Dozens of European and Asian leaders will gather in impoverished Laos on Monday for a major summit set to be dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and growing territorial tensions in the region.
Top European officials including French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti are due to spearhead efforts to reassure Asia that the long-running eurozone crisis is finally coming under control.
The diplomatic offensive is seen as a sign of the growing importance that debt-laden Europe places on Asia’s fast-growing economies, and its desire to counter increased US engagement in the region.
“We believe Asia is more important every day in terms of economic development,” European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Bangkok ahead of the summit.
“Europe is one of the most important partners in Asia in terms of investment and trade,” he said. “We want to discuss the possibility of trade and investment but also the challenges of stability and security in the region.”
European Union president Herman Van Rompuy is also among those converging on Laos, a landlocked country of just six million people on the verge of joining the World Trade Organization as it opens up its fast-growing economy.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who warned over the weekend that it would take more than five years to overcome the euro debt crisis — will not attend, sending her foreign minister instead.
The Asia-Europe Meeting, held every two years, provides an opportunity to boost links between two regions that together account for about half of the global GDP.
Europe “should be looking to Asia for greater economic activity”, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told AFP in the Laos capital Vientiane ahead of the two days of talks.
“We are able to offer many areas of investment and trade for them. I think the opportunity is there for both sides,” he added.
Europe’s leaders may also lobby Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to deploy some of Beijing’s trove of about $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves — the largest in the world — to invest in EU bailout funds.
Asian leaders for their part are expected to press Europe to take swift action to calm a crisis that has battered the world economy and set back efforts to reduce global poverty.
“A stronger Europe, the sooner the better, is good for everybody around the world,” Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan told reporters in Vientiane.
Some Asian participants, including the Philippines, also want to put Asia’s maritime sovereignty disputes on the table, but China is likely to resist.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.
Separately, China, Japan and South Korea are embroiled in various territorial disputes that have stoked tensions in the region.
About 50 leaders or their representatives — including Myanmar President Thein Sein — are due to attend the gathering, which comes against a backdrop of improving ties between Europe and Southeast Asia thanks to a series of dramatic political reforms by the country formerly known as Burma.
Outrage in the West over the former junta’s human rights abuses — including the longtime detention of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners — soured the atmosphere of past ASEM meetings.
But since a reformist government took power last year, overseeing the release of political detainees and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, the West has begun rolling back sanctions and foreign firms are lining up to invest.
In recent months, however, deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state have cast a shadow over the reform process, and European leaders may use the summit to call for an end to the bloodshed.
Security concerns including Iran, North Korea and Syria are also believed to be on the agenda, along with global terrorism, climate change and sea piracy.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]