This weekend marked the first STEAR Annual Virtual Conference, its theme being “The Future of Asia-Europe Relations in the Post COVID-19 World”. The conference consisted of three Keynote Speeches and three Panels, with the aim to engage world-class politicians, diplomats, and business leaders. This recap will cover the proceedings of the second day, on November 7th - make sure to check out our other article focusing on Day 1!
Reflection on Day One
The second day of the STEAR conference began with a moment of self-reflection. Conference Director Emika Otsuka asked participants to pause and reflect on their experiences from Day 1. Guiding the audience through this self-reflection with a list of guiding questions, Emika encouraged them to assess the valuable insights gained from the first day of the STEAR conference with prompts such as : What has been the most eye-opening moment of the overall experience so far? Did the sessions challenge your point of view? How would your learnings yesterday fit into your broader goals and self-development?
Third Keynote Speech: Multilateralism and Diplomacy
Following the reflection, STEAR Vice President for External Affairs Daniel Tafelski introduced our third Keynote Speaker. It was an honour for STEAR to welcome Mr Lirong Zhang, Secretary-General and Board Member of the China Forum, Secretary-General at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua, to share his views on Asia-Europe relations and related issues of China, multilateralism, and youth engagement in diplomacy.
Mr Zhang underlined that Asia and Europe are two regions with important yet differing influence in the world today, Europe having the largest concentration of developed countries, Asia having the fastest economic growth. Referring back to the centuries of tumultuous change undergone by Asia and more specifically China, Mr Zhang asserted that now is the time to focus on development and cooperation, under the banners of peace. Mechanisms such as the European Union, European security organisations and Asia Europe Meetings play positive roles in avoiding war and responding to non-traditional security threats, while bolstering regional security. The world is facing unprecedented pressure as it faces COVID-19, climate change, and major economic recessions. Mr Zhang stated that a Cold War mentality and subsequent bloc formation are not aligned with today’s priorities. While China advocates for peaceful cooperation and development for a community with a shared future, Asia and Europe also shoulder an important responsibility.
Mr Zhang drew attention to the issue of unequal global development, and appealed to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility to mitigate this, with developed countries providing assistance to developing countries. He also emphasized the significance of cross-cultural understanding - though development processes have disparate outcomes due to different local cultures, we should transcend ideological differences to embrace cultural diversity, instead of striving towards sameness. Following the keynote speech, a discussion between Mr Zhang and the audience took place, where questions were asked regarding the potential for mutual Europe-Asia learning, and the promotion of cross-cultural respect amongst students educated overseas. In response to audience questions, Mr Zhang discussed China’s role in international organisations, its aims in regional organisations, and guidance for those interested in a career in Chinese politics and diplomacy.
Panel 2: Cultural Understanding beyond the Differences in a Digitalised World
Following an introduction by STEAR Cultural Officer Stewart Knights, we dove into our second panel, which focused on the social, political and economic impacts of digitalization, and the prospects for digitalization-based facilitation of cross-cultural interaction. STEAR was honoured to organise a panel discussion with our distinguished guests: Dr. Asma Abdullah, an Intercultural Specialist, Yingying Li - Founder & CEO of Yingfluence, Inc, and Professor Mauro Barisione, Professor of Political Sociology at University of Milan.
Yingying pointed out that the conference itself is proof of the internet’s positive potential, and that social media has become an important tool in the context of the pandemic. However, she added that the ‘social dilemma’ phenomenon also showed the dark side of social media. The abundance of different social media platforms arising from the competitiveness of the industry has forced digital professionals to be nomadic across platforms, in order to cater to different cultural preferences. Dr Asma underlined the need to be technologically savvy nowadays , and discussed how Zoom and social media in general have become a mental space and a crucial means of building relationships as a social space. It has emphasized the importance of bearing in mind the physical space inhabited by each person, whether sitting room, study or bedroom. Professor Barisione explored the question of relationships between online discourse and political movements, asserting that the political economy of platforms must be understood in order to interpret the political results. Explaining the logic of epistemic ambivalence, he underlined the need to be neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic - for example the cluster effect is already well understood but it is just one narrative. This discussion was followed by a Q&A session, where questions were asked about the panellists’ paths towards becoming intercultural specialists, and recommended ways to nurture intercultural skills.
STEAR Policy Competition
As part of the STEAR conference’s aim to promote cross-cultural exchange, a policy case competition was organized. Delegates not only experienced policy development first-hand by tackling current issues, but also received feedback from specialized policy makers. STEAR was honoured to host three distinguished guest judges: Shada Islam, Senior Advisor at the European Policy Centre, Brussels-based EU commentator, Dr. Kirida Bhaopichitr, Research Director for International Economics and Development at Thailand Development Research Institute, and Trishia Octaviano, Senior Project Executive in the Governance & Economy Department at the Asia-Europe Foundation.
After Emila Otsuka’s introduction, the delegates began their policy presentations. Eight delegate groups presented their impressive research and policy recommendations in the hopes of winning one of the three Policy Prizes.
Group A’s policy presentation, titled Education for All, aimed to target the issue of the digital divide in Asia and Europe in the post-pandemic world through three major policy recommendations and a comparative diagram showcasing a results assessment matrix.
Group B sought to enhance and promote student mobility and the free flow of human capital across Eurasia by resolving the issue of degree accreditation and certification on a regional and international scale with proposals of harmonisation of different national legislations and curricula.
Group C’s policy presentation was centred on the creation of a fair vaccination alliance, which it identified as the basis for health policy at eye level between Asia and Europe. Advocating for a reform of patent law on vaccines, the group recommended the formation of a cross-Eurasian vaccine alliance which would capitalise on comparative advantages.
Group D adopted a holistic approach towards advancing digital connectivity between Europe and Asia through an expansion of ASEM’s scope and using the Pathfinder group framework to expand communication channels, promote inclusion financing, and facilitate integration of women and youth.
Group E’s presentation addressed challenges in the education sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the digital divide and low education budget baselines. Its recommendations included an increase in spending through cooperation with European consultancies and more effective data usage.
Group F focused on the issue of development for gender inclusivity, identifying the issues of gender inequality in the digitalizing world. It recommended tackling the systemic problem through gender sensitive data collection, the bolstering of digital infrastructure capacities and increasing women’s access to digital tools and digital literacy.
Group G’s ‘Build Back Blue’ policy project aimed to reassess the current use of maritime spaces as ‘development spaces’, taking into account the triangular framework of human capital, economy and sustainability and encouraging a harmonisation of conservation and sustainable maritime practices with spatial planning.
Group H considered the issue of planting cooperation and harvesting equality, proposing the development of a climate-smart agriculture (CSA) green technology transfer program between Europe and Asia in order to share and further innovate the use of climate resilient technology.
Each judge provided feedback and commented on the event, remarking what a privilege it was to witness such enthusiasm for tackling the issues that the world faces. Shada Islam underlined that rather than maintaining a Eurocentric us/them mindset, we should focus on what each culture can learn from the other. Dr Bhaopichitr highlighted that policy recommendations should not be a laundry list of desired changes, but should have a clear prioritisation and a means for persuading governments to accept the most important ones. Finally, Trishia Octaviano suggested that we should not be afraid of asking sensitive questions when delivering policy recommendations, as it enables you to see the policy as it relates to other political considerations, and may even enable you to find a solution to the more intractable issues. The winners were then announced : Group H won first prize from the panel of three judges, while Group B won the presentation prize and Group D won the popular vote. Another congratulations to all groups that participated! Panel 3: Sustainable Development and Climate Action
For the Conference’s third and final panel, Sustainable Development and Climate Action, STEAR was delighted to welcome two distinguished speakers: Sir Mark Moody Stuart, Former Chair of Shell, and Nadia Yang, President of European Young Engineers. The Panel was moderated by James Balzer, Editor at STEAR. The discussion for this panel was centred on analysing the role of multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral engagement in working towards sustainable development. Taking into account the engineering and corporate expertise of the speakers, the panellists, moderator and delegates focused on the current obstacles hindering Sustainable Development outcomes from a more technical perspective. The questions that were broached during the discussion ranged from the challenges the speakers had experienced in terms of coordinating multi-sectoral measures to the achievement of balance in the business sector between profitability and sustainability.
Rounding off the event, STEAR Co-President Dao Nguyen highlighted four principles that were apparent throughout all the varied speeches, policy presentations and panels. Firstly, he noted the importance of equality in Asia-Europe partnerships, a key lesson in the context of a common tendency to juxtapose the two groupings or view them in terms of dominance. Secondly, continued efforts must be made to bridge the different ideas inherent in Asian and European cultures, efforts which - as Dr Asma and Yingying mentioned - must begin with understanding one’s own cultural assumptions. Thirdly, technical solutions need to be found to global issues such as the pandemic, by taking into account the needs and expertise of all countries. Finally, the conference made the power of youth abundantly clear, with the enthusiasm and ability displayed by all the delegates and organisers deeply impressing the judges and speakers.
Dao took this opportunity to announce the three exciting flagship initiatives planned by STEAR for 2022. These include the Global Village programme, which aims to deepen cultural understanding; the launching of STEAR’s Singapore chapter in December; and the capacity building summer school hosted at Cambridge University next summer.
He then gave the floor to Christian Echle, Director of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Regional Programme Political Dialogue in Asia. We are all very grateful for their sponsorship of the event, and look forward to further collaboration with KAS in the future. Christian expressed his appreciation for attending an event that showcased the ability and resolve of young people to make a meaningful contribution to the issues that the world currently faces. Finally, he drew attention to the EANGAGE programme, which is open to students in the EU and ASEAN countries and is looking for submissions.
The floor was then handed to Anna Kolotova, one of the outstanding delegates from the conference. Born in Russia but having lived in China for the past ten years, the idea of ‘Eurasia’ is particularly resonant for her, and she was heartened to see so many young people engaged in the world and working to deliver solutions to its problems throughout the conference.
Conference Director Emika Otsuka closed the ceremony by detailing the path of conference preparations that she, Aamna, and their team have walked in the month and a half since conference invitations were sent out. As she put it so beautifully, the meaning of the relationships created and ideas discussed may not be immediately clear, but the seeds that have been planted over the last two days will continue to grow and eventually bloom in the future. Certainly, none of us are in any doubt that the relationships forged over the course of seminars and presentations will be maintained throughout the years.