14 Oct 2014

Does ASEM work?

Jacques Pelkmans / Weinian Hu

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This CEPS Policy Brief is based on a larger study for the EEAS and European Commission, written by the same authors in the run-up of the Milan ASEM summit of 16-17 October 2014. The main idea of the study is to assess whether ASEM works and how, by verifying the factual evidence in detail. After all, ASEM has no institutions, no budget and no treaty, whilst dialogues and a loose improvement over time in Asia-Europe relations refer to process much more than genuine ‘results’. The stocktaking covers all ASEM activities since the 2006 Helsinki summit. Summit and foreign ministers’ declarations and ASEM calendar of activities (and interviews) are used to trace ASEM activities in the three ASEM pillars (political, economic, and peoples-to-peoples/cultural). All the ‘regular’ ASEM meetings at ministerial and other levels (many of which are only known to relatively few) have been mapped. Also the ASEM working methods, based on the 2000 AECF framework and many subsequent initiatives, have been scrutinised, including whether they are actually implemented or not or partially. Such methods refer to how to work together in areas of cooperation (beyond the typical ASEM dialogue), organisation, coordination and ASEM visibility.

The main conclusion is that ASEM works reasonably well, once one accepts the ASEM of today, although some inefficiencies still characterise the ‘system’. There is a host of secondary conclusions on the three pillars, the foreign ministers, the strong government-to-government nature of ASEM and the working methods. We recommend that today’s ASEM needs no reform and that not having ASEM would entail political and diplomatic costs. We emphasise that ASEM is well placed to stimulate exchange of information between the mega-FTAs such as TPP, RCEP and TTIP. However, the ASEM of tomorrow might be different, given the great changes in geo-political and economic conditions since ASEM began in the mid-1990s. Moreover, the size of ASEM has become such that classical ways of operating with (after Milano) 53 countries (including the EU and ASEAN) cannot possibly be effective all the time. We suggest that, in the run-up to the 20th ASEM birthday (2016), EU and Asian independent think-tanks get together to write an ‘options report’ reconsidering options for a new ASEM, as the basis for a profound and wide debate how to get more value-added out of ASEM.

Jacques Pelkmans is Senior Fellow at CEPS and Weinian Hu is on the Faculty of Law, Ghent University.