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Europe

Steering EU-Asian ties through the debt crisis

EU and Asian leaders have two days to create trust in the midst of the eurozone crisis. At a summit in Laos, Brussels will try to reassure Asia that despite the crisis, the EU is still a major partner for the future.

When the 27 EU countries meet their Asian partners on November 5 and 6 for the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM), they are going to have a long to-do list.

The issues on the agenda include economic cooperation, the fight against terror and weapons of mass destruction, and securing future food and energy supplies. The meeting's motto is "Friends for peace, partners for prosperity," but despite the broad spectrum of topics, it's most likely the euro crisis that will dominate the summit.

EU crisis the dominate issue

Matches (picture: Stauke - Fotolia)

ASEM countries are worried that the eurocrisis could ignite sparks in Asia

For the EU, the partnership between Asia and Europe has mostly economic significance. In the first half of 2012, the 27 EU member states delivered some 31 percent of their exports to ASEM countries. The imports were even higher, with around 43 percent coming from ASEM nations.

The euro crisis, however, has put a strain on relations. Shada Islam, Asia expert and member of the research group "Friends of Europe" knows that Asia is very concerned.

"The problems of the eurozone are causing big problems in Asia and the countries are worried that the troubles will spill over," he said.

Despite solid growth at the moment, the concerns continue. "Asian leaders will eventually ask Europe: 'When are you going to get your house in order?''" explained Cameron Fraser of the EU-Asia Center in Brussels.

Maintaining close ties

Europe will have to fight to maintain it's important role, said Shada Islam. "We have to be realistic: Europe is no longer the top priority for Asia. Asia is looking very much towards the US and increasingly to itself. In light of the strong Asian growth rates, the continent by now is almost self-sufficient. That's why Europe really will have to put in a lot of effort," he stressed.

Martin Schäfer, a spokesman for Germany's Foreign Ministry, told Deutsche Welle that the EU would explain to its Asian partners which steps exactly had been taken to overcome the debt crisis. It was about regaining trust, he explained. "The results of the last two months give us all - and also our Asian partners - hope that we've taken a good step forward in solving the crisis," Schäfer said.

David O'Sullivan of the European Commission is among those traveling to the Laotian capital, Vientiane. He seeks to intensify the current partnership. "We want even broader cooperation," he said. This should not be limited only to economic cooperation, but also to issues like security and foreign policy. "We have a central role in the future and the successful development of Asia, and we want to continue contributing to this," he explained.

Cargo vessel (picture: Christian Spahrbier)

A lot of the European Union's exports head to Asia

Key role for Germany

Germany has a key role when it comes to ties with Asia, Shada Islam notes. "Germany is highly respected by its Asian partners. Germany has been very active in Asia for a long time and has the reputation of being very reliable. That's why Berlin plays a key role in relations between Europe and Asia," he said.

No other EU country has such wide-reaching economic contacts to Asia. In the first half of 2012, German-Asian trade alone accounted for 35 percent of all exports and 20 percent of all imports between the EU and Asia. For that reason, Germany's standpoint is likely to carry particular weight at the Vientiane talks.

Strategic focus

Since 2010, the United States has been following a new strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. The focus now is on military cooperation, for instance, with the Philippines and Vietnam, and on investments, for instance, in Myanmar. China, however, is concerned about this shift in focus, Cameron Fraser warned. "The EU and the US have a lot in common in their Asia policy but there are also things that are different. The EU has to be careful and choose how it wants to be perceived."

There is also added potential for conflict when it comes to the tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea. Both countries claim ownership of a group of islands that are rich fishing grounds and include significant oil and gas reserves. Should this conflict come up at the ASEM summit, Germany is likely to take a back seat. "Important for us is that both sides in this conflict are reasonable and together seek a dialogue," explained Schäfer. "Only a political solution on the basis of talks can bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict."

Long-term perspective

At this year's meeting, the 27 EU states and the 21 ASEM countries will be joined by Norway, Switzerland and Bangladesh for the first time. The EU will be represented by European Council President Herman van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, while Berlin will send Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

No immediate political decisions are expected to come out of the meeting because the focus is more on long-term perspectives. That is exactly why David O'Sullivan values the ASEM meeting so much: "These meetings are part of a process of mutual understanding. We intensify our relations and there is a dialogue that will enable us to get through the difficult times that we're in at the moment."

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