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Asian, European Foreign Ministers Prepare for Annual Meeting - 2003-07-22

Asian and European foreign ministers are preparing for their annual meeting Wednesday, and Burma tops the agenda. The so-called ASEM meetings are designed to improve relations between Asia and Europe. But the question of how to deal with Burma in the wake of the detention of democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is proving highly divisive.

European Union Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten has taken a consistently strong line advocating even stronger sanctions on Burma's military government to force a transition to democracy and improved human rights.

Asian nations have traditionally preferred to keep the lines of communication open and the use of quiet diplomacy to bring about change in Rangoon.

EU Spokesman Ulrich Eckle say the foreign ministers hope Wednesday's meeting on the Indonesia island of Bali will help overcome the divisions. "Our concern about the situation is something we share with quite a number of democratic governments in Asia, if not all of them," he says. "So, that's why I don't think it is going to stall relations. It is going to be an issue of reflection, of discussion."

One of the reasons that the issue has come to a head is many Asian countries want to admit more regional members into the Asia-Europe meetings as a counter-balance to the forthcoming expansion of the European Union. Burma is among the countries that have been suggested as new Asian members. ASEM currently has 15 European and 10 Asian members.

Mr. Eckle says the ministers will also discuss increased cooperation and information sharing in the fight against terrorism, a discussion, which will be given added poignancy by the venue of the talks -- Bali was the scene of Asia's worst terrorist attack in October.