EU should not play Rohingya card at ASEM

By Nancy Guo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/16 18:28:39

With just a few days for the 13th ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting (FMM) to kick off in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar on November 20, the European Union seems to be determined to seize the opportunity to turn the focus on the Rohingya issue as a way to put pressure on Myanmar. An early sign is remarks by the EU's Ambassador to Bangladesh Rensje Teerink on October 18 in Dhaka, "This is a very important meeting and we look forward to it to convince Myanmar to do the right thing."

An EU embargo on arms and equipment sale to Myanmar is in place, and the bloc may consider "additional measures," as Ambassador Teerink hinted.

For the EU, creating pressure has been paramount. But is it the right thing to do to help the Rohingya refugees? What has happened to the Rohingyas is indeed unfortunate. But given the complex nature of the issue, the only viable way out is to encourage Myanmar and Bangladesh, the two parties directly concerned, to negotiate a solution, while outsiders contribute assistance, provided it is welcomed by both sides.

As a veteran observer of Asian and European affairs and ASEM, I am overcome by a sense of déjà vu. Myanmar has never been off Europe's radar, and it's not the first time that the EU is resorting to such ill-suited measures.

In 2005, the EU and other European countries boycotted the ASEM Economic Ministers' Meeting because of concerns over Myanmar's lack of democracy. Since then, the Economic Ministers' Meeting has been stalled for more than a decade, only to resume this year.

Myanmar, isolated by the Western world for decades, has been working for years to open a new chapter in its diplomatic history.

By hosting the ASEM FMM, it hopes to welcome guests to a refurbished home. Yet some guests remain unmoved and continue to point fingers: even if I condescend to come, I come to criticize.

ASEM is an intercontinental cooperation mechanism. Established in 1996, it provides a platform for its 51 members from Asia and Europe to exchange views and advance cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect. The key and focus of the organization should be cooperation - stirring things up will only cause it to lose focus. Clearly, that serves neither ASEM nor Europe's interest.

The EU has a track record of stirring things up and Myanmar is not a unique case. It did the same with the South China Sea issue.

Is it because Europe has never really regarded ASEM as a cooperation platform, but a place to rake up disputes, and has not regarded Asian countries as equals, but poor students who deserve nothing but a good scolding from the teacher?

Such thinking has taken a toll on ASEM, which has been adrift for years and lags similar mechanisms such as APEC in actions and visibility. What ASEM really needs is result-oriented cooperation, not political bickering and finger-pointing.

As an important player, Europe can do the right thing by playing a bigger role in revitalizing ASEM. But does it want to?

With so many challenges staring us in the face in today's world, cooperation is the only way forward. Europe can ill afford to put on airs and hold back cooperation.

As far as ASEM is concerned, Europe has a clear choice to make. If condescension continues to define its approach, neither ASEM nor Europe stands to gain.

But if it cooperates with Asian countries as equals, both ASEM and Europe will usher in new opportunities.

The author is an analyst on Asian and European affairs based in Beijing.


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