Asia-Europe Meetings Close With Calls for Supporting WTO, Multilateralism

25 October 2018

The 12th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) came to a close last week in Brussels, Belgium, where leaders from 51 countries examined options for greater cooperation on supporting the multilateral trading system, improving climate action, and otherwise backing multilateralism and shared policy objectives. 

“Leaders stressed that recent international developments have boosted the ASEM as a building block for effective multilateralism and the rules-based international order anchored in international law and with the United Nations at its core,” read a chair’s statement issued after the event. 

More specifically on trade, leaders “highlighted the vital need of maintaining an open world economy and upholding the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization at its core.” 

The importance of supporting and improving the global trade club, as well as ensuring non-discrimination and openness in trade, were also listed within one of the “pillars” of that document, namely the second one on “partners for economic and financial challenges.”

Furthermore, the chair’s statement noted, leaders also “stressed their commitment to comply with WTO rules, cooperating on rendering its dispute settlement system more effective, and redoubling ongoing efforts aimed at WTO reform.”

The meeting was chaired by European Council President Donald Tusk, who noted in his closing remarks that leaders’ shared affirmations backing “the rules-based international order” was ultimately “the most important signal from this summit, especially valid in the current geopolitical context.”

Tusk also highlighted leaders’ level discussions on environmental priorities, migration-related challenges, security issues, trade, and connectivity.

“While the free flow of goods, investment, information, ideas, and people contributes to global growth, I strongly believe that genuine connectivity between our regions will be achieved by bringing more people together through education and exchanges, joint research programmes, and tourism,” he said.

Additionally, the European Commission’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini welcomed the results of ASEM at a closing press conference, telling reporters that the two-day meeting had yielded “a reinforced global partnership between Europe and Asia.”

“This summit has allowed us to translate this global weight that we share into concrete policy initiatives that can make a real difference for the world,” she said, naming among these climate action, “free and fair trade,” security, and the digital economy. 

The meeting was held under the theme “Global Partners for Global Challenges,” and is part of a process that dates back over two decades. Currently, the ASEM brings together the 28-nation EU, Switzerland, Norway, 21 Asian nations, and the ASEAN Secretariat to address a host of topics of common interest.

Eyes on trade

Recent developments and current events in the trade landscape loomed over the Brussels meeting, featuring also in the opening address of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as in statements from other leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Other officials also noted growing tensions among major players, both in trade and in various other foreign policy areas. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose country is due to host the next WTO ministerial conference in June 2020, called on global leaders to collaborate towards addressing and resolving existing frictions.

“This summit should call upon major countries such as the US, Russia, China, and the EU to realise their responsibility to humankind and look for the path to resolve international confrontations,” he said, according to a transcript of his plenary session remarks published by the Astana Times.

“I call upon [the] above-mentioned countries’ leaders (US, Russia, China, EU) to get together to discuss these burning problems. Perhaps a UN special session should be called for this matter. If need be, we stand prepared to offer Astana as a platform for such a meeting,” he added.

Also on the summit margins, the European Council and Singapore officially signed their free trade agreement and an investment protection agreement, as previously announced by both sides. (See Bridges Weekly, 18 October 2018)

Enhancing inter-regional connectivity

Connectivity was one of the main elements of the ASEM meeting, featuring both in the wider group discussions as well as in bilateral meetings.

Notably, the meeting came shortly after the European Council release of its conclusions on a strategy for connecting Europe and Asia, which calls for strengthened regional cooperation to help foster economic growth, create jobs, and enhance trade and investment flows while  supporting sustainability objectives.

The Council’s adoption of this strategy, entitled “Connecting Europe and Asia – Building blocks for an EU strategy,” aims at promoting “sustainable, comprehensive, and rules-based systems” that will not only boost commercial links, but also ensure that sustainable development priorities are taken into account.

On that subject, Juncker opened the plenary session by reiterating the importance of deeper connectivity between the two continents, such as by suggesting that the European continent could work towards fusing existing infrastructure projects with Asia.

Concurrently, in line with this year’s ASEM emphasis on connectivity, the ASEM Path Finder Group on Connectivity (APGC) released its Plan for Areas of Focus and Related Actions on Connectivity on 19 October. This subgroup, which was set up in 2016 with a two-year mandate, identified six areas of focus for enhancing interconnectivity between Europe and Asia.

These six areas consist of connectivity policies, sustainable connectivity, trade and investment connectivity, future connectivity and the digital economy, people-to-people connectivity, and security challenges linked to connectivity. Designing trade policies such as sustainable supply chains, “free, open, and safe” maritime transport, customs clearance facilitation, and cross-border e-commerce were key priorities named within these focus areas.

The ASEM chair’s statement said that overall, “leaders underlined the link between ASEM connectivity and sustainable development for achieving the 2030 Agenda,” noting the potential of such efforts to foster improved ties between “countries, people, and societies.” Leaders also pledged to structure their upcoming work on this subject around the APGC findings and recommendations.

Environmental cooperation

In environmental news from ASEM, the EU and Vietnam also signed on the summit margins the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) aimed at tackling illegal logging and supporting efforts to ensure legal timber trade. The accord, which is one of a half-dozen VPAs that the EU has inked with countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, will still need to go through the signature process before taking effect.

Environmental cooperation has featured in multiple meetings of Asian and European officials in recent months. For example, the summit came weeks after a high-level meeting involving lawmakers from various Asian and European countries, which led to the Declaration of the 10th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting (ASEP).

The meeting was held on 27-28 September and the final declaration cites the interconnectedness of various challenges that affect countries across the board, including “market disruptions” and climate change. The Declaration also urges all nations “to fully implement the Paris Agreement including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

Earlier this year, ASEM held a Conference on Green Shipping and Blue Business, identifying ways to implement the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) own target for lowering shipping sector emissions. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 April 2018)

ICTSD reporting; “ASEM 12: RoK boosts collaboration with Thailand,” VIETNAM PLUS, 19 October 2018; “12th ASEM Summit concludes,” THE VOICE OF VIETNAM, 20 October 2018; “At Asia-Europe Meeting, Abe issues appeal for upholding multilateral free trade system,” JIJI PRESS, 20 October 2018.

This article is published under
25 October 2018
Three months after US and EU leaders agreed to launch an “Executive Working Group” to tackle a series of trade issues, questions over how future talks will proceed and what those efforts will cover...
25 October 2018
A meeting of over a dozen trade ministers is underway in Ottawa, Canada, this week, with participants set to weigh possible ideas for updating the WTO that they can then bring back to discussions...