ASEM Summit – perfect setting for China's trans-continental diplomacy

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 19, 2016
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The 11th ASEM Summit, held in Ulan Bator from July 15 to 16 and attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, provided an excellent opportunity to showcase China's policy of inter-regional engagement, one of the central planks of the current Chinese administration.

The ASEM process has been continuing for twenty years now, originating as a forum in which the European Union and ASEAN (plus other important East Asian nations such as China) could meet to discuss matters of common interests; but it has expanded over the years to include 51 European and Asian countries as well as leaders of international organizations. And ASEM is now taking on new significance in light of China's colossal “Belt and Road" project linking China with Europe.

The main output of the meeting was the signing of the Ulaanbaatar Declaration, emphasizing "connectivity across diverse domains," a phrase signifying a whole range of mutual exchanges – political, commercial, financial, and developmental – as well as the mechanisms by which these exchanges can be conducted. The declaration mentioned the “growing interdependence between the two regions," something which China has taken a leading role in promoting. The ASEM countries should form a solid partnership to alleviate the world's current uncertainties and volatility by demonstrating the value of effective multilateralism. As China has been particularly anxious to emphasize, insecurities are best addressed by creating a solid foundation of mutually beneficial economic links.

Premier Li was especially keen to ensure that recent developments in the EU do not negatively affect relations between Europe and Asia. One of the most disturbing recent events was the British referendum which led to the UK's departure from the EU. Li was careful to avoid any impression of interference in this matter but emphasised his hope that the transition would be smooth and have no deleterious effect on wider relations.

China's particular concern in dealing with the EU is the latter's handling of anti-dumping measures; Li called on Europe to act strictly in accordance with Article 15 of the Protocol on the Accession of China to the WTO and to abandon the “surrogate country approach" that designates China as a non-market economy. He discussed these issues in detail in a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, thus acknowledging that Germany now plays an effective leadership role within the EU.

China did not wish to get embroiled in arguments over the situation in the South China Sea – Premier Li did not mention the topic in his initial keynote speech – but it was inevitable that it would come up, and China thus had no alternative but to respond to the provocation.

On the meeting's second day the Premier strongly restated China's position, which is that the South China Sea arbitration award will have no impact on China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests. Li told his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, one of China's main opponents on this issue, that the issue should be solved through bilateral negotiations between the interested parties on the basis of historical realities, international law and the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

Most of the parties present at the meeting acknowledged China's position and China's lack of aggressive intent. Premier Li, indeed, had harsh words for Japan – not a party to the South China Sea disputes – for ratcheting up tensions on the issue; in a bilateral meeting he told Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe that his country should "exercise caution in its own words and deeds."

The greatest threat to both Europe and Asia, Li pointed out, is terrorism, especially in the wake of the appalling atrocity in Nice on July 14. This should be the main focus of ASEM member states on the security front, as terrorist networks clearly cross both continents and any disputes between nations must not be allowed to disrupt the common anti-terrorist struggle.

But, thanks in part to this welcome call to order, the meeting broadly concentrated on areas of potential common ground and the strenuous detailed work of establishing methods for practical cooperation, which is what diplomacy is really all about. Arriving at common positions within a multilateral organization is extremely hard work, and achieving accord between different multilateral organizations is even harder. But no time spent underpinning the political and economic foundations of global security is wasted. The ASEM process will now move on towards the next summit meeting in Brussels in 2018.

Tim Collard is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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