European leaders seek Asian support on debt crisis - ASEM 2012

Dozens of European and Asian leaders gathered in impoverished Laos on Monday for a major summit 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 were 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.

"There is a doubt in Asia about Europe's capacity to be a zone of stability and growth," Hollande told reporters aboard his flight to Laos.

He said the main aim of his first trip to Asia since taking office in May was to convince Asian leaders that "Europe is still an economic power".

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 trade 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 officials 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.

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.

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 new 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, deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state have cast a shadow over the reform process.

The violence is also "an issue of concern" for Southeast Asia, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told AFP.

"But the fact that we can meet here in the heart of Southeast Asia almost without having Myanmar as an issue centre-stage as it has been in the past is a reflection of how far Myanmar has travelled in terms of its democratic transition," he added.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been accused by the West in the past of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by the generals who ran Myanmar for decades.

Security concerns including Iran, North Korea and Syria are also on the summit agenda, along with global terrorism, climate change and piracy.


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