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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 31, 2, p 408-409

Marc Frey

ASEM: A Window of Opportunity. Edited by WIM STOKHOF and PAUL VAN DER VELDE. London: Kegan and Paul in association with the International Institute for Asian Studies, 1999. Pp. vi, 179.

This collection of essays is the based on a conference held in 1997 and attended by academics, diplomats and politicians. The aim of this nicely crafted and well-edited volume is to assess the past achievements and future challenges of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), an interregional forum which consists of seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan, South Korea, the fifteen members of the European Union (EU), and the European Commission. Initiated by the Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, Asian and European leaders felt that there was a need to set up a forum where matters of mutual interest could be informally discussed, both with a view to improve the inter-regional dialogue and to establish a balance to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEL). The first summit meeting held at Bangkok in 1996 was widely regarded as a success, chiefly because for the first time since decolonization, Asian and European leaders met in an atmosphere of partnership, equality, and common respect.

Because the essays cover a wide range of issues, it seems practical to single out the aspects which are discussed to varying degree by all of the contributors: politics; economic and business relations; culture and education; prospects for the future. Derek Fatchett (British Foreign Office) and Percy Westerlund (European Commission) both stress the importance Europe attaches to improved relations with Asian countries. While Europe has strong and growing economic interests in the region, it provides a valuable market for Asian products and, in the case of Great Britain, is a major target for Asian direct investment. Business forums, as established by ASEM, contribute to the intensification of trade and finance. In the field of politics ASEM will not replace bilateral relations, but it does offer the opportunity to discuss matters of inter-regional concern like regional security, environmental issues, and exchange programmes. Michael Hindley (European Parliament), while agreeing in principle with Fatchett's and Westerlund's assessments, points out that governments should provide more information on the importance of Asian-European relations. Otherwise populations might not understand efforts to liberalize trade. He doubts whether inter-cultural understanding fosters business relations.

This notion is strongly rejected by, among others, Wim Stokhof (International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden/Amsterdam). His view, shared widely by European scholars of Asia, is that "exposure to each other's cultures is a precondition for increased mutual understanding" (p. 38). According to Stokhof, an important result of the first ASEM meeting was the official acknowledgement of the importance of culture, and the establishment of the Asia Europe Foundation. César de Prado Yepes (European University Institute Florence), while discussing communications infrastructure, points out the opportunities new information technologies offer for increased contacts between Asians and Europeans. Tetsundo Iwakuni (Member of the House of Representatives, Tokyo) follows up this argument with a plea for more educational exchange. He rightly points out that Japanese students by and large prefer an American over a European university and that hardly any European students find their way to Japan. Quantity and quality of existing exchanges should be increased; ASEM could play a leading role in this process.

Dong-Ik Shin (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea) and Gerald Segal (International Institute for Strategic Studies) highlight the common interests of Asians and Europeans in a "stable and prosperous Pacific Asia" (p. 73). While acknowledging the important role of the United States for the security architecture in the region, they propose that ASEM develop a security agenda, accompanied by arms transfers. common peacekeeping operations in the context of the United Nations, and intelligence cooperation. Zhao Gancheng (Shanghai Institute for International Studies) also stresses the positive role the European Union might assume in the context of the region's stability. As several other authors also point out, ASEM might one day counterbalance negative aspects of a perceived American preponderance in the Asia-Pacific region. On a more concrete level, however, Zhao is convinced that China "welcomes more business cooperation and economic exchanges" (p. 123) with Europe. An equally important field for ASEM is singled out by Jong Bum Kim (Korea Institute for International Economic Policy) in his article on international corruption. He argues that ASEM could raise consciousness of the detrimental effects of corruption in international business and could formulate common codes of behavior. Jurgen Ruland (University of Rostock) in his concluding article regards ASEM as a unique forum for discussing and implementing projects of common interest, like security issues or economic relations. While some 25 countries from Asia and Europe have indicated their desire to participate in ASEM, Ruland suggests a moratorium on membership, because ASEM might become unmanageable. Not surprising, this is strongly rejected by AndrAs Hernádi (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), who points out that Hungary and other Eastern European Countries should not be left out.

The volume provides a superb introduction to ASEM and the state of Asian-European relations. The future will show whether the ambitious projects envisaged by ASEM - among others, the creation of a free trade zone by the year 2025 - will be realized. But in order to improve Asian-European relations on various levels, visions are necessary. In this sense, ASEM truly is a "window of opportunity".

University of Cologne

Marc Frey