PM Lee Hsien Loong attending meeting of Asian and European leaders in Milan

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a media conference after wrapping up an eight-day official visit to southern China and Hong Kong. -- PHOTO: ZAOBAO FILE
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a media conference after wrapping up an eight-day official visit to southern China and Hong Kong. -- PHOTO: ZAOBAO FILE

MILAN - Leaders from over 50 countries in Asia and Europe will gather in Italy's industrial capital on Thursday for the start of a two-day biennial Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) Summit.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrived here on Wednesday evening from Ankara and is expected to meet several visiting leaders over the two days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in town, as will German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Significantly, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has also been invited by the hosts and is scheduled to meet Mr Putin over breakfast on Friday - with Ms Merkel and several European leaders present - to discuss a solution to the crisis in Ukraine.

Mr Putin this week announced the pullback of Russian troops from his country's border with Ukraine, whose eastern regions have seen pro-Russian separatists, fingered as being behind the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17, continuing to be active.

Yet en route to Milan, Mr Putin will be an honoured guest at a military parade in Serbian capital Belgrade on Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary of the city's liberation from Nazi Germany by the Red Army. His his presence there at a time when tensions remain unresolved with Ukraine has irked Western diplomats.

This year's Asem leaders' summit, with the theme of "Responsible Partnership for Growth and Security", gains added interest amid a continued drag in the global economy and concerns over the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group amid tensions in Syria and Iraq, as well as the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine.

Held every two years, this year's summit is also a milestone, being Asem's 10th meeting. It is also the first where membership has doubled from the original 26 members at the first gathering in Bangkok in 1996. The group was established as a means to draw both continents closer together.

Croatia and Kazakhstan will be the latest to be welcomed to Aseam, which has been seen as an alternative platform for leaders to meet and discuss pressing concerns in an informal manner. This brings its total membership to 53, including the European Union and Asean.

The meeting gathers top leaders from countries that account for 60 per cent of the world's population and half the global economy.

On the agenda this year are the issues of promoting financial and economic cooperation through enhanced Asia-Europe connectivity, and a stronger partnership between both continents to address global matters.

Leaders are also slated to have a retreat on Friday morning to take stock of enhancing dialogue between both continents and to begin charting a longer-term direction for Asem ahead of its 20th anniversary in 2016.

European Council president Herman van Rompuy said in a speech last month that despite the distance between the two continents and the pressing demands in Europe's immediate neighbourhood, more than ever, "the welfare and future of Europe requires the stability and economic dynamism of Asian societies".

But this inter-dependency goes way beyond economic ties, he added, as their security is interlinked.

While the summit will not solve the Syrian conflict or the uncertainty over Ukraine, many hope some headway will at least be made, so as to improve global security.

zakirh@sph.com.sg