BRUSSELS (AFP) – Europe sought a heightened global role with Asia's emerging giants Monday at talks ranging from trade to climate change between nations representing more than half the world's population.
The two-day Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of 46 nations, followed by separate EU summits with China and South Korea on Wednesday, opens amid renewed tension between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, indisputably star guest of the talks, could hold a face-to-face meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to ease the dispute, diplomats said.
For the European Union, the get-together of dozens of heads of state and government in the gilded Goya-hung halls of the Belgian royal palace opens a window of opportunity to strengthen ties with the Asia region at a time of fast global change.
"I am convinced that a strong Europe is irreplaceable," Wen told the Greek parliament on the eve of his arrival in Brussels. "China wants to promote and strengthen strategic links with the European Union."
During his visit to debt-crippled EU member Greece, the Chinese leader held out proof of willingness to work with the the 27-nation union -- pledging to support the euro and maintain European bonds that are part of Chinese foreign exchange reserves, the world's biggest.
Economic issues are expected to dominate the meeting of ASEM nations, which represent 60 percent of the world's population and global trade.
But the informal talks, accompanied by a slew of bilaterals, parallel visits to NATO headquarters and contacts between business leaders, will also touch on piracy at sea, terrorism, nuclear weapons, human rights and climate change.
ASEM leaders will urge Myanmar's military rulers to release political prisoners and ensure November elections, denounced as a sham by rights groups, are free and fair, according to a draft final statement obtained by AFP.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was attending the summit, urged ASEM leaders to "speak with one voice against the gross mistreatment of the Burmese people."
"Burma's military regime should know that, until it satisfies international demands, it will meet the same disapproval whether it looks East or West," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune.
The summit is also expected to urge Israelis and Palestinians to keep peace talks alive despite the end of a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction.
ASEM, which meets every two years, groups the EU, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan and Mongolia, and Australia, New Zealand and Russia.
On the economic front, reform of the IMF will feature high on the agenda after the EU last week signalled its willingness to cede some power at the international lender to emerging nations, which say Europe is over-represented.
Europe has been under pressure to offer a deal ahead of the November 11 start of the G-20 meeting of economic powers in Seoul and is ready to discuss giving up two of its nine seats while rotating others on the 24-member board.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said after talks with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that her country wanted "to see progress" on IMF reform at the G20.
The EU summit with China could reveal tensions following European and US charges that Beijing deliberately keeps its yuan currency undervalued to gain a trade advantage. The EU is also expected to raise concerns about human rights.
On climate change, ASEM leaders will share the goal "of reaching urgently a fair, effective and comprehensive legally binding outcome" and agree on the need for "deep cuts" in global emissions, according to the draft statement.
Hopes are low that any binding deals on cutting greenhouse gas emissions can be reached at November talks in Cancun amid lingering bitterness following a December summit which failed to secure emissions-reduction commitments.