The Asia-Europe Meeting: Contributing to a new global governance architecture. The Eighth ASEM Summit in Brussels

The Asia Europe meeting

Author(s):  Sebastian Bersick and Paul van der Velde

ISBN:           9789089643438

Publisher:  AmsterdamUniversity Press

Year:           2007

Price:           50 €

Reviewed by Moritz Pöllath, Ph.D. Candidate, Jena University, Germany.

Historical transitions flow into one another even though the public memory tends to focus on one specific date or event to distinguish between two eras. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union on 31st December 1991 ten years followed until 9/11 marked the beginning of a new era. In these years the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice Treaties formed a closer political European Union. Simultaneously, major changes transformed Asia: the dynamic growth rates of the tiger states were followed by the financial crisis of 1997 and the eventual rise of China. In connection with these historical shifts in international relations between Asia and Europe an emerging power vacuum was left behind by global organizations, which were losing their credibility and functionality. Out of their changed political and economical position both regions initiated the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process with its inaugural summit in Bangkok in 1996.

A new volume edited by Sebastian Bersick and Paul van der Velde The Asia-Europe Meeting: Contributing to a new global governance architecture brings together politicians and scholars to shed light on ASEM’s history, working methods and potential. The volume is clearly structured into four parts, which reflect ASEM’s political agenda and ambitions to contribute to regional, inter-regional and global governance. The choice of authors for a volume covering the meetings of Asian and European politicians and professionals makes the scholar hesitate: all come from Europe, the West, and two work as Belgian Diplomats. While a more diverse selection of authors from Asia might have done the topic of this volume service, it does not lessen the scholarship and quality in any kind.

At the volume’s core lies the premise, that the current international system has structural deficiencies which may be addressed through international forums. The question, how ASEM can address underlying challenges to inter-regional cooperation and contribute to a new global governance structure, engages a central dilemma in current international relations. In light of the number of high-level meetings at Davos, Heiligendamm, Cancun and around the world as well as the proliferation of institutions, contact groups and organizations not only the general public but also professionals and politicians are asking: Which political forum is still relevant? Which organization can deliver on its aims? The different professional and scholarly perspectives in this volume are helping to approach this question. Gradually, the authors make their case, why among the G8, G15 or G20, the United Nations Climate Change conference, IMF, WTO the World Bank and the countless regional organizations, the Asia-Europe Meeting might be worth our attention.

The chapters on ASEM’s 8th summit in Brussels are introducing the forum’s history and “quasi-institutionalized” (p.17) structure. Its three main pillars, namely the Asia-Europe Business Form (AEBF), Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership (ASEP), offer a unique framework for dialogue. All authors emphasize the value of ASEM as an opportunity for consultations between Asian and European policymakers and contribution to a new global governance architecture. Yet, the worth and impact of this general contribution is critically examined: Does ASEM produce more than papers and declarations of intent? Will the opportunity for dialogue overcome geopolitical interests? And how will ASEM’s identity be affected by Russia, Australia and New Zealand’s membership, who belong neither to Asia or Europe?

In the first section of the volume Vandenkendelaere carefully elaborates the question of identity that lies beneath the decision of ASEM’s working methods and defines it as a core issue of this unique forum. So far, ASEM has left the decision open, whether it will follow a minimalist or a maximalist approach for its political, economic and cultural objectives. Critically, he acknowledges that the forum produces results and declarations, which quickly fade from memory (p.60). The lack of a secretariat, which could streamline the process and follow up on meetings, is identified as a major factor for the current minimalist approach and loose structure of ASEM. The ASEM coordination office, founded by the EU and thereby not owned by all members, is not able to compensate the problem, that ASEM’s working methods have basically remained unchanged although its membership has continuously expanded since 1996. In many respects, the decision to remain a loose network gives a clear indication about the state of political cooperation and credence to scholars who established a decline of international leadership and lack of global governance (Bremmer 2012; Kupchan 2012).

The last chapter of the first section by Bersick and Bauer offers an important study on ASEM’s perception and visibility, as part of the Asia-Europe Perception Project. Their research exposes ASEM’s public footprint: albeit the 2010 high-level meeting, which received some media attention, ASEM hardly featured in the European media. In case of the UK, ASEM was not covered at all. Consequently both scholars advocate the need to rise ASEM’s visibility and bridge the communication deficit between the ASEM Asian and the European public. (p. 78-79). Bersick and Bauer’s article is helpful to policymakers in the field of inter-regional cooperation, because the study’s conclusion recommends an upcoming work agenda: if ASEM strives to translate its decisions into results, it will have to become more visible and raise public awareness.

The chapters on financial and economic governance start out with a history of the IMF in Asia. For European scholars and politicians it is worth to remember, that even though Asian countries have repaid their debt, a distance to the practices of the IMF remains up to this day. Gottwald’s article superbly picks up the core premises of the volume and delivers a profound analysis of China’s reluctant path to endorse more global governance in order to settle the financial crisis of 2008. China used its economic power and played a stabilizing role, which Beijing saw as a Western crisis. In this course, China successfully influenced the G20 to give more voting rights to emerging countries in the IMF. Gottwald’s article is written in a very nuanced style and retraces China’s increasing participation in inter-regional organizations. Scholars and general readers who want to gain a better understanding of the tectonic shift between Europe and Asia in the course of the financial crisis will profit from Gottwald’s article.

Both articles on security governance between Asia and Europe are recommendable because they give insight into the extent and limits of cooperation between the ASEM members on security issues. The volume rightfully stated at its beginning that geopolitics can remain a source for conflict even though nations are engaged in long-standing political dialogue. The European Union and Asia, which accounted for a third of the world energy consumption in 2009 up from just a seventh in 1970 (p. 127), are major energy importers. As Dent elaborates, this leads to an interdependence of interests and need for cooperation in matters of energy and the environment. Europe is directly affected by Asia’s CO2 emissions and in turn has the knowledge and technology to modernize ASEM Asia’s energy structure, where a large market for renewables exists (p. 131). Dent interestingly summarizes this structural dependency as the “energy-environment-security nexus” (p.128) between Asia and Europe.

Convincingly, Dent underlines the benefits of strengthening Asia-Europe’s energy partnership through ASEM’s inter-regional framework with solid arguments even though he notes, that Asia and Europe may not appear as natural energy partners and that their energy trade is negligible, the “energy-environment-security nexus” remains valid (p. 141). The merit of his article lies in his fresh perspective on a field of cooperation in which both regions are already engaging through the EC-ASEAN Energy Facility. Dent acknowledges the many positive venues ASEM could take, for example supporting ASEM Asia countries acceding to the International Energy Agency. At the same time, Dent does not overlook ASEM’s central and structural weakness: so far, the forum „has only talked about the energy security challenges facing both regions” (p.142).

The second article on security governance by Kamerling and van der Putten recalls that ASEM member states still pay heed to their sovereignty in pursuit of their foreign and security policy. Although the European Union cooperates actively with China and India in combating piracy, the authors state that no multilateral governance system can address the major maritime security issues without the involvement of China and the United States. It is noteworthy to remember, that for several Asian navies anti-piracy cooperation constitutes the first time that they are part of a maritime mission outside their home waters. Kamerling and van der Puttens detailed knowledge and good analysis on the size and role of the Chinese and Indian navies as well as the various forms of cooperation that already are in existence in the Indian Ocean draws a clear picture of the developments in this important region for Europe and Asia. The authors argue that ASEM should establish a security dialogue to enhance and broaden this inter-regional cooperation.

The volume then delves into the relationship between the European and Asian members and the new ASEM members Australia, New Zealand and Russia which were accepted in a “temporary third category” (p.166). This constitutes a structural problem for ASEM which provides no geographical definition of their two groupings (p. 172). In a detailed recount of their ascension, the reader learns that European members did not accept Russia into their group on account of the difficult geographical definition. The second argument, that Russia did not belong to the EU, led to irritations with the Asian members. For Asian policymakers this represented a denial of the open and evolutionary character of ASEM. In their opinion the EU ascension process is “beyond the proportions of the needs of ASEM” (p. 174) and would create an obstacle for countries like Norway or Switzerland should they wish to join ASEM. The Asian members, for whom Russia is a European country, in turn declined, too.

The outfall of this diplomatic incident was mitigated, because all three third-category members made it clear, that they were merely interested in ASEM’s political dialogue. Understanding the relaxed manner in which the new ASEM members accepted their unusual category and status is telling for their assessment of ASEM as primarily a forum for dialogue. In addition, it further underlines ASEM’s identity as a loose network and its current evolutionary state.

For a topic that has little written about, the volume achieves to connect a highly specialized area of interest with general themes of the challenges to inter-regional cooperation and global governance. This study establishes the historical and political roots to understand the scope of ASEM cooperation, delivers keen insights on current developments, and offers policy recommendations for practitioners. In the current transition phase from one global order to the next one, the interested reader, policymaker and professional will profit from this volume and gain a deeper insight in ASEM’s value to inter-regional cooperation and whether it can provide a path to global governance.


Bremmer, Ian, 2012, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. New York: Penguin.

Kupchan, Charles, 2012, No One’s World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Suggested citation:  

Moritz Pöllath (2014). Review of The Asia-Europe Meeting: Contributing to a new global governance architecture. The Eighth ASEM Summit in Brussels,   Sebastian Bersick and Paul van der Velde (2010) , East Asian Integration Studies, Vol.7, no. 1, Internet file: