BANGKOK, THAILAND —
Leaders and foreign ministers from Asia and Europe began negotiations Monday in the Lao capital of Vientiane ahead of formal talks focusing on strengthening economic and political ties between the two regions. The strength of Asia’s economies is a key lure for European leaders dealing with Europe's economic and financial problems.
The summit of leaders of more than 50 Asian and European nations officially admitted new members Bangladesh, Switzerland and Norway to the Asia-Europe Meeting.
Lao Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong, in opening the summit at the national convention center, announced the additional three countries, marking a further expansion of the group that held its first meeting in Thailand in 1996.
European and Asian heads of state attending included leaders from France, Italy and Russia, as well Presidents of the European Council and European Commission. From Asia, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda are present, but are not expected to hold meetings due to a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said Europe recognized the “huge importance” of the connections with Asia.
“Well we understand the huge importance of the economic and political and foreign policy connections with Asia," said Hague. "Clearly we do in the UK. We place great emphasis in particular on intensifying our relations with these ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] countries, as well as good relations around the whole of Asia.”
The biennial Asia-Europe Meeting - or ASEM - comes against the backdrop of Europe’s struggling economies faced with sharply lower growth and high unemployment rates.
Carl Thayer, a professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said Asia’s leaders will be looking for insights into the European economic situation.
“This time is the state of the European economy and the prospects for its recovery because even though growth rates are picking up a bit in East Asia - a stronger European recovery would lead to stronger growth rates," said Thayer. "Finding out what’s going in the European market will be important for the leaders to determine.”
Burma’s President Thein Sein will attend for the first time as leader but is likely to face both European and Asian leaders’ concerns over ongoing ethnic violence in Western Rakhine State.
Violence between Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims has led to dozens of deaths and up to 100,000 people displaced. The concerns stand in contrast to recent optimism over political and economic reforms - including new foreign investment laws - in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
China, in the midst of major leadership changes, also is a focus for Europe, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University.
“The rise of China; several European nations have been lately showing interest and concern of the rise of China - whether or not China will be more responsible in the economy of the world and political role of the world. So there will be more dialogue on these issues also,” said Wattanayagorn.
European nations are expected to raise concerns over issues of human rights in China and especially ongoing protests in Chinese controlled Tibet, where there has been a sharp rise in self immolations over the past year in protest of China’s rule.
Analysts say European leaders also are keen, however, to strengthen trade and investment ties with Asia and especially China, in a bid to lift their troubled, faltering economies out of recession.