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EU-Asia Networking Conference

EU-Asia Networking Conference

23 February 2013

The EU-Asia Centre and the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a jointly organized networking conference on 12 February 2013 at the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels. The conference aimed at establishing a network of European experts working on Asia.

Jehanne Roccas, Director for Asia and Oceania at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs underlined the aim of the conference in her opening remarks and emphasised the added benefit the pooling of European expertise on Asia could bring to the EU. Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, accentuated the opportunity to identify and bridge gaps between experts and officials at the conference. Whilst academic research was sometimes of little relevance to policy-making, policy-makers often lacked in-depth expertise. The networking conference, Cameron stated, would allow both sides to exchange views on how these gaps could be bridged.

The opening remarks were followed by a tour de table during which all officials and experts briefly introduced themselves and their area of expertise.

Dirk Achten, Vice-Minister and Secretary General of the Belgian MoFA, then gave a keynote speech on ‘Why Asia Matters’. He began by highlighting the shift of the centre of economic gravity from West to East and argued that the EU had responded to this shift through a broad approach in its relations with Asia. Achten named the high volume of trade, direct investment by the EU, and the free trade agreements (FTAs) with Asian partners as evidence of heightened EU engagement. The current trade imbalance between the EU and China was not sustainable, however, the level of economic interdependence reached between the EU and Asia was critical for future growth prospects on both sides.

Regarding Asian security and stability, Achten mentioned several points of concern for Europe: North Korea’s nuclear programme, the Taiwan Strait tensions, the South China Sea, and rising nationalism. However, the EU had contributed to conflict resolution in the cases of Aceh, Mindanao, and Timor Leste.

He saw challenges for Asia in socio-economic inequality, population growth, increasing urbanisation, and ageing populations. As Europe shared some of these challenges, the EU promoted multilateral and region-to-region solutions as well as bilateral relations such as Partnership and Cooperation Agreements. Finally, Achten briefly mentioned the involvement of the EU in global and regional fora such as ASEAN, ARF, and ASEM.

The following discussion centred around the EU’s military capacity in comparison to the US, the lack of understanding of the ‘Asian mind’, differences and commonalities in values, great differences between Asian countries and the mistake of dealing with ‘Asia’ as a whole, the role of China in Asia, the capacity and resource problems of the EEAS, Europe’s credibility in China and other countries, the EU’s soft power potential and whether the EU assumed a clear enough position on disputes in Asia.

The next keynote speech was delivered by Viorel Isticioaia Budura, Managing Director for Asia at the EEAS. Isticiaoaia Budura spoke about the relationship between member states and the EEAS in foreign policy making and mentioned the trend to allow the EEAS to deliver unwelcome messages about human rights. He emphasised that the EEAS did understand the importance of Asia which was ‘worrying, challenging, inspiring’. The EU was very present in 2012 and the number of visits by Ashton and others would be maintained in 2013. The EEAS was a servant of the member states, some of whom had great experience with Asia. Each benefited from the other although there was a trend to allow the EEAS to deliver unwelcome messages about human rights. The EEAS had limited resources and hence needed to tap into the expert community. There were some mechanisms in place but more could be done. A network would be a good idea.

The subsequent discussion focused on the further development of meetings between the EEAS and experts, the use of the Instrument for Stability, the importance of language-learning, the EU’s security role, and the EEAS’ role as a ‘facilitator’ and ‘multiplier’.


The next part of the conference explored whether the research community could contribute to needs of policy makers. Axel Berkofsky (University of Pavia, Italy), Ian Seckington (University of Nottingham, UK), Isabel Hilton (China Dialogue), and Christian Wagner (SWP, Germany) started off the debate.

Berkofsky pointed out that the main issue was the temporally limited cooperation between the EU and the research community, and Seckington suggested the establishment of a fund for Asian Studies to enable policy-related research. Hilton highlighted the importance of public opinion for policy making and the need to work across divisions. Wagner agreed that there was a need for regular exchange between researchers and policy-makers and emphasised the role of academics as providers of a long-term view and as ‘irritaters’.

Fraser Cameron pointed to the lack of understanding of EU constraints in think tanks and urged for them to take on more sensitive subjects. Other participants agreed with that and urged for closer cooperation with think tanks in Asian countries. Difficulties for Asians to study or work in Europe as a hindrance to Europe’s soft power were emphasised, along with the need for the discourse with Europe talking down on Asia to change.

Regarding contacts between experts and officials most experts and officials agreed that more needed to be done. Some participants pointed to the already existing links between the research community and officials, but the majority agreed that more exchange and closer cooperation were needed. It was suggested to invite other stakeholders such as business groups, trade unions and NGOs. The importance of getting Asian perspectives and training future Asian leaders in Europe was underlined. Increased exchange between experts from Europe and Asia could help increase expertise. However, it was also admitted that the lack of financial support and time could be problematic. Few participants, however, saw differences between experts and policy-makers as overstated and knowledge as present on both sides.

Further, the topic of academic research’s relevance for policy-making was discussed. It was suggested to researchers to produce more policy-relevant research. Some stressed the difference in research between think tanks that had the finger on the pulse and academic scholarship which worked over several years. Other experts said a discourse shift was needed towards including Europe’s mistakes and lessons learnt. It could be a role for experts to speak about topics such as the ‘high income trap’ and side effects to rapid growth to spare governments the embarrassment.

A suggestion that most experts agreed to was that there was a need for experts to publish op-eds in newspapers such as the Financial Times of the International Herald Tribune to get policy makers’ attention. There was consent that policy recommendations needed to be more concrete. Close contact with EU institutions could help with that. Over dinner, three ambassadors (Indonesia/Korea/India) all emphasised the importance they attached to EU-Asia relations and how useful a network would be to promote greater mutual understanding.

Summing up Fraser Cameron said it had been a very useful event and there appeared to be a consensus on maintaining and developing a network. The EU-Asia centre would follow up with a questionnaire to gauge reactions and seek options to move forward.