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European, Asian Leaders Speak of New Challenges - 2004-10-08

Leaders of 38 European and Asian nations are meeting in Vietnam to promote greater dialogue on what are described as new challenges facing the international community. Increased trade between the two regions is a major goal, although political issues have also been raised.

Vietnam's president, Tran Duc Luong, Friday opened the Asia-Europe Meeting, known as ASEM, saying dialogue and cooperation will improve understanding between Asia and Europe, and help forge an important partnership in seeking peace, security and sustainable development.

The Vietnamese president said the world situation is changing rapidly, creating opportunities but also problems. "New global challenges are emerging," he noted. "Those are widespread instability and conflicts, and looming international terror."

He welcomed the enlargement of ASEM Thursday to include the 10 new members of the European Union and the three newest members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Denmark's foreign minister, Per Stig Moller, speaking for the European Union, added that new problems like energy shortages and climate change have joined the security challenges posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. He said ASEM provides a unique forum to seek what he called common solutions to common problems. "Europe and Asia share the interest of creating effective multilateralism as the means of sustaining and strengthening international law," said Mr. Moller. "One important aspect is to cooperate, to reform and strengthen the United Nations."

The remarks were seen as a reference to the controversial, U.S.-led military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration says these wars were carried out by international coalitions with U.N. approval.

Political differences over how to deal with the repressive government in Burma quickly emerged at the opening of the meeting.

The European Union, on the eve of the summit, announced that Burma had failed to meet a deadline to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and stop harassing her National League for Democracy. As a result, it said it would tighten sanctions against Rangoon, by expanding a ban on visits by Burmese officials to E.U. countries, and by restricting loans to official Burmese institutions.

The foreign minister of the Netherlands, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency, Bernard Bot, said this is part of the E.U.'s twin-track approach on Burma, also known as Myanmar. "On the (one) hand, we believe in dialogue, because we think it is very important that Myanmar is confronted directly with the complaints we have, not only from the European Union, but also from the ASEM side," he said, "and secondly, the other side of the twin-track approach is of course sanctions."

The European Union earlier threatened to boycott the Hanoi summit 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 E.U. members.

The dispute was resolved through an agreement that allows Burma to attend but to be represented by a ministerial delegation, rather than a head of government. Several European governments reportedly sent lower level delegations to the summit to show their displeasure with the compromise.