SHADA ISLAM Almost 14 years after it first applied, Australia joins the 48-member Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), with PM Julia Gillard making her first appearance on the international stage. Ms Gillards participation in ASEM on October 4-5 draws attention to Australias drive to strengthen engagement with both Asia and Europe. It also boosts ASEMs credibility as a forum for informal dialogue and consultation between the two regions. ASEM participants account for 60 percent of the worlds population and 60 percent of world trade. Australia does not want to miss out on this huge forum, which brings together not only government leaders and policymakers, but also businesses, Parliaments and civil society groups, providing opportunities to try out new means of cooperation and new ideas to resolve pressing global problems. ASEM leaders in Brussels will issue a statement on improving global economic governance, achieving sustainable development, combating global warming and meeting aid targets. It is expected that the summit will pledge to work towards global peace and security. Following up on the first steps towards financial consultation taken in Beijing in 2008, a separate ASEM declaration will seek to further develop high-level Asia-Europe cooperation on restoring market confidence and boosting economic recovery. Global and regional flashpoints, including North Korea and Myanmar, will be reviewed. Significantly, Australia, New Zealand and Russia will be officially welcomed as new ASEM members. Gillards decision to make the ASEM summit the first international port of call demonstrates the importance that Australia places on integration and engagement with Asian countries, says Brendan Nelson, Australias Ambassador to the EU. Modern Australia sees itself as part of Asia and is also designing a broader engagement with Europe, he says. Australia has long had an interest in joining ASEM - it put in a bid in 1996 and 1998 - but was turned down. Australian officials expressed disquiet at not being included and officials were at pains to emphasise the countrys integration with East Asia and determination to be an important link between Asia and Europe. The fact that Australias 2008 membership request went through unopposed shows just how far Australia and Asians have come, says Ambassador Nelson. We applied again because we were impressed with the ASEM summit in Beijing in 2008 and its handling of the global financial crisis. Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU Council, will chair the two days of talks, with Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme by his side. Other European leaders are expected to turn up although the final tally has yet to be made. However, Asian attendance is expected to be patchy. The Presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines are not coming because of domestic concerns, Indian PM is preoccupied with the Commonwealth Games and Russias Putin and New Zealands Key have also declined the invitation. Gillard and Chinese PM Wen Jiabao can, therefore, expect to be in the spotlight. ASEMs key mission is to provide an opportunity for leaders to get to know each other, build trust and seek opportunities for collaboration. It includes most of the worlds powers - although Australias great and powerful friend, the US, is not a member. Joining ASEM deepens Australias ties with Asia, but allows us to be more creative with Europe by working on deeper engagement which goes beyond trade, said Ambassador Nelson. In fact, given its affinity with Asian countries and common values with Europe, Australia is expected to play a distinctive role in Asia-Europe dialogues. Joining ASEM means Australia can interact in a single forum with key partners in each region, try and influence agendas and deepen relations with both sets of interlocutors.However, such engagement is not without its challenges. Although political discussions have become more intense in recent years, they are often marred by disagreements over human rights, with Asian countries bristling at Europes policy of sanctions against Myanmar. Given its different values and society from many of its Asian neighbours, such discord is also a challenge for Australias persuasive diplomacy. Australia could develop issue-based leadership within ASEM, taking the lead on some issues in which it has a special interest, with a small number of ASEM nations to drive an issue. It could also build on its reputation as a mediator, including among Asian states, bringing together broad coalitions. Australia and the EU, meanwhile, could combine their soft power assets to work more closely on development aid, peace promotion and conflict resolution. Ambassador Nelson says: We think ASEM is an impressive forum - and Australia has a good story to tell on 30 years of reform and work on building an open economy. Jakarta Post