by Serge Berthier

On 29 February 1996, for the first time in history, the leaders of Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, China, the 15 members of the European Union and the President of the European Commission sat around a roundtable. The unprecedented meeting took place in Bangkok. As John Major, the then British Prime Minister and one of the participants put it to the House of Common later on: "our informal discussions covered a wide range of political and economic issues". The forum was the brainchild of the Singaporian Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong.

On economic matters, there was of course common ground over the benefits of strengthening trade and investment flows between Asia and Europe in both directions. The meeting agreed to work for the further liberalization of trade and for the success of the World Trade Organisation. It also recognized that intensified exchanges of science and technology, especially in sectors such as agriculture, information and technology, energy and transport, were important for extending the economic links between the two regions. Finally, there was agreement on the value of closer people-to-people contacts, especially among younger generations.

To a casual political analyst, the final statement of the forum sounded too familiar to deserve much attention. In the usual diplomatic jargon, it was a litany of good intention about a common vision of the future, the need to deepen the political dialogue between Asia and Europe, to increase cooperation over arms control, human resource development, environmental protection and the fight against poverty, drugs terrorism and other international crime". Further liberalization of trade, including working together within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and promoting reforms of the UN was also mentioned. Nevertheless, institutions are hard to die. A second meeting was scheduled in London for the first half of 1998.

No one had foreseen the collapse of the Thai baht, although the meeting was in Bangkok and the IMF had already issued a number of warnings to the Thai government on the dangerous practices of some borrowers of short-term capital.

In 1998 the lofty goals of a common vision had mostly evaporated. Many of the countries of Asia were no longer considered on the right path of development. The pragmatic leaders that had engineered the biggest creation of wealth ever known in twenty years had., according to the IMF and its experts, got it wrong all along. Suharto was gone and it was a sign of progress. Mahathir was still in power, and it was a sign of decay. A rating agency had downgraded Malaysia to a junk ranking, Indonesia was a poor and unstable country again.

And so, there were calls from various quarters for deep reforms, transparency and even democracy, although it had been made clear that the dialogue among the participating countries should be conducted on the basis of mutual respect and, in accordance with the rules of international law and obligations, nonintervention, whether direct or indirect, in each other's internal affairs. Once again, some countries seized the opportunity to lecture the Asian participants on the merit of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, corporate governance and so on and so forth, even though it was already apparent that the IMF had badly blundered and that the deregulation of the capital movement was at the heart of the financial crisis that engulfed Asia.

Was then ASEM such a good idea? After all, there are already a number of other fora where Asia is regularly lectured, (if that ever was the purpose). Yes, because looking more closely, it is clear that the ASEM initiative was an overdue one, not because of its potential economic consequences for trade and investments, but because it is the only forum that institutionalizes at the political level the great debate on Asian values that took place in the 1990's.

I know I may surprise some by mentioning the Asian values. Many experts and thinkers, Western ones as it is, have been quick to point out after the financial debacle that the Asian values were dead and buried. The crisis had proved their fallacy. There are only universal values, and they are, we are told, the western ones. But it is now acknowledged that the crisis had little to do with the Asian way of doing business. It is quite clear that what the crisis and its aftermath exposed was the very nature of capitalism when left unchecked. And Asian values seem to offer better check and balance that the Western values when it comes to check the vagaries of greed and capitalism.

ASEM is indeed the first forum where two concepts of collective consciousness, each with a equal civilizational track record, are coming together on the basis of equality and respect. Its untold main purpose is to avoid any culture clash which would inevitably foster in the long term instability and possibly war.

But to adopt an attitude of mutual respect and mutual learning is a long process. And to adopt each other's best practices, which is the ultimate goal, is, to say the least, an exercise of humility. Collective consciousness, especially the Western one, is not very good at humility. That is why ASEM needs time. That is also why we can expect the institution to go through rough patches over time.

After all, one of the great handicaps of our times is the conviction that man can and must organize everything according to his own will. There is the pervasive feeling that the mind has unlimited capabilities and thus it is necessary to tame the world on behalf of humanity. But what does "on behalf of humanity" means really? No one should be an adversary of rational thinking but we should not stay under the illusion created in Europe that science will solve all dilemmas and that it will open before us a vision of magnificent growth and development and solve all conflicts or dramas. That is where Asia and its collective consciousness bring much to the debate.

Asian societies have always been the advocate of moderation and temperance. When they were not, such as in Japan before the war and in China after the war, it is because they attempted to incorporate various programs of the Western enlighten thinkers into life, and the results proved to be murderous. Asian societies believe for one reason or another, maybe through experiments, that our collective possibilities are limited. The West, in spite of million of deaths along the way century after century, still believes otherwise.

The future of ASEM should be built upon a simple consciousness: the consciousness that every person, no matter where, is not perfect but weak and immature when confronted to the complexity of nature. Consequently we all need the support of our neighbours. It is worth building the future on solidarity between people and that is what ASEM tries to do.

Serge Berthier