ASEM has come a long way and seen much progress since the first one was organised in Bangkok in 1996. At that time, the simple goal of holding a biennial summit of Asian and European Union leaders was to strengthen the relationship between the two regions.
Initially, the focus was on economic matters but later on the topics discussed have expanded to such issues as climate change, food security and, especially this year, global economic downturn. At the Beijing summit, a closing statement is expected to highlight the financial meltdown and economic slowdown facing the western part of the grouping.
China's Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday called for more international cooperation to resolve the financial crisis. He was presiding over the opening of the 11th Asia-Europe Business Forum, which preceded the ASEM summit.
Critics often describe ASEM as a "talk shop", an international conference that produces no binding measures. However, some observers pointed to increased and closer cooperation between the east and the west and even among Asian countries.
Sebastian Bersick, a long-time observer of ASEM from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that under the ASEM umbrella, countries from the European Union (EU) and Asia can now have more frequent discussions between them on various matters.
Also, he said, ASEM is generally tolerant of civil society and welcomes viewpoints from non-governmental groups. Civil society has managed to hold its parallel meeting during every of the ASEM summits from the first one in Bangkok 12 years ago.
However, certain hosts of ASEM appeared to be unhappy with civil society, according to Klaus Fritsche, manager of the Asiahouse who took part in the Seventh Asia-Europe People's Forum in Beijing last week. He said many of the people's forum participants had difficulties getting their visas to China. A similar problem occurred before the civil society's forum in Hanoi in 2004, he said. In that year Vietnam hosted the Fifth ASEM summit.
ASEM, an informal process of dialogue and cooperation, brings together all the 27 EU member states and the EU's executive body, the European Commission, with 16 Asian countries and the Asean Secretariat. Apart of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China, Japan and South Korea, three new member states from Asia - India, Pakistan and Mongolia - will be attending the biennial event for the first time.
And in addition to the European Commission, which has been an ASEM partner from the beginning, the Asean Secretariat will take part for the first time after its admission at the previous summit in Helsinki, Finland, two years ago along with the three new Asian member states. The Asean Secretariat will be represented by Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.
The theme for the two-day ASEM 7 is "Vision and Action: Towards a Win-Win Solution".
"ASEM leaders will focus their discussions on political, economic and social and cultural issues, including issues related to sustainable development," said the summit's official website (www.asem7.cn).
Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was scheduled to leave Bangkok for Beijing on Thursday. Other Asean leaders have arrived for the summit earlier in the week, including Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is expected to have an informal meeting with Somchai about a border dispute.
The Thai premier is also likely to meet with other Asean leaders at the side of ASEM, including Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.