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Europe Meets Asia: Advancing Marco Polo’s Bright Idea

February 29, 1996

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Marco Polo had a great idea back in the 13th century: How about opening up trade with Asia? There’s probably a lot of money to be made out there.

As leaders of the 15 European Union countries open a summit with their counterparts from 10 East Asian nations, some feel European thinking hasn’t progressed much in the 700 years since the adventurous Venetian loaded his camels and headed east.

Trade is booming: In 1994, Asia displaced the United States as Europe’s largest trading partner, reaching $312.5 billion. But there is still little investment there.

Though Asia accounts for 23 percent of European trade, it gets less than 1 percent of Europe’s direct foreign investment.

Many Asian leaders think Europe is too preoccupied with its own development _ and its own troubles _ to invest in Asia. That may be why it was the Asians _ not the Europeans _ who took the initiative to call the two-day Bangkok summit, which starts Friday.

Mary Seet-Cheng, Singapore’s ambassador to the EU, says Europe has become marginalized in Asia, and ``unless Europe steps up investments, it will be even more marginalized.″

The fact that the summit has no fixed agenda has led to fears that it could be just another international gabfest in the sun that will end after half a dozen good meals with little more than a few pages of incomprehensible paper and much pressing of the flesh.

``We are not setting up performance criteria,″ Sir Leon Brittan, the EU’s trade commissioner, said in an interview. ``We’ve got to see what happens. What we are doing is launching a precedent.″

Horst-Gunter Krenzler, director-general of the EU’s trade directorate, pointed out that Asia accounts for half of the world’s economic growth. He said a Europe-Asia link was needed to ``complement″ the connection that the United States and Asia have in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization.

``For each Asian student educated in Europe, four are educated in the United States,″ Krenzler said.

Meetings of world leaders can be interesting, but some business leaders don’t think the politics of the summit will be all that significant in the long run.

``The political operations are very important to set a framework,″ said Erik Dejonghe, vice president of Barco, a Belgian maker of video screens and projection systems. ``But I think it’s Barco’s responsibility in the first place to establish our presence there.″

Barco, which did 18 percent of its buying and selling in Asia in 1994, says Europeans have to think in different terms to sell in Asia.

``We were used to doing business the European way, now we approach it more and more in an Asian way,″ Dejonghe said.

He said the company is trying hard to hire more Asians as managers and marketing executives. They will be more attuned to the ways that Asians approach business, he said.

All the summit participants are nervous about the topic of human rights, which the Asians say is subjectively viewed.

``Europe looks at human rights from a very European standpoint,″ said Ms. Seet-Cheng, the Singapore ambassador. ``Europe itself has cultural differences.″

The Asians don’t want to talk about such uncomfortable subjects as Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor or suppression of dissent in China. Nor are they in a mood to chat about child or prison labor.

For their part, the Europeans don’t want to ruin a perfectly good trade meeting with too much talk of morality.

Brittan, the EU trade chief, says the Europeans will not be provocative and have no plans to use human rights as a protectionist tool. Moreover, he says, there is a difference between human rights and social standards _ which activists often raise as rights issues.

``We do not regard low wages as being an unfair trading practice. Countries that are less developed and pay low wages are entitled to do so,″ he said.

``On the other hand, there are internationally agreed views on human rights, such things as child labor and prison labor, and I think it’s reasonable to talk about those.″

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