Asia-Europe summit opens with signs of division

A summit of more than 50 countries from Asia and Europe opened late on Thursday with signs of divisions despite calls for greater co-operation in the era of President Donald Trump.

Differences, including on trade and North Korea, emerged in a draft communiqué hammered out even as top officials from 21 Asian nations — among them the premiers of China, Russia and Japan — were due to arrive in Brussels. 

The biennial gathering of states representing well over half of the world’s population and GDP has taken on added significance since the US launched aggressive action on trade tariffs and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. 

One European diplomat at the Asia-Europe summit acknowledged the inter-regional rifts but pointed to a simultaneous rejection of Mr Trump’s brand of unilateralism.

The text of a draft chair’s statement for the gathering includes a pointed endorsement of “multilateralism and the rules-based order anchored in international law and with the United Nations at its core”. 

“This is 60 per cent of the world with big divisions, trying to get consensus between Russia, China and Europe — it’s never easy,” the diplomat said of the document. “But on the other hand, in today’s environment, with the US doing what it’s doing, it does have more meaning than a normal statement.” 

Wan Azizah Ismail, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, told reporters that Mr Trump’s push to raise tariffs had driven Europe and Asia “closer together” in the fight for “free and fair trade”. Asked about Mr Trump, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, insisted the summit was not organised “against anyone” but added: “It’s an agenda that supports multilateralism.” 

Leaders ranging from Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of oil-rich Brunei, to Hun Sen, the authoritarian prime minister of impoverished Cambodia for more than three decades, were due to attend a gala dinner on Thursday night and a “retreat” on Friday with only interpreters present, diplomats said. Many bilateral meetings are scheduled with the 30 countries from the European side, while the EU is also expected to finally sign a long-awaited trade deal with Singapore. 

But the latest edition of the 22-year-old Asia-Europe meeting also takes place in the shadow of big disagreements both within and between the regions, on subjects ranging from cyber security to China’s maritime territorial claims

The summit eve version of the chairman’s statement — seen by the FT — differs in several places from an earlier draft floated by the European side this month. The changes reflect the concerns of China and other Asian countries. 

On trade, proposed commitments to eliminate “unjustifiable market distorting measures by governments and related entities” and to tackle “excess capacity in industrial sectors” have been dropped in favour of a vaguer commitment to fight “protectionist unilateral measures and unfair trade practices”. 

A call on North Korea to “completely, verifiably and irreversibly” dismantle all its nuclear weapons programme was softened with a preamble that stressed the importance of the “complete denuclearisation of . . . the Korean peninsula”.

Also cut is an explicit reference to concern over the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 people, including almost 200 Dutch citizens. A Dutch-led probe concluded that a missile had been fired from a Russian-based military unit — though Moscow has denied responsibility. 

The European side has also set another potential flashpoint with a vow to raise the issue of human rights, including the crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority that has driven hundreds of thousands of people from the country. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi stayed away, as did President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has faced criticism from Europe over his campaign against drug dealers. 

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