The Belt and Road Initiative is set to be a grand project to enhance connectivity between Asia and Europe. When the ideas of the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road were first introduced in autumn 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the world reacted with doubt and skeptism. These doubt and uncertainties surround mainly the feasibility of such big ideas and the impacts of the initiative on the current world order.
It was until the policy paper, ¡®Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road¡¯, was published by the Chinese government in March 2015 that more countries started taking the initiative more seriously and with more interest. Meanwhile, China explains its plan to use both bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation mechanisms, in which ten existing mechanisms1 were listed. While new institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund, have already been established to help to finance Belt and Road projects, this paper argues that no more new cooperative mechanism need to be founded. The current international stage is already a full spaghetti bowl of such mechanism from the United Nations (UN) to G8, G20, to the newly formed AIIB and the BRICS Development Bank. This paper suggests, instead, that the existing cooperation mechanisms can be utilized. Among the ten mechanisms listed in the Belt and Road policy paper, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process is found to be one suitable option.
While attending the eleventh ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) Foreign Ministers¡¯ Meeting in November 2013, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed the integration of the Silk Road Economic Belt and Asia-Europe cooperation. He urged governments in Asia and Europe and their business communities and scholars to start researching on this. Yet, few such research was established correspondingly among China¡¯s ASEM counterparts. Subsequently, this paper devotes to explore potential of linking up the Belt and Road Initiative and Asia-Europe Meeting.
What is ASEM?
In brief, the Asia-Europe Meeting is an informal forum bringing partners from Asia and Europe for dialogue and cooperation. It is noteworthy that ASEM is not designed to function as a delivery or decision-making mechanism.Its objective is to foster exchanges, engagement and mutual understanding between Asia and the Europe.2
In 1996, the ASEM process started with a biennial summit of head of state/government. The summit has been the highest-level and biggest-scale forum for regular opinions and view exchanges between Asia and Europe. It is also the first arrangement in history which brings Asia and Europe together on equal footing. Today, ASEM¡¯s fifty-three members3 represent around three-fifth of the world GDP as well as two-thirds of the world¡¯s population.
The most recent summit was ASEM11 held in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) in July 2016. Thus far, ASEM has grown in breadth as well as depth. In Track 1, the process has developed from the biennial summit to involve also a great number of ministerial and senior officials¡¯ meetings. An informal atmosphere is specially created during the summits and ministerial meetings by requesting participants not to read out pre-written speech, keeping the meeting doors closed. It is expected to encourage frank and truly interactive exchange of views between the participants.These Track 1 meetings do not generate any legally-binding obligation, while the sectoral ministerial and senior officials¡¯ meetings allow ASEM partner governments to exchange governing experience, to share and explore best practices in the respective policy fields. The policy field has expanded to a wide range of sectors. They are grouped under a three-pillar structure which consists of political dialogue, economic cooperation and cooperation in other areas.
ASEM partners agreed on six key principles: equal partnership, open and evolutionary, enhancement of mutual understanding and awareness, multi-dimensionality, informality and dual-tracks system. Due to informality, ASEM partners do not bare any legal responsibility or share a physical secretariat.
Apart from the scheduled summits, ministerial and senior officials¡¯ meetings, ASEM partners conduct a significant number of ¡®sideline¡¯ meetings, i.e. additional meetings that the participants to the official meetings hold between themselves outside the plenary sessions. Bilateral government-to- government meetings are the most common. These meetings are irregular and occasionally unscheduled. They are side-products of the ASEM process, yet provide ASEM partners with an additional channel to maximise diplomatic accomplishments and handle ¡®private¡¯ affairs in smaller groups. The author of paper called them Track 1.1.
While Track 1 and Track 1.1 are mainly government-to- government interactions, an unofficial track, Track 2, is established to engage the non-state actors. It comprises the Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF), the Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting (ASEP), the Asia-Europe People¡¯s Forum (AEPF), the Council for Asia-Europe Cooperation (this no longer exist now)as well as a wide variety of activities organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).ASEF has been the sole physical institution established by ASEM, and is mandated to oversee ASEM¡¯s social-cultural pillar.
It is expected that an increase in participation of members of civil society will help ASEM to improve its public profile and awareness. Compared to the state-centric official tracks, Track 2 encompasses non-state actors from business community to civil society organisations, academia, media, to the general public. Yet, most of the existing ASEM Track 2 activities are results from the Track 1 meetings, and they link to the official track to a certain extent. Although non-state actors attempt to project their voice to and influence the governments, ASEM governments have no obligation to read nor implement policy recommendations submitted from Track 2. ASEM remain very much a top-down process.
Apart from state-centric, ASEM has been found to be elitist. There has yet been a mass involvement of the general public. Main contribution of the process is a promotion of view and opinion exchange in government-to-government, business-to-business, and people-to-people levels.
What is China¡¯s involvement in ASEM?
China is among the twenty-six founding members of the ASEM process. It has also been one of the key contributor. China always sends its highly representatives to attend ASEM summit and official meetings. In these meetings, China also actively contributes its initiatives and resources to host events. For instance, China initiated the meeting of science and technology ministers, and of environment ministers. It held the 7th ASEM summit in Beijing in 2008 as well as numerous ministerial and senior official meetings. It also initiated and then holds physically the ASEM Water Resources Research and Development Centre.4
China has also been one of the key financial supporters of the ASEM process. For the ASEM Asian Financial Crisis Response Trust Fund, which was set up in 1998 to support East Asian countries hit by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, China has contributed one million US dollar. Moreover, it has been a source of finance for the only physical institution of the ASEM process, ASEF. From ASEM9 (the 9th summit in 2012) onward, China contributes half million US dollar every year to ASEF.
Why the Belt and Road Initiative should utilize the ASEM process?
Being a founding and active partner of the ASEM process, China¡¯s development and initiatives have always attract attention and interest from its fellow partners in ASEM.While the promotion of connectivity has become a key goal of the ASEM process since ASEM 10 (in 2014), China should promote the Belt and Road, which is exactly about the promotion of linkages between Asia and Europe, with the ASEM as one framework.
Indeed, the idea of reviving the ancient Silk Road had already been suggested by South Korean government in ASEM4, in the framework of ¡®Trans-Eurasian railway¡¯ or ¡®Iron Silk Road¡¯.However, at that time, the idea has not attract high interest from fellow ASEM partners. Still, the Korean government continues with several related initiatives. South Korea and Finland initiated to organize a symposium on an iron Silk Roadin the fifth ASEM Foreign Ministers¡¯ Meeting in 2003.The ASEM Symposium on an Iron-Silk Road was then held in Seoul in June 2004, which happened only an ad-hoc event. It was more than a decade later, in 2015, that Seoul held another relevant symposium, ASEM Symposium on Eurasian Transport and Logistics Network. Meanwhile, South Korea has also actively running the Trans-Eurasia Information Network (TEIN) since ASEM3. TEIN is a high-capacity internet connection infrastructure facilitates cooperation among the research and educational institutions.The first phase of TEIN (began in December 2001) bridged 8000 research and educational institutions across Asia and Europe. In 2011, Korean government established the TEIN Cooperation Centre as a non-profit foundation corporation to manage the fourth phase of TEIN.
Apparently, reviving the Silk Road is not any foreign idea to ASEM. The already devoted efforts, especially from South Korea, should not be wasted but linked into the Belt and Road Initiative. China, being aware of the keenness of Korea, should cooperate with the Korean government to further develop the relevant ASEM projects.
Moreover, the membership of ASEM largely overlaps with the some seventy countries covered by the Belt and Road. Although the released action plan from the Chinese government did not define a fixlist of covered countries in order to demonstrateits openness and inclusiveness, they can roughly been identified from the listed places and regions. These overlapping countries include: the ten ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia, Kazakhstan in Central Asia; Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in South Asia; the thirty ASEM Europeancountries and the EU in Europe; as well as China, Mongolia and Russia. This covers92% of ASEM members. Such overlap means challenges facing the Belt and Road countries are also those of ASEM. Besides, AIIB membership also overlaps with 68% of ASEM¡¯s.
It is noteworthy that Japan is the only ASEM partner which does not join AIIB or fall into the listed Belt and Road coverage.The tensions with China in recent years and identity as a close allies of the U.S. make Japan antagonist against the China¡¯s Initiative. ASEM provides opportunities for the Belt and RoadInitiative to demonstrate to Japan its peaceful intention and potential benefit to the whole world.
Apart from membership, Belt and Road and ASEM share also same objective and ideology. They both intend to foster peace, development and cooperation in the Eurasia continent. Their ultimateaim is to keep the strength and prominence of the Eurasia continent in the international stage.Both also believe that the exchange should go beyond goods and cover ideas, cultures and people, that the eventual benefit should reach the general publics.
How the Belt and Road Initiative can utilize the ASEM process?
It is, of course, not a good idea for China to only see ASEM as a platform to sell one initiative, as the process has its own projects and several partners which are not along the Belt and Road Initiative.China-centrism should be prevented. Instead, China can embed the relevant parts of the Initiative into existing projects. Two of such projects promoted by South Korea were discussed above.
The ¡®List of ASEM Tangible Cooperation Areas and Participating Partners¡¯ published by ASEM11, the most recent ASEM summit,displayed the defined areas of cooperation among different sub-groups of ASEM partners. China can for example, explore with the subgroup on ¡®Food Safety Issues¡¯, on how Belt and Road facilitates the transportation of food products and cultures. In the subgroup on ¡®Waste Management¡¯, Belt and Road can be relevant in the development of trans-national chain of recycle industry. With the eventual goal of further economic development in the covered regions, China can work with the ¡®Poverty Reduction¡¯ subgroup to prevent widening the rich-poor gap as the current globalization process has suffered.Belt and Road are naturally relevant to sub-groups on ¡®Promote Trade and Investment Involve Private Sectors¡¯, ¡®Transport and Logistics¡¯ and ¡®Promotion of Tourism¡¯. Even for sub-groups on ¡®Women¡¯s Empowerment¡¯ and ¡®Youth Cooperation¡¯, China can learn from experience and expertise of other ASEM countries and explore how to contribute the gender equality and the cultivation of young generation.
Meanwhile, China should continue its contribution to the ASEM projects which it already signed up to. Besides, in ASEM plentiful meetings in different levels, and of different actors from head of government to ministers to civil society, China should try to listen to opinion and expectation of the fellow participants on Belt and Road. This can be done on the sidelines so as to prevent overshadowing the actual topic of the meeting. ASEM as a forum which always gather a large number countries, utilizing such platform to communicate with numerous counterparts in one event, at the same time, is more efficient than organizing individual bilateral meetings one by one.
Lastly, the role of ASEF should not been overlooked. China can support ASEF events and projects which match the same objective of Belt and Road. These event and project do not necessarily be brand with ¡®Belt and Road¡¯, while they contribute to the Initiative¡¯s goals. From participating in ASEF activities, China can also pay some attention on the expectation of other ASEM partners on areas which Belt and Road can cover. This is crucial as ASEF activities gather various sectors of society and represent a more bottom-up view compared to the Track1 meetings.
Belt and Road Initiative has good reasons to cooperate with the ASEM process, what are the motivation of ASEM?
How ASEM can benefit from playing a role in the Belt and Road Initiative?
As already discussed, a large majority of ASEM partners locate along the Belt and Road, they naturally concern about the Initiative. In particular, with the same objective, ASEM and Belt and Road projects can sometimes be similar. Instead of wasting time and resource to conduct these projects separately under two names, cooperation between ASEM and Belt and Road is a rational choice.
For many years, ASEM has been labelled by some observers as ¡®loss of relevance¡¯ and ¡®stagnant¡¯. Some members show a decline of interest by absentee in the meetings and halt of financial support. One reason is believed to be the diverse membership after five rounds of enlargement, which resulted in divergence of interest among partners. Another reason is thought to be the lack of tangible projects with visible impact.Taking an active role in a grand project which attracts international attention, ASEM can increase its relevance. It can also boost the visibility which it has been seeking in the past two decades. Interest of ASEM partners in cooperation under the Belt and Road framework should also be nature, especially for particular projectswhich directly relate to their sub-regions.
Moreover, the Asia-Europe Foundation is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. Cooperating with Belt and Road projects, especially those focus on the promotion of people-to-people or social-cultural exchanges between Asia and Europe, helps ASEF to boost its international visibility.
In conclusion, the Asia-Europe Meeting has been bringing partners from Asia and Europe together for dialogue and cooperation. The Belt and Road Initiative has been launched to boost connectivity from Asia to Europe. This paper argues that cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the ASEM process is a good opportunity for both sides. For China, using an existing multilateral mechanism which it has been active contributor means saving time and resources. ASEM serves as on platform for China to demonstrate the inclusive ownership of Belt and Road. For ASEM, involving in a high-profile project like Belt and Road can help promoting the relevance and visibility which the process has been searching for years. Whilst the Belt and Road Initiative and ASEM share common goals, ideology and 92% of overlapping membership, cooperation between the two is a win-win option.
LAI Suetyi, Post-doctoral Fellow Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University
1 They are Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), ASEAN Plus China (10+1), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), China-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Dialogue, Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Economic Cooperation, and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), listed in Section V of ¡®Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road¡¯.
2 It began with only member states of the European Union (EU), then since 2012 the European membership of ASEM was opened to non-EU European countries namely Norway and Switzerland.
3 This includes on the European side, the 28 Member States of the EU, the European External Action Service, Norway and Switzerland; on the Asian side, the 10 member states of the ASEAN, the Secretariat of ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Bangladesh and Kazakhstan. The European External Action Service(EEAS) and ASEAN Secretariat have their own memberships in ASEM.
4 This centre was opened in August 2011, located in Changsha, China.