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date: 20 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

The Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) was launched in 1996 to provide a forum for East Asian and European Union (EU) leaders to meet and a platform to strengthen the links between Asia and Europe. It was conceived against a backdrop of optimism about regionalism and globalization and the belief in the necessity of international dialogue and cooperation and institution-building. The forum was also meant to close the missing link between Asia and Europe, two of the three engines of global economic growth (the other being the United States).

Since its inaugural summit in March 1996, ASEM has developed to encompass various multilevel sectoral meetings—multilevel in that it involves ministers, senior officials, and technical experts—but is also multi-sectoral in that it has grown beyond diplomatic meetings overseen by the foreign affairs/external action service to those involving trade and finance, education, transport, and so on. It has also enlarged from 26 members to 53 members, and now comprises all 28 EU member states, 10 countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the ASEAN Secretariat, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland.

Yet, despite the enlargement in number of meetings and members, ASEM has been criticized for the lack of depth of its meetings, its dearth of tangible outcomes, and its poor visibility. The sense is that after 20 years, the dialogue within ASEM has broadened but not deepened. With its disparate membership, ASEM remains essentially a forum for scripted speeches and informal dialogue. While it has created a few initiatives that have become “institutionalized,” such as the Asia–Europe Foundation (ASEF), the general perception of ASEM as a less-important forum persists. Media coverage of ASEM meetings, and even of its summits, is usually rather low-key.

However, ASEM continues to draw support from the EU and China in particular, for the very reason that it is one of the few multilateral forums that the United States is absent from and where it hence cannot dominate and drive the agenda. This is perhaps one main factor that has kept ASEM alive, and with an increasingly challenging global environment in the shape of an unpredictable, transactional, and unilateral America under Trump, the need to rethink the instrumentality of ASEM for its 53 members grows ever more important.

Keywords: European Union, European Union politics, ASEAN, ASEAN Plus Three, Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM), connectivity, regionalism, summitry

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