The show must go on: ASEM summit is test of Europe-Asia working together

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

They squirmed, giggled and rejected US President Donald Trump’s tirade against the “ideology of globalism” at the United Nations last week. Now European leaders must walk the talk on revamping an old and tired rules-based multilateral system.
They can’t do it alone.
EU leaders’ speeches in New York on defending international law and cooperation provide hope that America’s retreat into “the doctrine of patriotism” won’t trigger a global free-for-all. It’s reassuring that others are ready to step in to save the system. The EU can’t go solo, however.
The days when crafting and deciding new global rules and conventions could be done solely by a small group of like-minded Western nations are long gone.
India, China, Brazil and others want a reform of existing multilateral organisations to reflect their priorities and concerns. And their voice is crucial if new rules are drawn up to regulate global interaction.

If “marketed” properly, the EU plan could be a godsend for baffled Asian, African and Latin American nations

The EU has made a good start in building partnerships with new world powers. Bilateral trade and cooperation pacts are being signed with nations big and small and commitments on climate change and nuclear disarmament remain strong.
The establishment of the so-called “special purpose vehicle” which would theoretically allow European and other companies to circumvent US sanctions on Iran is an important step in the EU’s readjustment to a changed world.
The upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels on 18-19 October offers another opportunity to explore ways of co-designing and co-crafting a revised rules-based system.
Asians and Europeans should focus on three key questions.
First, reforming and modernising the World Trade Organization (WTO). The stakes are high. Trump’s trade war with China risks destabilising the entire global trading system, including Europe-Asia trade worth almost 1.5 trillion euros. The US leader’s tactics are wrong but most trade officials agree the WTO is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Given their interest in fighting protectionism and preserving the WTO, the need for Europe-Asia cooperation to update the organisation’s content, rules and processes is obvious.
Most importantly as the European Commission underlined recently, the challenge will be to tackle rising global concerns about access to Chinese markets but also the forced transfer of technology, the role and power of state-owned enterprises, protection of intellectual property rights and industrial subsidies.
Second, connectivity. Europe has watched with a mixture of confusion, curiosity and concern as China has embarked on its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative worldwide but also within Europe. The EU’s recently-unveiled connectivity has been called a response to the BRI – but it is more than just that.
The EU blueprint helps set transparency, sustainability and governance norms for international infrastructure, transport, digital and energy projects at a time when the world desperately needs such networks but only China has the money and appetite to invest in them.
European opinion about the BRI varies. For some, Beijing is aiming at global dominance, seeking to rewrite global trading rules and/or looking for ways to use its steel and cement surpluses.
European businesses are interested in participating but say they don’t get the contracts they compete for. There is concern about the sustainability of some of the projects and fears that developing countries, desperate for cash, are walking into bottomless debt traps.
The EU strategy with its focus on “sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity” and projects which comply with international environmental, labour and fiscal standards, provides China with a useful rulebook on how best to make some the more abrasive aspects of the BRI compatible with international norms.

The time is right for further Europe-Asian synergies and joint actions to stabilise the existing world order but also fashion a new one

Also, if “marketed” properly, the EU plan could be a godsend for baffled Asian, African and Latin American nations which are looking for help in negotiating infrastructure projects with China.
Finally, in addition to conversations on non-traditional security, Europe and Asia should expand their security dialogues to include discussions on hybrid threats, cooperative security and regional approaches to peace-making, preventive diplomacy and crisis management. EU membership in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Plus meetings will boost such cooperation.
The time is right for further Europe-Asian synergies and joint actions to stabilise the existing world order but also fashion a new one. To do this, both sides must wean themselves off their traditional reliance on America, learn to manage their differences, including on human rights, and treat each other as equal partners.
Striking a true Eurasian partnership of equals won’t be easy for a Europe long used to dictating the rules and putting the transatlantic relationship at the top of its priorities. But it’s the only way to ensure that the show goes on.

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