The Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, is holding its fifth summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday and Saturday with 39 delegations participating. Talks are scheduled on such issues as trade, the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis, Iraq, United Nations reform, disease control and cultural diversity.
However, events have been marred by differences of opinion concerning the inclusion of Myanmar in the body.
On Thursday, ASEM announced the inclusion of 13 new members. Three are ASEAN countries -- Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar -- and 10 are EU members: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.
It is ASEM's largest expansion since it was founded in 1996, and the newly enlarged body now covers 40 percent of world population and 50 percent of world GDP.
The Europeans have opposed the admission of Myanmar because of its allegedly poor human rights record, but Asian members believe it is their prerogative to choose whom to admit within the Asian sphere.
The EU had originally threatened to boycott the summit, but a compromise was found when the country agreed to send a lower-level delegation.
Some observers have pointed to the different agendas of the two regions as a stumbling block in terms of achieving concrete results. "Europe hopes to increase its influence in Asia and focuses more on political issues while Asia pays more attention to expanding economic growth," said a former Chinese diplomat in Europe.
Human rights and democracy have been already at the heart of some differences between Asians and Europeans in the past. Some analysts say that political differences over Myanmar have almost paralyzed ASEM, and other bilateral political differences could also be sparked between the EU and individual ASEM partners, over human rights as well as the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China.
China is expected to become an increasingly important player in the ASEM framework, helping Asian members in such areas as keeping European interest anchored in Asia; and benefiting European counterparts by, for example, helping to control smuggling, human trafficking and other cross-border crime.
Launched in March 1996 in Bangkok, ASEM -- the brainchild of former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong -- has met four times at summit level since deciding to hold meetings once every 18 months, alternating between Asia and Europe. Previous ASEM summits have been held in London, Seoul and Copenhagen.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency October 8, 2004)