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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

"ASEM Gives ASEAN Clout"

But not along the lines of APEC

By Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek


WHEN FOREIGN MINISTERS FROM East Asia and Western Europe come together in Singapore on Feb. 15 for another Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh will be busy coordinating the Asia-Europe Foundation, a Singapore-inspired thinktank that aims to boost intellectual and cultural interaction between the two regions. Prof. Koh, 59, has been nominated as ASEF's first executive director. Asiaweek Correspondent Santha Oorjitham asked him for a preview of ASEF's work, a review of ASEM's accomplishments so far, as well as an overview of ASEAN-Europe relations. Excerpts:

What role will ASEF play?

Its purpose is to promote better mutual understanding between Asia and Europe. ASEF aims to add value to, not supplant, existing bilateral exchanges. I hope that one of ASEF's first projects would be to convene a meeting of the heads of leading thinktanks in Europe and Asia to brainstorm on an agenda for intellectual exchange. ASEF could also discuss with the host of ASEM II, the United Kingdom, the feasibility of organizing the first Asian-European cultural festival to coincide with ASEM II in London in 1998.

How does ASEM rank among ASEAN's other affiliations?

ASEM is as important as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum. ASEAN is co-driving all three processes. This gives ASEAN a clout and influence which no other group of developing countries has.

Has ASEM helped reduce tariffs, quotas and other barriers in "Fortress Europe?"

Contrary to the fears of many, "Fortress Europe" has not materialized after the completion of the Single European Market. Europe has not shuttered its windows and pulled up the ramparts. ASEM can help by facilitating trade and investment between the two regions and by ensuring that Europe remains committed to a multilateral trading system.

Do you see an Asia-Europe Economic Cooperation forum in the near future?

Your question is whether I foresee ASEM committing itself to trade liberalization like APEC. My answer is that it is too early to tell. There is likely to be a meeting of ASEM economic ministers in Japan this year. Senior officials of trade and investment met in July 1996. They are due to meet again in the first half of 1997.

How do you see European pressure on ASEAN not to admit Myanmar?

There is always an element of double standard in international relations. This is true of Europe's attitude towards Myanmar compared to Europe's attitude towards Algeria. In both cases, we have a military regime which aborted the democratic process. In my view, a decision to admit new members into any group is the prerogative of its members. It would be inappropriate for ASEAN to advise the EU on which new members to admit.

How would you explain the importance of ASEM to a young Singaporean in his or her first job?

The connection between Western Europe and East Asia has tremendous economical, cultural and political potential. I would urge young Asians to learn European languages and to seek working experience in Europe.


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