February 23, 2020
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One Step Forward

A closed-door air mars the ASEM's tentative debut in Bangkok

One Step Forward
PERHAPS even the organisers had anticipated a bout of polemics at the first-ever summit of 10 Asian nations and the European Union—the Asia-Europe Meet (ASEM). After all, certain Asian countries like India had not been invited. Media access to information was strictly controlled. And on February 29, the summit-eve, European Commission Chairman Jacques Santer declared that "sensitive issues" wouldn't be discussed.

But contrary to the unspoken fears, the weekend summit (March 1-2) ended with general agreement in several areas of planned cooperation. On potentially divisive issues like human rights and Indonesia's 1975 annexation of former Portuguese colony East Timor, everyone agreed to disagree. The 26 leaders—heads of government or their representatives from the 15 European Union member-states, the seven ASEAN states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), and the leaders of Japan, South Korea and China—stressed that the task at hand was to enhance cooperation and understanding, not discord.

In the run-up to the summit, most observers had assumed that Portugal would bring up East Timor. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas had earlier called Portugal's plea for a united European stand on East Timor "ridiculous and pathetic".

When Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres finally brought up the issue, it was at a private, unscheduled bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Suharto. And, far from being confrontationist, Guterres went out of his way to conciliate the much larger nation that forcibly annexed his country's former colony, making a surprise offer of partial diplomatic recognition in return for the release of Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and other jailed dissidents, and a pledge to respect human rights.

Although Indonesia made no immediate response to the offer, Thai Prime Minister Banharn Silpaarcha and EU head Santer, in their closing press conference, called the development a "breakthrough". The Guterres-Suharto meeting had taken place at the behest of Silpaarcha, who feared that the East Timor issue would disrupt the meeting's otherwise cordial proceedings.

As expected, the meeting's main achievement was to establish momentum towards an increasing institutionalisation of trade and political relations between Asia and Europe. An Asia-Europe Business Forum and Asia-Europe Environmental Technology Centre will be established in Thailand, and an Asia-Europe Foundation will be set up in Singapore. The fledgling organisation's second summit will be held in London in 1998, and the third in Seoul in the year 2000. Economic and foreign ministers will meet in 1997, and regular senior officials' meetings and intellectual exchanges between the two continents will be instituted.

Two large and important countries that did not participate—one because it is neither in Asia nor in Europe, the other because it was not invited—downplayed the meeting's significance. "I don't think it's all that big a deal," said a senior official of the Clinton Administration in Washington. "The fact is that the Asians and Europeans have both felt a lack of adequate communication and on the whole it's going to take some time before they develop a history."

An Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman, while noting that the ASEAN secretary-general had promised India would attend the next ASEM, played down the exclusion. But not before archly noting that "it's like performing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark....We've even told them it should be called a Europe-East Asia summit because the current nomenclature implies we should be included."

While India is still keen to join, Italian foreign minister Susanna Agnelli told a press conference in New Delhi that the final decision on Asian participation rests with ASEAN.

The first meeting's attendees were divided over whether the ASEM should be expanded. "China always supports open regionalism and in our view the ASEM should be an open forum," said Chinese spokesman Chen Jian. However, he added that "all Asian and European participants reaffirmed the one-China policy"—a not-so-subtle indication that Taiwan stands little, if any, chance of being admitted.

India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Hungary and Poland all want to join the ASEM. Most have ostensible sponsors among current member-states—Japan supports Australia and New Zealand, for instance, and Indonesia and Singapore want both India and Pakistan to be brought in—but none will be admitted without a broad agreement.

Commenting on possible expansion, Japanese spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto struck the grouping's so far typical pragmatic, non-confrontational, wait-and-see tone. He might, in fact, have been discussing any other matter the ASEM has taken up. "The summit wants to deal with this topic diplomatically," he said, "but we also want to have a consensus from all members." 

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