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Eurozone crisis expected to dominate ASEM talks

European and Asian leaders have gathered in Laos for talks expected to focus on free trade and the eurozone’s debt crisis. Europeans hope that strong Asian demand will help their economies along the road to recovery.

French President Francois Hollande is among almost 30 leaders to take part in this year's Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

Shortly after his arrival in Vientiane, President Hollande told reporters that his main goal was to convince Asian leaders that Europe remained a strong economic force despite its recent difficultites.

"I'm here to reassure Asian countries" but at the same time "to tell them that they also have a role to play in European and global growth," the French president said. "Asians have gained a lot from our growth. Now it's time for them to boost our growth with their demand."

Hollande is just one of many who hope that the strong growth that economies in East Asia have continued to experience despite the eurozone crisis will translate into strong demand for European goods.

"With the EU in the middle of a lost decade and facing protracted recession and fiscal austerity, European political and business leaders are turning to Asia's fast-growing economies for economic salvation," Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at consultancy firm IHS Global Insight told the AFP news agency.

Among the other possible topics of discussion is the situation in Myanmar, whose president, Thein Sein was on the guest list, after years of the Burmese leader being excluded due to Western concerns about the state of human rights in the country. Previously, only Burma's foreign minister had been invited.

Tensions with Burma, also known as Myanmar, have eased greatly as a result of reforms introduced by Thein Sein's government. However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims that have left dozens dead and displaced tens of thousands in the western state of Rakhine had raised fresh concerns.

“But the fact that we can meet here in the heart of Southeast Asia almost without having Myanmar as an issue centre-stage as it has been in the past is a reflection of how far Myanmar has travelled in terms of its democratic transition," Hague said.

This is the ninth ASEM summit since the grouping was launched in Bangkok in 1996. Germany is being represented at the talks by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

pfd/kms (dpa, AFP)