ASEM must prove its worth by managing simmering connectivity conflict

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Trucks with containers parked in front of the entrance to Xi'an Railway Cargo Container Center, in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, China, 27 September 2018. [Roman Pilipey/EPA/EFE]

The Europe–Asia summit (ASEM) comes at the right time for European and Asian countries to develop a shared narrative and rationalize connectivity projects, write Maaike Okano-Heijmans, Wouter Zweers and Brigitte Dekker.

The authors are affiliated to the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. Together with Anita Prakash (ERIA, Jakarta) they co-authored the ASEM Connectivity Inventory.

The biggest high-level official event in Brussels this year, the two-day ASEM Summit, opens tomorrow (18 October). Connectivity features high on its agenda. There is no need to be ashamed if you have never heard of either ASEM or connectivity. But it is time expand your lexicon, as a connectivity conflict is emerging and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is stepping up its game in trying to manage it. The stakes are high.

So it is not the NATO or a G20 Summit that is the biggest thing in town this year. It is the summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting, bringing together leaders of 30 European and 21 Asian countries, the European Union and the Secretariat of the group of Southeast Asian nations, ASEAN. Since its inception in 1996, ASEM has been mostly for a small group with a professional interest in Europe-Asia relations. But that may be about to change.

Rightly so, ASEM is stepping up the effort on connectivity. Connectivity is about forging economic, institutional and people-to-people connections, and as such an important recipe for growth and investment. But in a world where geo-economics is again taking centre stage, connectivity is also quietly becoming the ‘next great game’. Few will disagree with its objectives, but the approaches to connectivity are disputed.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is clearly the grandest of its kind – both on funding and on political push. But China’s infrastructure investments are by no means the only such game in town. ASEAN presented its Master Plan on Connectivity back in 2010; Japan in 2015 launched ‘Partnerships for Quality Infrastructure’; and India together with Japan came up with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor last year.

Today, just ahead of the ASEM Summit, the EU for its part formally adopts its strategy for connecting Europe and Asia. Its focus is on ‘sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based’ connectivity. With this, the EU offers a competitive value-proposition of its own, proposing that connectivity-related activities should be sustainable in the broadest understanding of the word. That means commercially viable and transparent, guaranteeing a level-playing field for businesses, respectful of labour rights and environmental standards, and not creating financial dependencies.

Clearly, as countries in Europe and Asia cooperate and compete for business, values and influence, the opportunities are big but the potential of a connectivity conflict is becoming increasingly real. For example, China’s BRI flagship project in Europe, the Budapest-Belgrade railway, has been disputed due to intransparency of its contract, inconsistency with EU competition rules, and worries about commercial viability.

At this week’s Summit in Brussels, ASEM is stepping up the ante. First, with the launch of a ‘Connectivity Platform’ – a data-set that should measure quantity and quality of connections. Second, with a ‘Connectivity Inventory’ – an overview of lessons learned in the field from ASEM activities, matched with ideas for how to improve and deepen policies and action. The EU has played a crucial role in pushing this agenda: as the host of this year’s summit, it has marketed both the data-set and the inventory as ‘gifts’ to ASEM partners.

Are these gifts pure altruism? Hardly so. Most certainly, they are meant to serve as a means of strengthening bonds. While some may point to a possible disconnect between how the giver and receivers view the gifts, few will disagree that Europe and Asia need not only more but also more sustainable networks of international infrastructure, transport, digital and energy projects.

So expect ASEM to aim for greater impact in the field by identifying focus areas of ASEM connectivity. ‘Chose and focus’ as a guiding principle. The greatest need is for sustainable connectivity; future connectivity; trade and investment connectivity; people-to-people connectivity; and security challenges linked to connectivity. More focused efforts should go out not only to on the ground, physical infrastructure projects, but equally to norm-setting institutional connectivity, for example in the digital field. Seeking value addition for its activities, ASEM is likely to establish linkages with other multilateral bodies, global compacts an non-ASEM programmes of Asia-Europe cooperation.

With the risk of a connectivity conflict becoming increasingly real, ASEM – which counts China, Japan, India and the EU, amongst others, as its members – has a role to play in overcoming normative and political differences in approaches to the issue. Governments across the globe recognize connectivity’s global importance. Now, the time is right for European and Asian countries to develop a shared narrative and rationalize connectivity projects. And this week in Brussels, ASEM might just step out of its shadow and build on its widely recognized role as a platform for Europe-Asia connectivity. The event itself is in any case already a fine example of much-needed people-to-people connectivity.

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