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Asian, European Leaders Gather in Vietnam for Annual Summit - 2004-10-07

Leaders from 38 Asian and European nations are gathering in Vietnam for a summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting, know as ASEM. One thousand delegates are to discuss global trade and regional politics during the two-day forum.

Delegates to the fifth Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, are seeking to strengthen ties while addressing challenges caused by a major expansion of the informal discussion group.

The 10 newest members of the European Union as well as the three newest members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, are joining at a time when the forum is seeking to inject new vitality into the relations between Asia and Europe.

Europe is Asia's second largest trading partner after the United States and a number of trade agreements are expected to be signed.

While economic relations are strong, political tensions have been growing over the repressive government in Burma - an issue that nearly forced this year's summit to be canceled.

The European Union is highly critical of Burmese military government's human rights record and threatened to boycott the meeting if the Burmese delegation attended. ASEAN governments, which advocate cooperation with Burma in order to encourage reform, countered that they would oppose inclusion of the 10 new EU members.

The dispute was only resolved through Vietnamese mediation, whereby Burma has been allowed to attend but is represented by a ministerial delegation rather than a head of government.

An expert on Vietnam at Australia's Defense Force Academy, Carl Thayer, says this ASEM represents a milestone for Vietnamese diplomacy.

"We may be seeing the emergence of a stronger Vietnam diplomatically within the Southeast Asian region, where it has played a sort of backburner role for much of this period," he said. An expert with Hanoi's Institute of Economic Management, Le Dang Doanh, says the two-day meeting is an important event for Vietnam as it prepares to join the World Trade Organization, or WTO. "Vietnam tried to benefit from these meetings to enhance its international position, to push forward economic cooperation, also to prepare for the WTO accession," he explained.

Analysts say they also expect the meeting to address broader political issues like the war in Iraq, United Nations reform and the social effects of globalization.