Europe-Asia Interregional Relations. A Decade of ASEM.

Europe-Asia Interregional Relations

Author(s): Bart Gaens (ed.)

ISBN:          978-0-7546-7142-8

Publisher: Ashgate

Year:          2008

Price:       £55.00/$99.00

Reviewed by Sabine Burghart, University Assistant, University of Vienna, Austria

Created in 1996, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) currently comprises 45 members, including 27 EU member states and the European Commission as well as 16 Asian countries and the ASEAN Secretariat. ASEM represents more than half of the world’s population, about fifty percent of the world’s GDP and almost sixty percent of global trade. This forum of dialogue is based on the principles of informality, multi-dimensionality, and equal partnership with a focus on high-level and people-to-people exchanges. Although ASEM was intended to become the “third leg of the global power triangle” (p.169) its effectiveness and impact on the agenda setting for global negotiations has been questioned by both, scholars and practitioners.

The volume under review edited by Bart Gaens seeks to evaluate the first decade of the ASEM process (1996-2006), paying particular attention to its three dimensions (economic, political and cultural/intellectual), the institutional framework and working methods of this partnership. It provides a thorough and detailed analysis of the ASEM process from a European perspective, based on policy papers, official documents and interviews with EU officials, government representatives, and other actors involved in this forum.

The book opens with an overview by Gaens examining the historical background, underlying motivations and rationale of the ASEM process. The emergence of a rising economic giant and increasing US commitment in the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. ASEAN Regional Forum) prompted Europe’s “rediscovery of Asia” (p.11) in the early 1990s. Although economic factors were – at least initially – the main reasons underlying this form of engagement geo-political issues such as regional security and power balance also played an important role. Taking a path-dependent approach, Gaens argues that knowledge of the historical background is relevant in order to understand current developments of the ASEM process. Once the institutional “rules of the game” such as informality and equality among partners were set they had long-term effects; changing or reversing course has often been perceived as too difficult. As Gaens and other contributors of this volume show these rules had (and still have) a lasting impact on the outcomes and achievements of the ASEM process.

In Chapter 2, Gaens examines the accomplishments of ASEM’s economic dimension comprising trade, investment and economy. Although this dimension has produced a substantial number of initiatives and projects its progress has been limited by the Asian financial crisis, political issues, in particular the dialogue on human rights, and ASEM’s informal character with its consensus-building focus.

Timo Kivimäki focuses, in Chapter 3, on the external and internal limitations of ASEM as a security mechanism as well as its role in the field of “soft” and non-traditional security. ASEM was created in a unipolar world, with the US dominating the traditional security agenda, and Europe decided not to challenge the US’ global role by becoming an active and independent actor in traditional security issues. Consequently, co-operation of the ASEM partners became limited to soft security measures, non-traditional threats and activities mandated by the UN Security Council. Since most of ASEM’s security agenda has been related to threats in Asia the author speaks of a certain form of “colonial mentality” (p.66) on the European side that still characterizes this partnership. Instead, Europe could make use of Asia’s expertise in managing conflicts and multicultural societies. Furthermore, Kivimäki argues that the existence of different approaches between Europe and Asia towards security has hampered co-operation and limited the promotion of a multilateralist security order. For example, strong disagreement on how to deal with the Burma/Myanmar question (sanctions versus constructive engagement) and the country’s membership of ASEM came to the fore at the end of the 1990s, especially after its accession to ASEAN in 1997. This issue, still a critical point in Asia-Europe relations, showed the fragility of the ASEM process. The human rights dialogue in ASEM and the Burma/Myanmar question are dealt with in Chapter 4, by Silja Keva, who concludes that after having succeeded in managing this controversy “the partners are coming closer to each other” (p.84).

The succeeding chapters (5 and 6) by Gaens and Keva, respectively, examine aspects of the third and – according to the authors – most successful dimension of ASEM, the co-operation in the cultural/intellectual and social areas. Particular focus is put on the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) that has been serving as a facilitator and is, so far, the only formal institution of ASEM, and the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). In the contribution by Gaens, special attention is paid to the issue of identity and perception of the “other”, i.e. the existence of distinct “Asian” and “European” identities. Acknowledging Asia’s diversity makes it difficult for Europe to formulate a comprehensive strategy for Asia, which often requires pragmatic approaches; however, it also highlights the EU’s role as a model for integration. Gaens also points at the different co-operation cultures within ASEM that limit the partnership’s impact on global negotiations. Keva looks at the present role of civil society in the ASEM process. Despite skepticism on the side of the Asian partners that the inclusion of civil society actors into the consultations would lead to interference in internal affairs this step is likely to enhance the sustainability, transparency and visibility of ASEM. Although prospects that the ASEM process would develop into a framework of participatory democracy are rather limited Keva concludes that ASEM is slowly transforming from a “one-way top-down process into a two-way dialogue where the bottom-up approach is gaining more and more influence” (p.113).

Chapter 7 elaborates on the institutional mechanism and management of ASEM that is often criticized for its “inability to go beyond ‘declaratory’ diplomacy” (p.123); some observers may even have detected a certain “forum fatigue” (p.119). Keva and Gaens identify several shortcomings such as the non-binding character of the summit statements and political documents, the inadequate follow-up of initiatives and projects, and the lack of open access to key documents. Despite the formulation of ASEM’s broad goals and objectives such as “maintaining and enhancing peace and stability” and “promoting conditions conducive to sustainable economic and social development” in 2000 (European Commission 2000) ASEM still “lacks a clear vision with regard to its role and purpose” (p.118). In addition, ASEM’s institutional working was further complicated by the dual structure of the European institutions: the European Council representing different national interests, and the European Commission representing the EU’s interests in Asia.

However, it is expected that the Lisbon Treaty, in particular, the creation of a permanent EU presidency and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, will also have an impact on the ASEM process. This view is shared by Teija Tiilikainen who, in Chapter 8, analyses the role of ASEM in the EU’s political and institutional framework. According to Tiilikainen, the criticism regarding Europe’s weak commitment to the process in the first decade of ASEM is legitimate. Formal relations with Asian countries have been regarded by some EU member states as priority because they result in more concrete and binding results. The complex integration of interregional and intergovernmental structures has posed challenges to the working of ASEM and the transformation of ASEM into a stronger region-to-region structure would create a more results-oriented process.

The last chapter, by Gaens, evaluates the major outcomes of the ASEM6 summit in Helsinki that succeeded in placing the “ASEM process back on track” (p.168). The enlargement of ASEM by six new members including India, Pakistan, Mongolia and the ASEAN Secretariat was certainly the most visible and concrete result of the summit meeting in 2006. In addition, by reaffirming ASEM’s fundamental philosophy the members decided to continue on the path of merely shaping policies instead of turning towards concrete decision-making and treaty negotiations. In the future, ASEM will need to tackle a number of issues such as visibility, transparency, and public awareness. The Helsinki summit has shown that although the event itself attracted some media attention the public has little knowledge about ASEM’s raison d’être, its objectives and activities.

This book provides a comprehensive analysis of various aspects of the ASEM process not only for academics but also for those readers who have a specific interest in Europe-Asia relations. Scholars and students of international relations, global governance etc. may find this book a welcome addition to the existing literature.

European Commission (2000): “The Asia-Europe Cooperation Framework (AECF) 2000”,, accessed on 24.01.2010