What does ASEM Day say about Asia-Europe relations?

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Yeo Lay Hwee
Yeo Lay Hwee

Director of Nanyang Technological University’s European Union Centre

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Picture of Bart Gaens
Bart Gaens

Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

A quick search on “daysoftheyear.com” reveals an incredible list of holidays and commemorative days all around the world, reflecting our diversities and development.

There is Data Privacy Day observed mainly in Western countries to raise awareness and promote best practices in privacy and data protection. There is World Emoji Day to celebrate the ubiquitous use of emojis in many of our daily communications. And there is International Yoga Day, perhaps signifying the “arrival” of India on the world stage.

A look into the UN website on its observances of International Days reminds us of the multitude of issues that still require our attention, awareness and action – from Human Rights Day to World Day against Human Trafficking, from International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination to Elimination of Violence against Women, and from Suicide Prevention to Safety and Health at Work.

ASEM Day should serve to remind us that there is much more that Asia and Europe can do together to shape our future destiny

A search on ASEM Day (“Asia meets Europe/Europe meets Asia Day”, observed annually on 1 March) brings us to the ASEM Infoboard, ASEF website, and websites of a number of ASEM member states (but not all). But what is ASEM Day supposed to be? A celebration of blossoming Asia-Europe relations, or a reminder of the need for more engagement between Asia and Europe? Is it supposed to be commemorative occasion or a call for action?

We believe that ASEM Day is both. We can take heart from the fact that the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process has come a long way since it was first launched in 1996 with a leaders’ summit in Bangkok. Besides the biennial summit and the foreign ministers’ meeting, there is now a plethora of meetings between ministers and senior officials covering education, culture, transport and migration. From an initially East Asia-Western Europe bias, ASEM has developed into a trans-continental Asia-Europe framework encompassing the Eurasian landmass. Connectivity – between countries, people, businesses and institutions – is the name of the game.

At the same time the need remains for Europe and Asia to step up their cooperation and engagement on a range of issues; whether bilateral, regional or global. As times get more uncertain and unpredictable, and the list of challenges facing nations and regions grows longer, Europe and Asia need to work together to reduce geopolitical tensions, tackle climate change, implement the Sustainable Development Goals, fight terrorism and radicalisation, and address the challenge posed by refugees and illegal migration.

Complementing rather than duplicating work carried out in other multilateral fora, ASEM should make full use of its informal approach as well as of the involvement of different stakeholders including non-state actors, businesspeople and civil society to create “networks” of policy entrepreneurs and practical problem-solvers. The summit-level dialogue provides the blueprint for focussed initiatives and projects at the intergovernmental level to address all the above-mentioned common challenges.

Europe and Asia need to work together to reduce geopolitical tensions, tackle climate change, implement the Sustainable Development Goals

Yet, it is true that ASEM is still not known widely by the public, and ASEM Day does not have the same resonance as Earth Day or Human Rights Day. There will be celebrations in Brussels and maybe some other capitals in Asia and Europe but ASEM is still hardly known beyond a small cluster of senior officials, academics, experts and policy makers. We have to work harder to make ASEM more visible, credible and relevant.

ASEM Day should serve to remind us that there is much more that Asia and Europe can do together to shape our future destiny – whether it will be one of incessant conflicts and unfulfilled potential, or one of dialogue and development towards the fulfilment of people’s sense of justice and prosperity.

Furthermore, ASEM Day should be a call to political leaders, business executives, civil society activists, scholars and youth that Asia-Europe relations need more attention as well as action.

Last but not least, ASEM Day should remind us that ASEM is not just a meeting of governments, political leaders and senior officials. It is a platform for the people of Europe and Asia ‒ for all of us to do our part to increase awareness of our connected fate and security, to understand the price of inaction, and to foster joint actions towards a common future.

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