At last week’s 13th ASEM Summit, chaired by Cambodia, one of the forum’s most-precious features was sadly nowhere to be seen: With delegates from the 53 partner countries attending virtually, the sideline meetings, those informal, ad-hoc discussions between parties, were not possible. Nonetheless, the event saw debates on critical issues and yielded statements on multilateralism and shared growth, post-COVID recovery, and the way forward for ASEM connectivity.
The summit took place in the context of a slow erosion of multilateralism and the rules-based international order with the diffusion of power and rising tensions between major players over the past decade. As key powers have sought to exert their influence through unilateral actions, the rules and principles underpinning multilateralism risk being undermined. For small and middle powers who rely on a mutually-agreed rule book for a degree of predictability and protection, and for the European Union (EU), built on the bedrock of rules and principles of multilateralism, it is imperative that the message on multilateralism be amplified in every forum possible. There is a strong sense in the region that the EU, as a regulatory and normative power, and with its significant capacity and political will, should not shy away from taking on a leadership role to rebuild trust and foster consensus on the foundations that guide the cooperation needed to address the common challenges to the people and our planet.
ASEM, which is in its 25th year, is an often under-rated and under-estimated forum because of its informal nature focused on dialogue and less on action. There is, however, real potential for it to become an important platform for the EU to operationalize its Indo-Pacific strategy and strengthen the EU’s engagement with the region. The connectivity agenda is one example.
The format has increased significantly in the number and diversity of its members, from 26 mostly EU and East Asian partners in 1996, to 53 across Eurasia by today. This has given the EU, with its continuity in representation and coordination, a distinct advantage. Furthermore, by supporting the ASEM InfoBoard with EU grants and several public diplomacy initiatives, Brussels plays a key role in shaping the narratives of what ASEM is about. The connectivity agenda in ASEM, which was first pushed by China because of its own Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been reshaped because of the EU’s proactive approach in supporting studies and policy reports on sustainable connectivity. Cognizant of the geopolitics of connectivity and infrastructure – with the Global Gateway initiative pursued by the EU and the American/G7 Build Back Better World – Europe is determined to shape the connectivity agenda by working the narrative around sustainable connectivity and with the appointment of an Ambassador-at-large for Connectivity.
In the statement on The Way Forward on ASEM Connectivity issued at the 13th ASEM Summit, ASEM leaders agreed that “connectivity should be mainstreamed into all relevant ASEM activities.” This is a step in the right direction. A further step can be taken if the ASEM forum can kickstart a real dialogue on the different dimensions of connectivity and the underlying rules and principles for each of them. The EU with other ASEM partners should engage multilateral institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to draft a multi-stakeholder connectivity framework.
As the ASEM framework brings together key connectivity actors, and considering that its working methods rely on functional, issue-based cooperation through working groups, formats such as the ASEM Pathfinder Group on Connectivity are an opportunity to look into a global rule book for connectivity projects. At the 2018 ASEM Summit, leaders agreed that connectivity projects should be “fiscally, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.” This should form the basis for the global rule book on connectivity, which the EU should help further develop together with other ASEM partners.
If the ASEM forum can be used to catalyse the multilateralization of the connectivity rule book, this would be a significant boost to re-invigorating multilateralism and a rules-based order. The sustainable connectivity agenda, especially those elements related to digital and people-to-people connectivity.
It is time for the EU to seize the synergy generated by the broad interest on the connectivity agenda and to use the ASEM platform and other multilateral frameworks to work with like-minded partners such as ASEAN to operationalize its open, inclusive and collaborative Indo-Pacific strategy – a strategy that promises commitment towards sustainable long-term development within a multilateral rules-based framework.
Taking the geopolitics out of connectivity is likely an order too tall for any forum, and not a very realistic scenario to start with. But ASEM can make a key contribution to shaping an inclusive dialogue around shared growth and connectivity and to reducing tensions if and when they arise.
Dr Yeo Lay Hwee is the Director of the European Union Centre in Singapore and Council Secretary at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. She is also a member of the FES Asia Strategic Foresight Group.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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