing the development gap while gaining infrastructure, technology and the means of prosperity. Paradoxically, much of the investible surplus, too, is provided by Asia, such as China’s massive funding of the Belt and Road initiative, which is connectivity’s lifeline. It is an unequal partnership between the developed and the developing, also in terms of demographics and resources.
In the circumstances, ASEM has acquitted itself rather well. It has weathered storms and threats, kept its focus, stuck to its direction and remained steadfast and cohesive. That was good enough until now. However, that’s not enough for ASEM to breakthrough to the next level, as it must, and remain relevant in its third decade.
A Europe in crisis has little thought or space for human rights and humanitarian considerations. In the event, the central plank of people-to-people linkage as a key dimension of connectivity could be in jeopardy. ASEM needs to address this, for it is also a crisis of Europe’s confidence in itself as an entity that deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize, of Europe’s imperative to win Asian confidence and also of Europe’s confidence to sustain and strengthen ASEM.
Such confidence can be a basis for ASEM’s vibrant revival, charged with a new dynamism and drive for building the many-sided infrastructure so essential for sustaining connectivity. It is the renewed vitality of ASEM that can attract and hold the media’s attention and make it an attractive partner for the media in pursuit of a common cause towards a common destiny.
[The author is an independent Indian political and foreign affairs commentator, and senior consultant & editor of China-India Dialogue published by China International Publishing Group (CIPG).]