A New ASEM Agenda

A report on the British Council's meeting

"Asia and Europe: Societies in Transition",

19-22 March 1998

 

  

Executive Summary

When Asian and European leaders first met in Bangkok in March 1996 it seemed obvious that the process of Asia-Europe Summit Meetings (ASEM) would be based on a strong sense of Asian confidence and a defensive European desire not to be shut out of the coming 'Pacific Century'. As we stand on the brink of the second ASEM summit in London on 3-4 April 1998, it is equally obvious how wrong the original assumptions turned out to be. Asia's economic crisis requires us to take a fresh look at Asia-Europe relations.

The British Council took on the intellectual challenge of looking afresh at Asia-Europe relations by bringing together over sixty 'young leaders' from Asia and Europe. With the help of some of the leading thinkers in Asia and Europe, the meeting identified essential features for a new ASEM process.

Old certainties about the economics-in-command model of ASEM have died. Asians no longer believe they have their own answers to ensuring economic prosperity, social order or political stability. Asia's economic crises have made it possible for Europeans to re-think why they want to collaborate with Asians. The new ASEM agenda appreciates that economics need to be understood as part of a complex process of social and political change. Asia has a political and social crisis as much as an economic one. Asians and Europeans will have to work more closely across a range of issues.

But this should not be seen as a call for a more grandiose vision of ASEM--quite the contrary. An effective ASEM will be one that understands the diversities of experiences in Asia and Europe. Not all flowers grow in a foreign soil and climate. Asians are learning that they have no peculiarly Asian solutions to Asia's problems and Europeans are recognising the strength that can come from some of their own diversities. Europeans will be more congenial and relevant to Asians if they are seen as sometimes offering diverse assistance. In this sense the European notion of 'subsidiarity' is highly relevant. Not all issues are best tackled at an ASEM level and not all ASEM issues are best tackled by all Asians and all Europeans. Building on the experience in Asia, and especially in Europe, with more targeted collaboration, an effective package of ASEM measures will include some of the following 'know-how' packages.

 

Where possible, these programmes should work through existing international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank or other UN agencies. In some cases it may make sense to use fledgling ASEM arrangements such as the Asia-Europe Foundation, and in some cases new arrangements might be contemplated.

Such an agenda would mark a departure from previous ASEM practice--both in being more comprehensive and yet more targeted. It might be argued that ASEM set off on the wrong foot in 1996, but the journey will not be wasted if there is a will to reflect on where it now needs to go. Our meeting of young leaders was certain that out of the current crisis comes a new opportunity to build a much stronger, more varied and longer-lasting Asia-Europe relationship.

 

Discussion and Recommendations in Detail

 

 

When Asian and European leaders first met in Bangkok in March 1996 it seemed so obvious that the process of Asia-Europe Summit Meetings (ASEM) would be based a strong sense of Asian confidence and a defensive European desire not to be shut out of the coming 'Pacific Century'. As we stand on the brink of the second ASEM summit in London on 3-4 April 1998, it is equally obvious how wrong the original assumptions turned out to be.

As Asia's economic crisis deepened in the latter half of 1997 and as we approached ASEM 2, it became clear that we needed to take a fresh look at Asia-Europe relations. The British Council took on the intellectual challenge by bringing together over sixty 'young leaders' from Asia and Europe in order to anticipate a new agenda for Asia-Europe relations. With the help of some of the leading thinkers in Asia and Europe, the meeting identified essential features for a new ASEM process.

These conclusions and more specific recommendations (to be found towards the end of this report) resulted from four days of intensive, lively and articulate discussion around six main themes.

Welfare Provision

One of the most significant challenges facing Asians and Europeans is how to provide welfare to its population at a time of rapid economic and social change. In the old ASEM agenda it used to be argued that Asians had distinctive family-based welfare systems and Europeans had effective state-directed welfare systems that would serve each region well into the 21st century. The cult of admiration of Asian attitudes towards welfare, both in Asia and Europe, is now seriously undermined. Europeans also now widely acknowledge the need for radical welfare reform. Thus in the new ASEM agenda fresh attitudes and strategies are required.

As Asians and Europeans experiment with a range of new forms of welfare provision it becomes clear there is no single path to a single modernity. Nevertheless, there are some obvious potholes on the roads recently travelled by some Europeans that could be usefully avoided by those Asians anticipating the need for new forms of welfare provision as their populations age and become more urbanised. Rising inequalities in growth have affected European societies for over two decades and are now becoming significant problems in Pacific Asia. Changes in the role of women and family structures are forcing far-reaching changes in the way families, governments and other organisations provide welfare.

Given the wide range of experiences in Asia and Europe with varieties of welfare provision it was thought to be valuable to develop new ways to share expertise regarding this crucial dimension of good governance. Welfare is not an area where the United States has demonstrated any clear-cut superiority and because it is an area where European and Asian experiences are rich, it is a prime area for ASEM-level cooperation. Specific proposals were made to create an information network that would bring together and keep up-to-date the best practices in Asian and European countries in providing welfare. A great virtue was seen in the creation of a 'know-how' fund to train professionals in charge of meeting the new challenges of welfare provision. Given the new ways in which countries are experimenting with services provided by the private economy and non-governmental organisations, such networks and funds will need to draw on experiences well beyond the state sector.

Values, Law, Culture

In the old ASEM agenda there was a destructive debate between those who argued there were unique and immortal Asian values and those who hectored Asians about their authoritarian attitudes. The new ASEM agenda is refreshingly free of this destructive spiral of hubris. Asians and Europeans increasingly recognise that while there are distinctive values in parts of Asia or Europe, there are no immutable Asian or European values. We all share the challenge of managing the change of values and identities as societies modernise and we all increasingly understand the diversity of stopping places for individual societies and indeed for individuals.

When France's former President Charles De Gaulle spoke of the problems of governing a country with 365 varieties of cheese, he was anticipating both the problems and the pleasures of living in modern societies where identities become more complex. As societies in Asia and Europe move from agricultural to industrial and then to information economies, values necessarily change. Under these circumstances identities become 'glocalised'--with important features driven by globalising forces and specific solutions found at a very local level.

In such a world identities are no longer a still photograph but rather a film--in fact a digitally enhanced film--that is regularly and swiftly remade. While it is natural for societies and their elites to try to hold on to specific values and identities, the twin pressures from global forces and the desires of individuals at the local level, make change inevitable.

As the young leaders of Asia and Europe struggled to make sense of the rapid evolution of values the issue was cast in the context of the very real and policy relevant problem of legal cultures. It was understood that there was enormous virtue in moving from the 'rule of man' to the 'rule of law' but that laws and the blindness of justice will develop with important local variations. Law, unlike international airports or urban skylines, was likely to remain diverse within and between Asian and European societies.

Nevertheless, great virtue was seen in seeking to mediate these differences where possible. Trade laws were properly handled at the global level through the World Trade Organisation. Rules on the rights of children were understood to be relatively universal and could be agreed at a global level. And yet there remained large and important areas of disagreement that could be reduced. Human rights, labour rights or the struggle against corruption will all be unavoidable issues in the new ASEM agenda. A great deal could be done to create mechanisms for exchange of expertise between Asians and Europeans. Once again, targeted assistance in the form of 'know-how' funds could be of particular use to train judges, lawyers, non-governmental organisations and even the investigative news media. Some of the best expertise in identifying and reducing corruption is to be found in the private sector and 'know-how' funds will need to draw on their talents. Our meeting demonstrated just how easily and plainly young Asians and Europeans can talk to each other, even on these controversial issues. Politicians who are worried that open conversations about values will destroy ASEM should take heart from what their successors are able to achieve.

Information Technology

Any modern discussion of identity, let alone the fundamentals of economic prosperity, must come to grips with the changes brought about through new information technologies. It was widely understood that the future prosperity of Asia and Europe depended on societies based more on 'know-how' rather than 'know-who'. There was little resistance to the notion that modern societies will be more complex and networked, although there was a great deal of unease about the pace and direction of change.

There was widespread understanding that the new technology placed special strains on education systems, and especially higher education, in preparing people for the new challenges. Old certainties in Asia about their more effective basic education and deep worries in Europe about the superiority of basic Asian education was being replaced by more mutual understanding about the challenges of stimulating innovative thinking through more creative higher education.

An important part of the unease came from a recognition that neither Asians nor Europeans were particularly in the vanguard of the information revolution or the 'new economic paradigm'. The fact that this conference, like nearly all in ASEM, took place in English was a symbol of how some people are privileged by the new trends. With an obvious American lead in creating an innovative and information economy, Asians and Europeans understood how difficult it would be to handle the IT challenge at an ASEM level. It was also appreciated that the likely trends--the death of distance, the break-up of territorial thinking, the evolution of complex identities and wide-spread decentralisation of decision-making--were essentially global trends not easily assessed or managed at an ASEM level. While it is true that many Asians are numbered among the 50% of the world's population that has never made a phone call, others are at the forefront of wiring their societies. Such variations in Asian and European encounters with IT did suggest to some that there might well be utility in discussions at an ASEM level about how to think about the de-Americanisation of IT. But by far the more prevalent view was that IT would be an area where both Asians and Europeans would have to work with the Americans in establishing new rules and norms at a global level.

The Environment

Forest fires in Southeast Asia, like Pacific Asia's economic crisis, are an easily recognisable issue for discussion at ASEM. Of course environmental issues were very much on the agenda of the first ASEM and will continue to be given prominence at future summits. Much like the problem of welfare provision, the environment is understood to be an issue for the long term where Europeans have learned from the many mistakes they made in the past. Many Asians have taken environmental issues very seriously and Southeast Asians have been learning in recent months that such problems of the global commons make it impossible to demarcate issues as 'internal affairs' not subject to external 'intervention'. As Asians talk more openly and robustly to each other about environmental issues, so it becomes easier in the new ASEM agenda for Europeans to join in the discussions without sounding pompous or self-satisfied.

In this more frank and constructive atmosphere, it could be easily agreed that the fires in Southeast Asia are, if the Asians so desire, an area where Europeans would be happy to be of assistance. There is already a vast array of cooperation schemes among individual countries and through European Union programmes. These, as well as global mechanisms such as the UN Environmental Programme, are available to help.

Asians and Europeans, in the form of governments, non-governmental organisations and companies, have vast experience and an emerging understanding about best practices in environmental management. The challenge for Asians and Europeans is to decide which measures are best undertaken at an ASEM level. Global warming, where the science is more contested, the problem more far-off and the issue more global, was not seen as especially useful for an ASEM agenda. 'Know-how' funds in this field were seen to be better focused on urban planning where European and Asian conditions had more similarities as compared to the United States. Running through all these discussions and explicit in the recommendations is the need to work well beyond the ambit of states and in particular to work with the grain of the market economy. Environmental programmes, especially in cleaning up water and air, can be shown to have immediate economic benefit to both Asians and Europeans alike.

Military Security

A distinctive feature of the old ASEM agenda was the explicit understanding that Europe should not be a distant witness to Asian security: a fully rounded relationship among Asians and Europeans requires attention to issues of military security. Sadly, in the two years since the Bangkok summit, discussion of military security has been sidelined. A new ASEM agenda requires the return to the common sense of the initial summit.

Unlike in the United States, both Asians and Europeans have long tended to understand security in terms of comprehensive security. As a result, Asian and European governments have been active participants in UN peacekeeping and the evolution of new forms of confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy. Meanwhile, internal unrest, whether in South-eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, warns all Asians and Europeans about the risks of mass migration.

Of course it is well understood that neuralgia about the importance of 'national security' and wide variations in military capacities have made it difficult for ASEM to take up the security agenda. It is obvious that security issues, and especially hard security issues, are more likely to be taken up through a 'variable geometry' of countries more ready, willing and able to pursue discussions and cooperation. Assessments of the threats from weapons of mass destruction probably fall into this category, but nevertheless there was a clear sense that Asian and European governments need to take this issue much more seriously.

By contrast, it may be much easier to develop more ASEM-wide activities concerning the enhancement of UN and other forms of peacekeeping and the evolution of confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy. These activities, and others, require far closer collaboration between the armed forces of various Asian and European countries. Given the under-developed competence of the European Union in security matters, schemes designed to enhance the professionalism of armed forces or a more stable form of civil-military relations are likely to be best run along the variable geometry of bilateral cooperation. Nevertheless, ASEM can serve a useful role in helping states share experience and in developing more multilateral training schemes, for example for UN and other forms of peacekeeping.

One of the most fruitful areas for discussion must surely be relations with the ghost at the feast--the United States. The security of both Asia and Europe depends on the active engagement of the United States and most states in both regions welcome the American presence. ASEM-wide discussions about security that include explicit discussion of the role of the United States should be undertaken with an understanding that it is vital to help keep the United States engaged in global and multilateral security. ASEM can play a vital role in keeping the United States honestly multilateral. As in the case of US economic policy, Asians and Europeans have reason to worry about the American tendency to unilateralism.

Economic Relations and the Economic Crisis

Asia's current economic crisis was a major thread running through our discussions, but it was clear that any solution to the crisis required sustained attention to a wide range of political and social as well as economic factors. Most importantly, the variety of economic crises in Asia was a warning to ASEM that the Asia-Europe relationship should not be built primarily on economic self-interest. It was a key part of the rationale for the first ASEM that Asian economic success and a European desire to be part of it, would be the main driver of the relationship. As we stand on the cusp of the second ASEM, this narrowly unambitious ASEM agenda contains the seeds of its own potential failure. The crises in Asia makes it easy for cynics to argue that Pacific Asia matters very little to Europe and allows European Schadenfreude to surface.

But the cynics are wrong, albeit for the right reasons. They are correct that a robust Asia-Europe relationship cannot be hung primarily on economic issues. We are a long way from a 'Pacific century' or the triumph of some new forms of 'Asian capitalism'. Non-Japan Asia accounts for less than 7% of European trade. Hyperbolic talk of Pacific Asia as the motor of future economic prosperity is best subsumed by a new agenda for ASEM. Grandiose theorising about new international orders should give way to more focused plans for mutual learning and assistance.

In economic terms, such a new ASEM agenda is already off to a good start with the agreement on a trust fund intended to build greater know-how in Asia about financial markets and the creation of a more robust and transparent domestic financial system. The fact that this fund will be run through the World Bank is an appropriate recognition that most economic cooperation should be handled through global economic institutions and in keeping with the norms of the global economy. Thus the greater proportion of the economic agenda between Europe and Asia is really a matter for individuals and private corporations in an increasingly globalised market economy. The man from MITI (Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Investment) wears a Paul Smith tie (a 'cool' British designer) because both are part of an open global economy, not because of ASEM. Market forces and globalisation provided the basis for ASEM by ensuring that trade and financial flows between Europe and Asia were growing faster than those between the US and Asia, even well before the first ASEM. In the intervening years the economics-in-command school of ASEM has led to perhaps too many schemes for government-led economic cooperation. A new ASEM agenda would return to letting non-governmental forces operate and ensure a more natural basis for Asia-Europe economic relations.

As we stand in the midst of the powerful winds of Asia's economic storms it is clear that even a less economically focused ASEM must take account of the economic crisis. The financial trust fund, albeit a modest contribution, is more than was achieved by APEC. This effort demonstrates that ASEM cannot afford to sit quietly in the shadow of APEC, confining itself to trade facilitation rather than trade liberalisation. An easy and powerful economic contribution from ASEM might be to challenge APEC by agreeing to match any trade liberalisation that might be achieved across the Pacific. By doing so, and as evident in its new trust fund run through the World Bank, ASEM could demonstrate that it is primarily committed to enhancing an open global economic system using existing rules and institutions. Given the American tendency to unilateralism on economic issues, such a message from ASEM would have lasting resonance.

It might seem odd to some to be singing the praises of global forces and institutions at a time when the economic crises in Pacific Asia are widely seen to have resulted from these very same forces. But while our meeting understood the continuing need to find ways to make the global financial system work better--hence the support for the financial trust fund--there was a clear recognition that these global norms and institutions were the best available way to enhance prosperity. Critics of globalisation risk making the best the enemy of the good and in the process diverting ASEM down dead ends.

There was also strong consensus on the need for Asians and Europeans to simply learn much more about the basic realities of their economic relationship. Asians have been complaining just as loudly about American bullying in economic relations as they have about Europe's supposed failure to engage with and help Asians. Although the data is clear (see tables) that Europeans have an economic stake in Pacific Asia at least equal to that of the United States, Asians persist in believing that Europeans are under-performing. European investment in Pacific Asia, especially in the form of bank loans, far outstrips the American equivalent. Aid from EU states to Pacific Asia is ten times the American total. Some 30% of all IMF money for relief of the Asian economic crises comes from Europe (twice the US level). Clearly ASEM has failed in the two years since its first summit to dispel the fallacy that Americans rather than Europeans are working with the people of Pacific Asia.

A new ASEM agenda will help ensure that Europeans speak more loudly about their interests in Pacific Asia. The creation of a single European currency will clearly be a major force in the ASEM process as we move on to the third summit in Seoul, South Korea. Europeans will find it easier to speak more powerfully on global economic issues. An Asian financial crisis that took place at a time when the Euro is a more significant reserve currency would play out differently from the crises of 1997-98. Understanding the economic, political and even the security implications of a single European currency for ASEM must be a high priority.

Another fruitful area for ASEM must also be in the field of aid policy. Given the United States' near virtual absence from the aid business, there is great scope for effective Asia-Europe collaboration. Europeans and Asians have been at the forefront in developing new ideas about the best way to design and deliver aid. We have moved away from state-centred programmes to specific projects designed to enhance the capacity of local institutions, NGOs and individuals to build a civil society. It is Europeans more than Asians who now recall the Chinese proverb about the advantages of teaching a man to fish rather than just giving him a fish to eat.

Asia's economic crises remind us that there are still a number of Asian countries that need effective aid from fellow Asians and Europeans, but there are still significant worries about the efficiency of aid programmes. Western fashions, such as the current concern with landmines, regularly confuse Asia's poorest about the priorities of development assistance. Too much aid is still a transfer from the poor of the rich countries to the rich of the poor countries. Nevertheless, there has been an evolution of best practice in both Asia and Europe which has made the private sector a vital part of any strategy for effective assistance programmes. Therefore as ASEM-organised aid programmes are shaped, such as in the various packages of targeted 'know-how' funds, states will play a much-diminished role.

Towards a New Agenda

Asia's economic crises risks bringing down ASEM with it. Old certainties about the economics-in-command model of ASEM have died. Asians no longer believe they have their own peculiar answers to ensuring economic prosperity, social order or political stability. Asia's economic crises have made it possible for Europeans to re-think why they want to collaborate with Asians.

In the new ASEM agenda economics needs to be understood as part of a complex process of social and political change. Asia has a political and social crisis as much as an economic one. Asians and Europeans will thus in future have to work more closely across a range of issues.

But this should not be seen as a call for a more grandiose vision of ASEM--quite the contrary. An effective ASEM will be one that understands the diversities of experiences in Asia and Europe. Not all flowers grow in a foreign soil and climate. Asians are learning that they have no purely Asian solutions to Asia's problems and Europeans are recognising the strength that comes from their own diversity. Europeans will be listened to more easily and be more relevant to Asians if they are seen as sometimes offering diverse assistance. In this sense the European notion of 'subsidiarity' is highly relevant. Not all issues are best tackled at an ASEM level and not all ASEM issues are best tackled by all Asians and all Europeans. Building on the experience in Asia and especially in Europe with more targeted collaboration, an effective package of ASEM measures will include some of the following 'know-how' packages.

 

 

Where possible, these programmes should work through existing international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank or other UN agencies. In some cases it may make sense to use fledgling ASEM arrangements such as the Asia-Europe Foundation, and in some cases new arrangements might be contemplated.

Such an agenda would mark a departure from previous ASEM practice--both in being more comprehensive in scope and yet more targeted in the search for solutions. It might be argued that ASEM set off on the wrong foot in 1996, but the journey will not be wasted if we reflect on where we now need to go. Our meeting of young leaders was certain that out of the current crisis comes a new opportunity to build a much stronger and longer-lasting ASEM.