There was no lack of high-profile events in the domain of international affairs over the last few weeks, including the ASEAN summit, COP26 and the meeting between US president Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Next in line is a summit likely to gain considerably fewer headlines from global news outlets, but nonetheless with important connections to the others: the summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).
This meeting of 30 European and 21 Asian countries, as well as the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat, was supposed to be held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November 2020, but has been delayed twice because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cambodia is now scheduled to host a virtual ASEM summit on 25 and 26 November.
The conference will focus on multilateralism, growth, sustainable development and prosperity, all under the motto, “Strengthening Multilateralism for Shared Growth.” While the topics are relevant and the motto points in the right direction, not all participants have lately shown a passion for strengthening international, multilateral cooperation.
ASEM includes a diverse group of countries representing about 60% of the global population and about 55% of global trade. Out of the eight countries with the highest GDP worldwide, only one is not part of ASEM: the US.
Key features of the ASEM process are its informal character and an emphasis on equal partnership between the European and Asian nations. In the 25 years in which the ASEM process has been developed, the informality has been described alternately as a strength and a weakness. In the current situation, it is probably more of a strength.
In an atmosphere without pressure to deliver a big breakthrough on urgent challenges such as the major power competition, climate change and the growing global inequality, an open exchange leading to relevant agreements at a later stage may be easier for the leaders.
At the same time, expectations might be lowered by holding another virtual summit in which it will be difficult to create space for those short, informal exchanges that are part and parcel of face-to-face summits.
Still, Cambodia has set out an ambitious agenda for the 13th ASEM summit. In addition to the chair’s statement, the organisers want to adopt a Phnom Penh Declaration on post-Covid-19 Socio-Economic Rehabilitation, as well as an ASEM Connectivity Paper. The different experiences of the two continents during the pandemic will likely be reflected in these two papers and produce interesting results.
Travelling within the EU has been possible without too many restrictions throughout the pandemic, but the region is facing another spike of infections during the forthcoming winter. Meanwhile, Asian countries are only now in the process of opening their borders slowly and carefully.
Interrupted supply chains and the disruption of production will continue to slow the economic rehabilitation on both continents. Investment and employment are key to recovery. Close cooperation on trade and investment facilitation between Asian and European countries could ensure ASEM resumes and grows its trading links collectively, for the mutual benefit of both continents.
The EU and its member states could use the summit as an opportunity to discuss the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which was presented in a joint communication by the commission and its high representative two months ago, and to receive direct feedback from the target region.
In its strategy, the EU defines seven priority areas of cooperation to strengthen. These include green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defense and human security. The final priority, sustainable and inclusive prosperity, also is one of the ASEM key focus topics.
The strategy also includes a non-confrontational stance on China, which is meant to encourage Asia’s largest power to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific.
This approach is likely to be welcomed by the majority of ASEM partners. ASEAN states should especially respond to the EU’s attempts to balance interests between the US and China, which would help reduce tensions in the region. In this way, the EU could become a valuable partner in creating space to deal with the rival great powers.
The EU simultaneously highlights the relevance of human rights in its approach to the region.
ASEM host Cambodia is one of the countries facing sanctions over its human rights record. Since August 2020, the country’s duty-free, quota-free access to the EU market under the Everything But Arms programme has been temporarily lifted and about 20% of exports to the EU are now subject to custom duties.
Cambodia seems to be aware of the expectations to improve its human rights record. Two weeks ahead of the ASEM summit, 26 political prisoners were released from Cambodian prisons. The EU representatives will most likely encourage the Southeast Asian nation to continue on this path.
Many more controversial topics could be tabled during the conference’s informal discussions, all of them touching on how serious the participants are about strengthening multilateral cooperation between Asia and Europe.
The subjects up for discussion include a rules-based order in the South China Sea, a more active role for the neighboring countries in improving the political and human rights situation for the people of Myanmar and a fully developed plan for recognising vaccination certificates within and between the two continents, while allowing more business and personal interactions in the coming months.
All of these issues rely on the willingness of the participating nations, especially the bigger players, to make a serious approach to multilateral rules and solutions.
In the world’s latest round of high-level meetings, whether between the leaders of Asian and Western nations or diplomats and activists seeking climate solutions, there were many mixed signals. The ASEM summit might not change this dramatically, but the conference could quietly establish a basis for stronger engagement between the two regions in the coming years.
Cambodia, as the conference host, should strive for this success and then act on the principles laid down by ASEM members when addressing its own multilateral responsibilities and influences.
Christian Echle is the director of Political Dialogue Asia at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) Singapore, a German think tank working in Cambodia and worldwide to engage people on political topics.