If we want ASEM to still matter in 2030, we need to connect people

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Lai Suet Yi
Lai Suet Yi

Lecturer and Researcher at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies

The ASEM process established in 1996 was founded on three pillars: political, economic as well as social, cultural and educational. In its first two decades, political dialogue between ASEM partners increased rapidly, both in number and in depth, and trade and investment flows between Asia and Europe were continuously rising. However, public awareness and people-to-people exchange – core elements of ASEM’s third pillar – have remained low, making ASEM a seemingly elitist forum.

According to empirical research, over 75% of the general public in Asia and Europe did not have any personal or professional connection with the other region. Paradoxically, the only physical institution in the whole ASEM process, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), is mandated to improve the mutual awareness and understanding between the people in Asia and Europe through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

ASEM partner states need to forgo some degree of their national identity and embrace the identity of being ‘Asian’ and ‘European’

The task of linking up more than four billion people in the 53 ASEM countries is enormous for an organisation such as ASEF, which has only some 40 staff members and an annual average budget of S$6.5m. While the biennial summit and five ministerial meetings take place regularly, engagement with public has not followed suit, lacking both in regularity and capacity. Given the present institutional design of ASEM, even together with ASEF activities, it can only reach a tiny part of the billions of citizens in its partner countries. Combined with the international arena full of various multilateral organisations, meetings and fora, along with the era of information explosion we are living in, the general public perhaps understandably lack interest and access to information on how to get involved in the ASEM process.

The sheer size of the population and difficulty in building awareness have always been used to explain the shortcoming of ASEM’s third pillar. However, the process is already 22 years old: to significantly foster awareness and connectivity among the public, ASEM partners have to take concrete steps to change the situation and demonstrate why ASEM is worth additional resources. As suggested by the 11th ASEM Foreign Ministerial Meeting, the first concrete action ASEM partners could take to this direction would be linking the ASEM InfoBoard website, information and news of the process to the websites of their foreign ministries.

There is potential for more, however, if ASEM partners are ready to boost cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two regions.

First, ASEM partner states need to forgo some degree of their national identity and embrace the identity of being ‘Asian’ and ‘European’. ASEM partners should acknowledge their unique role in managing inter-regional exchange between Asia and Europe and put particular emphasis on promoting ‘Asian culture’ in Europe and vice versa.

Second, instead of adopting new initiatives after every summit or ministerial meeting, ASEM partners should make better use of the existing institutions, notably ASEF and the ASEM Education Secretariat. The majority of ASEM initiatives are ad-hoc activities, one-off seminars or conferences aimed at exchanging views and information. While important, their scale and scope are always moderate. To gain additional reach, ASEF and the ASEM Education Secretariat can carry out projects targeted at people who are new to or have limited knowledge of ASEM; however, more resources are needed from ASEM partners to make this a reality. ASEM partners should bear in mind that promoting cultural and people-to-people exchange are their goals and avoid any inter-state politics to disturb the real work.

There is potential for more

Third, ASEM partners should work on quantity, i.e. enlarging the number of people who get involved directly in ASEM activities. Currently, the approach has been qualitative, and those gaining access to ASEM have been mostly members of the ‘elite’ – senior business executives, academics and university students, think tanks, senior media professionals and leaders of NGOs. While the initiative from ASEM11 to celebrate 1 March as ASEM day has been a nice start, ASEM governments should set up accessible public events, such as an ASEM Food Fair or ASEM Singing Contest, instead of hosting small banquets for government officials. Big public events cost more money, of course, and require motivation from ASEM partners to invest accordingly.

Last, while one key function of ASEM has been helping partners to share best practices and governance experience, this could be extended to include the process of enhancing connectivity between people in Asia and Europe. For instance, the European Capital of Culture of the European Union and the ASEAN University Network are initiatives that could be also applied to ASEM.
The enlargement of ASEM from 26 to 53 partners means that the diversity of cultures gets richer while the population size gets bigger. To ensure that we continue to boost connections between people in Asia and Europe under the ASEM framework, we need to recognise the uniqueness of the process and foster joint determination to contribute to meaningful cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.

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