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11 Mar 2016

Observing the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) from Southeast Asia

Evi Fitriani, 2011
The Australian National University

The inauguration of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Bangkok in 1996 was celebrated with enthusiasm and hopes in the two regions because this region-to-region forum represented a breakthrough in Asia-Europe relations and a unique arrangement: it did not include the United States (US) and was the first forum to which Asian countries have been summoned as a group to sit vis-à-vis their Europeans counterparts.  However, the enthusiasm soon shifted toward pessimism and criticism after the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998 and following the war against terrorism after 9/11. ASEM, however, has survived despite the many criticisms about its ineffectiveness.

Why have Southeast Asian countries maintained the ASEM process? How do the participants in the ASEM process perceive this inter-regional institution? This thesis addresses the question What has ASEM delivered to Southeast Asian countries?’  It aims not only to investigate the insights into ASEM from state and non-state actors in Southeast Asia but also to examine the reasons for the longevity of ASEM from Southeast Asian perspectives. The main data for this research were collected through 82 in-depth interviews in six countries with interviewees comprised of state and non-state actors from ASEAN as well as non-ASEAN countries. The results of the research contribute to the study of ASEM and ASEAN, and to an understanding of wider regional institutions in Asia.

The thesis finds that ASEM has delivered significant outcomes for Southeast Asian countries due to the functions of the ASEM forums in facilitating regional identity-building and in pursuing foreign policy advantages for ASEAN countries. The interactions in the ASEM region-to-region forums helped facilitate the development of Asian identity or identities through the frequent social interaction among leaders and elites. A sense of regional awareness resulted from the cognitive process and collective experience in the ASEM process, which in turn, has been used by ASEAN and other East Asian countries for other forums.

The case study on Myanmar’s accession to ASEM highlights the success of the Asian countries in extracting foreign policy benefits from ASEM by taking advantage of its inter-regional meeting format. Despite its neglected position in regional affairs, ASEM has delivered strategic advantages for ASEAN countries. In addition, the findings reveal that ASEM’s informal institutional arrangements are shaped by Southeast Asian countries. The informality has helped circumvent complexities in the inter-regional relations, thus, not only contributing to the longevity of the inter-regional relations between Asian and European countries but also accommodating the need of Southeast Asian countries for informal and non-binding cooperative institutions. In general, the ASEM process and institution have been conducted in line with ‘ASEAN way’.  Maintaining ASEM by continuing to attend the summits and joining relevant initiatives seems to be more useful than killing it off. ASEM can be considered as a low-cost form of diplomacy that can be useful in times of crisis.

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