No meat for Asian tigers limping west

Any good news for the former super-economies as they meet EU chiefs? Hardly, says Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
REPEAT three times every day: Thou shalt not Gloat. Thou shalt not Gloat. Thou shalt not Gloat.

Tony Blair is a God-fearing man, schooled in the Christian virtues of humility and love of thy neighbour. And he could do far worse than have that injunction, translated into all 11 official languages of the European Union, slipped into the briefing packs of EU leaders as they settle down across the table from their Asian counterparts at this week's second Asia- Europe summit (Asem) in London.

There are summits and summits. Some are very useful; the majority make absolutely no difference to anything or anybody. But some are born under an evil star, and this is one. How different from a couple of years ago, at Asem-1 in Bangkok. The tigers were rampant, and Euro-sclerosis seemed terminal: "This is the new economic centre of the world," proclaimed the Thai foreign minister. Well, not quite. Roles have been stunningly reversed. Europe, finally, is shaking off its inertia, while Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea have gone cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund. Asia's growth in tatters, its strongest bargaining card is the fact that if nothing is done, the rest of the global economic temple will come crashing down too. And tempers have become seriously frayed.

The Japanese are usually polite, given to nuance and understatement. How serious matters have become can be judged, therefore, from a public outburst of Mikie Kiyoi of the Tokyo Foreign Ministry; Europe had been "free-riding" on Asia's economic success, but was now doing "nothing" to help it out of its troubles. That is not strictly true: Europe takes a quarter of Asia's exports, and has already put up $21bn towards the $100bn, plus the International Monetary Fund has earmarked for stricken Asian countries, more in fact than the US. But this is a summit that can do little good, and if it is not managed with exquisite tact, a great deal of harm. At worst, it could degenerate into a verbal war of the worlds: besieged "Asian values" against a reviving Europe.

The cast will be nearly complete - all 15 EU leaders, plus stars old and new from Asia. Zhu Rongji, the new Chinese prime minister, will be making his debut on the world stage, complete with a separate visit to Britain and a China-EU summit beforehand. Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, trumpeter of "Asian values", will be there, as will President Kim Dae Jung, the man the West hopes will "save" South Korea. Only Presidents Fidel Ramos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia will be absent.

But what can Europe do? Like it or not, east Asia belongs to America's global protectorate. Among recent visitors from Washington were not only Larry Summers of the US Treasury, but the Defense Secretary William Cohen, talking about money, certainly - but also the repercussions of the crisis on "containment" of China and the possible implosion of North Korea. Europe is simply not in this league.

Instead, it dithers over appointing even a permanent financial envoy to Asia. True, Britain and the World Bank are launching a pounds 5m Trust Fund, to spread European expertise in the region. A worthy venture, and one to which other EU countries will soon doubtless be chipping in - but in terms of coping with Asia's financial difficulties, akin to taking sticking plaster to the Titanic. The same, of course, might be said of the latest "stimulus package", which Japan has just adopted, to answer the charge it that it is "not doing enough" to help. On paper, the scheme totals a prodigious Y116 trillion (pounds 74 bn). In practice, it may be as damp a squib as most of its predecessors, incapable of hauling Japan, let alone its neighbours, out of recession.

There lies the risk. Indonesia still flounders, and may yet reinfect the convalescents, though South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand have begun to stabilise. The human cost, however, has yet to be counted. South Korea, for instance, faces its first recession since 1980. In February alone, the country's factories laid off 478,000 workers. Unemployment is at a 14-year high of 5.9 per cent, and rising; the impact on society will be "devastating", President Kim warned last week. Elsewhere that impact is being felt already. In Malaysia, riots by immigrants from Indonesia about to be deported back home, left nine dead last week.

Recession begets unemployment, which begets unrest, which begets crackdowns, purges, repressions of protest and dissent - the very litany of human rights abuses which worry European statesmen aspiring to run an ethical foreign policy. "East Timor will not be discussed in London," the Indonesian Foreign Minister pointed out last week, in case anyone was under the illusion it might be.

"Fundamentally, the crisis is not economic but social," the veteran Asia specialist, economist and consultant Peter Drucker wrote last week. "Tensions are so high. I am reminded of the Europe of my childhood which descended into two world wars ... I am afraid for Asia."

Asem leaders will endorse two "action plans" to promote trade and investment, but what matters will be the short-term undertaking that the crisis will not lead to protectionism.

So for what might be done (but which cannot be done), you need to look elsewhere than the closing communique. On Wednesday, hundreds of community groups and NGOs from Europe and Asia are to present Mr Blair with "The People's Vision" - urging more democracy, more human rights and more concern for the environment, as well as a rethink of the IMF strategy in the region. Vast stabilisation loans carry terms, the authors argue, which only increase the misery for Asia's poor. But that is for later: this is not a summit for dreams, but for stopping the rot going even further.

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