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Australia joins the Asia-Europe Meeting

In what was Prime Minister Julia Gillard's first international key leaders' meeting, Australia became a member of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on 4-5 October, fourteen years since ASEM's inauguration. The Russian Federation and New Zealand also joined the biennial 8th ASEM Summit (ASEM8) at Head of State and Government level, which was conducted under the auspices of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union (EU). A key theme of the gathering was reform of the international economic institutions towards more effective global economic governance.

What is ASEM?

ASEM was established by the EU and several Asian countries and held its first summit meeting in Bangkok in 1996. It is an 'informal' and multi-sectoral dialogue process which now involves 48 partners from across the EU and the Asia-Pacific region. Australia's bid to join ASEM was postponed indefinitely at the 1998 ASEM Summit at the insistence of Malaysia under the Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Muhammad, a position which was at the time also backed by Indonesia.

ASEM8 brought together 46 heads of state (27 from the EU, 16 from Asia, plus three new members - Australia, New Zealand and Russia), the European Commission, the European Council, and the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

ASEM's objectives are to promote greater co-operation, understanding and inter-regional information-sharing amongst its members on major political, financial, and socio-economic issues, as well as to build closer economic, political and cultural ties between the peoples of Europe and Asia.

According to the ASEM8 Chair's Statement and Brussels Declaration, key issues in this year's summit included discussions surrounding the reform of global financial institutions, sustainable development, and environmental protection. Other global issues that were discussed included:
  • piracy at sea
  • transnational terrorism and crime
  • disaster prevention and relief
  • human security
  • human rights and democracy
  • non-proliferation and disarmament
  • reform of the United Nations system, and
  • inter-cultural dialogue.

Region-specific issues were also discussed, including the fragile security situation in Afghanistan, Burma, and the Korean Peninsula, the Iranian nuclear issue, peace efforts in the Middle East, and how best to revive inter-regional co-operation.

As an ASEM member, Australia was invited by the Chair to contribute to the work of ASEM's only formal institution, the Asia-Europe Foundation (established in 1997). This might involve, for example, participating in the thematic projects aimed at improving ASEM's visibility. Apart from the biennial ASEM Summit which alternates between Europe and Asia, official side events include meetings of civil society groups through the Asia Europe People's Forum, Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership and the Asia-Europe Business Forum to which Australia could contribute.

Australia's participation in ASEM

Pursuing what could be an innovative development for Australia's foreign relations with its largest two-way trading partner - the EU - the Prime Minister proposed a treaty between Australia and the EU towards closer collaboration, particularly in areas such as research and development, and innovation.

Under the Rudd Government Australia had formally applied for membership in October 2008. Following the endorsement in May 2009 of Australia's application to join ASEM, Australia's Foreign Minister formally announced Australia's involvement in ASEM on 28 May 2009. The decision to join ASEM was outlined in the 2010-11 Budget.

Since ASEM does not include all European and Asian states, it is not intended as a replacement for bilateral initiatives, but rather as a venue for bilateral meetings with major partners from Europe and Asia. It is a stepping stone towards closer inter-regional understanding and practical initiatives to which Australia could both contribute and benefit from. With over 60 ASEM-related meetings a year, Australia is presented with an opportunity to promote its interests and build new bridges with key European and Asian partners, drawing on Australia's economic success and linkages, as well as its unique diplomatic position as a middle-power.

At this time, however, questions remain as to how much Australia's participation in the ASEM will cost; the exact nature of Australia's involvement in ASEM; and the extent to which ASEM could prove useful as a tool to further Australia's national interests in the EU and Asia.

For more information, see the article by Philomena Murray, 'Australia in ASEM - engagement and expectations' in Yeo, LH and Hofmeister, W (eds.), The Asia-Europe Meeting: Engagement, Enlargement and Expectations, Singapore: EU Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2010.
(Image sourced from: http://ec.europa.eu/external_relations/asem/index_en.htm)