The 10th ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) Summit, held on October 16 and 17 in Milan, had a distinctly Eurasian bent. Kazakhstan became ASEM’s 53rd member, representatives discussed a “New Silk Road” initiative intended to bolster relations between Europe and Asia, and side meetings involving Russia garnered intense media attention.

Russia has been a member since 2010, but the biannual summits were originally conceived primarily to strengthen the EU’s focus on North and South East Asia. One of ASEM’s goals is the development of a “global partnership” between European and Asian states. This highlights a desire for the two regions to work together not only on their own inter-regional relationship but also on “shared global challenges.”

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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Russia’s role in fulfilling this ambition has become sensitive in recent months. The EU has looked to Asian states for support in their criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. Singapore has been outspoken in criticising Moscow and Japan has joined the United States and EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. In general, however, Asian states have been reluctant to condemn Russian aggression openly, despite privately expressing  alarm over President Putin’s disregard for the kind sovereignty norms that remain sacrosanct in intra-Asian affairs.

Many in ASEM have suggested that a group of more than 50 member states is simply too unwieldy to deliver practical results. Indeed, ASEM has never been a terribly high-profile summit and habitually struggles to deliver tangible results.

In light of new tension between Europe and Russia, talk of ASEM being based on “shared values” rings even more hollow. EU countries fear that the body, which was ostensibly designed to manage relations with the rising powers of North and South East Asia, could be shackled—if not completely undermined—by “the Russian problem.” Certainly, the EU is increasingly interested in intensifying relations with Asian states on an individual or sub-regional  basis, rather than prioritizing ASEM.

ASEM may survive as an interesting mix of debating club, retreat and venue for bilateral meetings
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Unsurprisingly, the media focused on the side meetings involving the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and EU member states. And these meetings will not have been in vain, if their reportedly positive discussions translate into a tangible tightening of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine (something that is far from being guaranteed). However, the very fact that these and other side meetings stole the show in Milan reinforces the feeling that ASEM needs a fundamental revamp.

The next summit will be held in Mongolia in 2016. That meeting will mark ASEM’s 20th anniversary, and is likely to be of a very different format and nature than the one in Milan. There is already talk of a more informal, Davos-like discussion forum.

It would be a stretch to think that ASEM can foster any kind of benign diplomatic triangle between the EU, Russia, and Asian powers. Indeed, its internal dynamics may suffer if the EU and Russia continue to diverge, as Asian powers remain circumspect in their own approach to certain global norms. ASEM may survive as an interesting mix of debating club, retreat and venue for bilateral meetings. Still, its shortcomings are emblematic of how difficult it is to make multilateralism work in today’s fraught international environment.

  • Richard Youngs