For two decades ASEM has played a key role as a forum for dialogue and cooperation connecting Asia with Europe. ASEM’s value and continuing importance in today’s politics and inter-regional relations is uncontested. Nevertheless, as an informal forum ASEM is destined to evolve along with a transforming global environment. Since its inception in 1996 the forum has significantly changed. More specifically, it has substantially enlarged, adapting itself to an increasingly multipolar world, a growing European Union and a more interdependent Asian region.
The impressive growth of newly emerging Asian economies and the increasing interdependence between Europe and Asia in the early 1990s, along with the creation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), constituted the backdrop of the need for Europe to re-think, re-evaluate and hence re-launch its relations with countries from the Asian region. At the same time, economic and political developments in Asia served as the foundation to build stronger and closer relations with European partners.
Following these developments ASEM was launched in 1994 and it was supported by ASEAN and the EU. Once the initiative was endorsed by the European Council in June 1995, European and Asian countries engaged themselves in building a new partnership aiming at promoting political dialogue, deepening economic relations and strengthening cultural ties. Within this framework, further impetus was given to the process, during the Hellenic Presidency of the EU in 2003.
ASEM has so far met many of its objectives by facilitating direct contacts between European and Asian leaders, encouraging people-to-people understanding and exploring new areas of cooperation in the political, economic and social sectors.
Over the last few years ASEM is covering much more ground, reflecting newly emerging global challenges (such as migration and climate change to name a few) that Asia and Europe need to tackle together. It is to be noted that ASEM has gone to great lengths to strengthen coordination and to translate the informal dialogue process into tangible policy. Driven by biennial Summits, ASEM has created a unique platform enabling dialogue on a wide variety of issues between European and Asian partners. We should not lose sight of this achievement, having also in mind that the added value of the forum resides in its informal character which should be preserved. For that reason, it would be meaningful to try to work on a more structured agenda for ASEM Meetings, making them more productive and result-oriented placing particular emphasis on sectoral issues. Just to mention a recent positive paradigm, we are particularly satisfied that the 5th ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting (ASEM ME5) held in Riga, Latvia, on 27-28 April 2015, stressed the significant role of education in today’s rapidly changing labour market. Taking initiatives and promoting sectoral cooperation in education and vocation can be proven quite beneficial for young people as well. At the same time, we are very pleased that ASEM has paid particular attention to issues such as Science and Technology.
In this context, Greece has constructively engaged in ASEM’s initiative, along with China and Singapore, for establishing the “ASEM Cooperation Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation” (ACCSTI), which was conceived, as a platform for policy dialogue, experience-sharing between Asian and European universities, institutes, agencies and other scientific entities. Greece is willing to play a leading role in the establishment of a Regional Coordination Mechanism, and we are extremely interested in being the European host of this Centre.
With a view to obtaining concrete results and safeguarding this important added value of the process, it is imperative for the Senior Officials, under the Ministers’ guidance, to concentrate their efforts on the following issues: a) regular follow-up, evaluation and monitoring of the progress on a series of initiatives already launched in previous Summits, Ministerial Meetings and Conferences, b) drafting an Action Plan, preferably for a two-year period, to facilitate the monitoring of the initiatives, c) preparing targeted informal meetings towards a better coordination between the Asian and European partners, d) enhancing coordination among various ASEM stakeholders. The positive convergence of these factors could substantially transform ASEM into a more effective and operational forum, providing also the opportunity for further tangible results in the cooperation between the two regions.
In today’s inter connected world, non-state actors are increasingly active and influential. The ASEM process has recognised this and has developed initiatives to foster dialogue and better understanding between the two regions, by enabling strong interaction and effective participation of civil society, business representatives and academia. By taking advantage of its unique characteristics, ASEM can further enhance people-to-people contacts and provide a variety of socio-cultural links. The interaction of several actors undoubtedly sets the groundwork for establishing stronger links and cultivating relations based on confidence between peoples of Europe and Asia.
To this extent “connectivity” could become a flagship for further progressing ASEM function and effectiveness. Both Asian and European partners have decided on a number of concrete projects to covering different aspects of connectivity, either hard connectivity that is physical infrastructures, transport, energy, or soft connectivity, including people-to-people links. Connectivity should be conceived as the engine for growth, trade and inclusive development for Asian and European countries.
Being at the crossroads between East and West Greece provides the natural gateway between Europe and Asia while constituting at the same time a factor of stability in the region. Given its vast experience and know-how acquired by its membership over 35 years in the EU Greece can only play a positive role in connecting Asia with Europe and promoting active cooperation between the two continents in many sectors to the benefit of both sides.
By concluding, I would like to stress that in order for ASEM to be able to provide added value, it has to maintain its informal character, strengthen its coordination mechanisms, increase civil society input, improve the quality of its profile and finally, prepare an Action Plan which would outline the key issues for dialogue and joint initiatives in the years ahead.
First published in Asia-Europe Foundation