The ASEM Dialogue: Opportunities For Southeast Asia?


By Tuli Sinha

Indonesia’s participation in the sixth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) interfaith dialog held in Madrid, Spain from 7-9 April, themed as “Consolidation of Religious Freedom and of Mutual Knowledge of Societies through Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue” sent across the message of a gradually strengthening Europe-Southeast Asia bilateral relations. The three-day meeting brought together 200 delegates from ASEM partners, and was co-hosted by Spain and Pakistan and sponsored by 14 ASEM partners, including Austria, The Netherlands, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Britain, Germany, Italy, China, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand. It becomes imperative to analyse this dialogue for political and economic connotations, specifically for Indonesia which is the largest Muslim, pluralistic country among the initiators of the dialogue.

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is an informal get-together that addresses political, economic, and cultural issues with the objective of strengthening the relationship between the two regions in a spirit of informality and equal partnership. Recently, these issues have been further broadened to include human rights, rule of law, global health threats, sustainable development, and intercultural and interfaith dialogues. Apolitical and cultural dialogues become important as they hold the prospect of improving bilateral relations between countries.

To begin with, there is a need to explore the various facets of this dialogue and its working. The key characteristics of ASEM include four main pillars. First is the ‘informality’ which provides an open forum for policy makers and officials to discuss any political, economic, and social issue of common interest rather than duplicate the work already being carried out in the bilateral and multilateral forums. Second is the ‘multi-dimensionality’ which covers the full spectrum of relations between the two regions and devotes equal weight to political, economic, and cultural issues. Third is the ‘emphasis on equal partnership’ which eschews any aid-based relationship. Last, is the ‘Dual focus’ on high-level and people-to-people contact which provides a platform for a meeting of the heads of the states, and an increasing focus on fostering contacts between societies in all sectors of the two regions.

Although it creates a multilateral forum for a much encompassing cooperation in terms of issues among the members, a critical assessment of the ASEM Dialogue exhibits a rather dismal picture of its role and existence. First, the only permanent physical institution of ASEM, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) established in the year 1997 has never been in the limelight or used as a concrete platform for discussions on serious issues.

Second, Interfaith Dialogue is a tricky and consequently rarely tackled subject in Europe. European countries are diversely populated and some of them – like France, Germany, Denmark or Belgium – currently question their relation with their Muslim populations and its links with immigration, unemployment, and extremism issues. Therefore, it becomes imperative for Europe to develop some kind of an intra-European dialogue simultaneously to provide a platform for the religious, ethnic, and cultural issues of people within the region rather than imparting all the attention to a multilateral dialogue with Asian nations. Could the ASEM Interfaith Dialogue, if taken seriously by all participants, be a first step towards a better understanding within Europe? Does Asia serve as a role model on that matter? And what can Indonesia specifically bring to the Dialogue?

The inter-religious organization, ASEM fails to shed any light on this. The dialogue does discuss issue of economic cooperation and transaction of meagre grants from Europe to Asian nations. This is very nominal taking into account the lump sum deals among European Union and Indonesia or with any other Asian member. Therefore, ASEM needs to prioritize and choose issues of relevance rather than expanding the list with human rights, rule of law as they are purely political in character.

It is important to remember that ASEM is not a substitute for existing bilateral or multilateral forums between Asia and Europe. However, through the ASEM dialogue, Indonesia can garner collaborative synergies and optimally utilize them as a catalyst for enhancing overall Southeast Asia-Europe relations. It is evident from the past ASEM dialogues that this level of informal engagement with Europe holds great significance for the Indonesian Foreign Policy. It acts as a bridge to reduce the existing economic gap between the two regions. ASEM can also be utilized by Indonesia as a medium to strengthen its position among the Asian countries.

ASEM has definitely helped Europe and Asia in having a more global vision and promoted the overall Asia-Europe relations on international and inter-regional issues of common interest. By bringing together different cultures and civilizations, ASEM fosters common understanding and dialogue and this should be encouraged.

Tuli Sinha is a Research Officer for SEARP, IPCS and may be reached at [email protected]. This article was published by IPCS.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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