Bursting the Bubble

Asia matters for Europe & Europe matters for Asia – Is it really so?

11 May 2016 | by

A few weeks ago, Mongolia kicked off the first of several events and high-level meetings under one common name: the Asia-Europe meeting. Dozens of side events including civil society forum, youth forum, business forum and various meeting of 51 heads of state, including the European Union as well as the ASEAN Secretariat will take place. Such will occur in the country with a rich history situated at the crossroad of West and East as well as South and North. The visit of thousands of political and civil society delegates, journalists, students and tourists represents a huge challenge not only for Mongolia, a democratic state landlocked between two world’s superpowers Russia and China, but also for all governments or interest groups attending the Forum. Mongolia, the country strongly hit by China’s economic slowdown, has invested an enormous amount of financial and human resources in preparation of the Summit in order to present itself in the best light, thus attracting new investors, reinforcing economic diversification and bolstering sustainable economic growth.

However, the Summit is missing some important aspects such as feasible content, goal-oriented initiatives, multilateral projects and the will of its own members to move forward or act more flexibly. Europe, overwhelmed by an increasing number of internal headaches and painful discussions, accommodates the dynamics of Asian development with huge difficulties.       

The voices from Mongolia vary on what the Summit means for the country. On the one hand there are experts, encouraged mostly by the officials, who highlight the long-term positive effects of Mongolia’s rising international recognition in terms of economy and politics. In 2011, Mongolia was the fastest growing economy in the world with GDP growth reaching a shocking 17.3 per cent. In contrast, the Asian Development Bank forecasts the country’s growth of barely 0.1 per cent in 2016 as the country has been deeply affected by the slowdown in China and by falling commodity prices. While looking at these future predictions, bringing new investors and economic diversification seems to be the only path towards sustainable economic growth or welfare. In term of politics, Mongolia is well-known as a democratic country fully determined to have a free market, rule of law and protection of human rights. However, the visage of the country was strongly hurt by the disputes between the government and international investors. Thus, the Summit represents an opportunity where the country could finally sit down with its old or new investors and say: “We are back in the game!” On the other hand, there is a civil society which represents and manifests in the interests as well as will of the country’s citizens. Talking about the citizens of Mongolia, most of them are already annoyed by the Summit and the biggest show hasn’t even started yet. Instead of importing hundreds of expensive new cars, alongside announcements about China’s huge financial contribution, closing of kiosks and small businesses; people would rather see investments to hospitals, schools and infrastructure (sustainable, not only short-term replacements, repairs, and renovations). Whether the attraction and investments will at least reach the level of financial and human sacrifices is very doubtful at this moment. This year’s ASEM Forum is extremely important for Mongolian diplomacy as well as President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s intentions to promote Mongolia worldwide. However, is it equally important for other ASEM members?

The ASEM Summit is not only about the venue and country it takes places in; it is more about the resolutions, promises and challenges that should be addressed. These are, in fact, very doubtful in the case of this so called key forum for dialogue and cooperation between Europe and Asia. The ASEM has doubled its number of members from original 26 to 53 which represents approximately 60 per cent of the world’s GDP and 60 per cent of world’s populations. The Summit is powerful, however only looking at the numbers it represents only the political dialogue where the meetings are more informal and interactive. Besides being a dialogue facilitator, a policy-making laboratory and contributor to Asia-Europe relations; it has no permanent secretary and no decision-making body. The Asia Europe Foundation, the only permanently established institution of the ASEM, has been extremely active strengthening Asia-Europe relations as well as fostering meeting point for intellectual, cultural, and personal interactions.[1] However, the results of hundreds of interactive but still informal meetings, sessions, panels and dialogues are hardly measurable and thus, the promises from heads of states or government, senior officials, ministers and other participants are insufficiently advocated, evaluated and judged.

Both the EU and Asia have changed since the last ASEM meeting in 2014 at Milan. China’s economy has slowed down while the EU’s economy hasn’t experienced any turbulent recovery. Europe has been hit by refugee crisis, terrorist attacks and the unity of its member states is more than questionable. The countries situated next to the South China Sea are alarmed by rising territorial disputes and China’s increased efforts to reclaim the lands.

The Summit is determined to pay attention to major global issues, such as terrorism, weapons of mass-destruction, migration, climate change, human rights, in addition to the usual challenges around reaching civil society or wider public, enhancing trade or investment frameworks, crisis management and many others. Such a wide range of topics cannot be discussed in detail in only two days, especially when the Summit is attended by dozens of heads of state. Moreover, even with several side events focused on various interest groups; it’s doubtful whether the results will be presented or the recommendations raised either to other groups holding meetings in Ulaanbaatar or to the public.

Finally, such an extensive Summit is expected to bring some promising results. In other words, the leaders, businessmen and civil society are expected to come up with challenging plans to connect Europe and Asia through multiple channels, thus developing two continents into a more interconnected and interdependent supercontinent. In reality the EU is still behind being named a pivotal initiator of big infrastructure or any other initiatives for its Asian partners. On the contrary, the European Commission and its initiatives, namely the Trans-European Transport Network and the Investment Plan for Europe, supports the ASEAN’s “ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity” which could increase the opportunities for future mutual cooperation. Moreover, the leaders have agreed to cooperate, building five new platforms for cooperation in order to expand synergies between China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project and the Investment plan for Europe, and thus fill in Asia’s infrastructure spending hole.

The seeds of cooperation have already been planted.

Business and trade is, and will be, a key backbone of Europe-Asia relations, therefore now we need long-term strategies, ambitious plans and projects, alongside the involvement of civil society in planning and decision-making process. To organise the Summit with approximately fifty heads of governments and thousands of senior officials, civil society representatives, members of parliaments, students as well as many others is a great challenge, but on the other side of the coin should be the achievement of tangible results and enduring cooperation. That should be of importance to Mongolia and all ASEM member states.

[1] http://asef.org/about/what-we-do

What do you think?