The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- April 3, 1998

Europe and Asia, Take Two

By BARRY WAIN

The second Asia-Europe summit, which opens in London today, will be a carefully scripted affair that suggests the regions are in deep sympathy, if not harmony.

In almost two days of discussions, the 26 leaders will focus strongly on the East Asian economic crisis. They will issue a separate statement reflecting European concern with the financial meltdown, as well as mentioning it in their main communiqué.

In addition, the meeting will launch a British-proposed trust fund at the World Bank, mainly to provide assistance to assess the poverty impact of the turmoil. Numerous other ideas will be adopted to show that the process known as Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), two years after being formed in Thailand, "is bursting with energy and new initiatives," as Singaporean official Tommy Koh puts it.

But the success of the gathering will owe as much to skillful diplomacy as to any real progress in bringing Europe and Asia closer. The fact is that some of the key elements in the evolving relationship have yet to be determined.

As host, Britain has done a smooth job in avoiding controversy and concentrating on what are called "deliverables." What is not on the agenda, however, is just as significant as what is.

It is hard to argue with the concept of strengthening the weak leg of a tripolar world. With the U.S., Europe and East Asia the centers of economic, political and cultural power, it makes sense to upgrade the neglected Asia-Europe link.

The two sides made a promising start in 1996, when the 15 governments of the European Union met the then-seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus Japan, China and South Korea, in Bangkok. The 26th leader is the president of the European Commission.

While they had to tread carefully on sensitive political issues with the potential to divide them, such as East Timor and human rights, they managed to see as far ahead as a third summit in Seoul in 2000. Now they are agreed on a fourth, in either Denmark or Spain, in 2002.

The heads of state and government initially gave ASEM a broad mandate. It is trying to build bridges between not only politicians and officials from the two continents but also between the business communities and civil societies.

According to Mr. Koh, who heads the Singapore-based Asia- Europe Foundation, more than 30 meetings, events and projects have followed since the first summit. His foundation, the first institution established by ASEM, has helped organize a young leaders' symposium, among other things.

But the intended appointment, at this meeting, of a so- called vision group hints at a limited view of the future. Almost all of the members are retired civil servants.

They are to be led by Lee Hong Koo, a former prime minister of South Korea, who has also served as ambassador to Britain. London will be represented by Sir John Boyd, whose last posting was as ambassador to Japan. Further, the group is to be put on a fast track, meaning it will be told to report within a year on what has been billed as nothing less than a road map to the 21st century.

While this collection of accomplished individuals should be able to come up with something interesting, only a dreamer could imagine it will be actually visionary. The governments obviously have decided to keep a fairly tight rein on ASEM thinking.

Another subject the leaders won't take any chances with is wider membership, a can of worms that almost nobody wants to open. Formally, it isn't up for discussion, though if the prime ministers and presidents insist on raising it, they are likely to simply kick it back to their foreign ministers.

Membership was controversial before ASEM got going. Japan lobbied hard to include Australia and New Zealand from the start, but they were vetoed by Malaysia and China.

Although the Australians have insisted for many months that China no longer objects to their presence, that isn't what Beijing tells others. A variety of sources say China states its position as favoring the entry of India and Pakistan. By implication, it doesn't favor Canberra and Wellington, the sources say.

Malaysia gets some satisfaction from its anti-Australia/New Zealand stand, since it means that the 10 countries on the Asian team in ASEM are the proposed members of Kuala Lumpur's ill-fated East Asian Economic Caucus. The EAEC was still-born, strangled by U.S. pressure on Japan not to participate.

But the members meet regularly anyway, to caucus for ASEM talks. And, last December, the group held its first summit, when Asean, expanded since last July to nine members, invited Japan, China and South Korea to Kuala Lumpur. Not much came of it, confirming that there is still little support for a formal EAEC-type organization.

But Malaysia has also lost face over membership. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once threatened to boycott ASEM if Myanmar, previously known as Burma, wasn't admitted in time for this summit.

Dr. Mahathir has had to back down, even though Myanmar is now a member of Asean, along with Laos. Because of its appalling record on democracy and human rights, Myanmar isn't politically acceptable in much of Europe.

Behind the fierce debate on membership are larger questions, such as that of identity. The EU has its own concerns, as it plans to expand eastward and prepares to introduce a single currency, the euro, for 11 of its members next year.

Nevertheless, the EU is bound by rules and regulations that govern much of what it does. For Asia, where few regional institutions exist, the considerations are much more complex.

A basic issue is whether the Asia-Europe relationship is considered bloc-to-bloc, between formal entities, or region-to- region--in effect, a collection of 25 countries, plus the European Commission. A bloc arrangement would pose a dilemma for, say, Russia, which straddles both Europe and Asia.

While views differ on both sides, neither is organizing formally as a bloc for the biennial summits. ASEM officials decided long ago that there should be no "automaticity," as the jargon has it. Inclusion in Asean, for example, doesn't automatically entitle a country to join ASEM. It was for this reason, because the relationship is emerging as a region-to-region arrangement, that Dr. Mahathir found he had no basis to carry out his boycott threat.

Some form of ASEM membership criteria, or mechanism, may be established in the next two years. But, given the myriad problems, many governments will opt for doing nothing for as long as possible.

As the leaders confer in London, they will direct some of their most telling comments to a nonmember, the "shadow at the table," as the U.S. is sometimes called. An unspoken ASEM aim is to encourage the sole remaining superpower to abide by its multilateral commitments and not be tempted into unilateral bullying. ASEM subtly suggests that Asia and Europe may find in each other an alternative to the U.S.

"We want to keep the Americans honestly engaged," says Gerald Segal, an Asia specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Every once in a while you need to scare them a bit."

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