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In contrast to the awful news about the cyclone that hit Vanuatu last weekend, there are some reasons to be optimistic about development in the South-East Asia Pacific (SEAP) region in the longer term. Economic development is on the up, the region is largely peaceful and huge strides are being made in many important development indicators — including innovation capacity.

This might explain why the mood was upbeat at the ASEAN Science, Technology and Innovation days, which I attended in Paris, France, this week. The meeting, which began on 19 March and ends today, brought together European and South-East Asian researchers and business owners to discuss opportunities for joint innovation.

Many speakers raved about how SEAP countries are catching up on innovation with their European counterparts, and are ready to engage in “equal partnerships” on a “level playing field”. There was a visible buzz during coffee breaks, as business cards swapped hands and partnership agreements were discussed. But I could not help noticing that the facts presented at the meeting told a different story about the level of equality in innovation collaboration between South-East Asia and Europe. Could the buzz be more like hype?

Measuring innovation capacity is notoriously difficult. Business research and development (R&D) spending, patent data and foreign direct investment only tell part of the story. But what they do tell makes SEAP countries look like they have more catching-up to do than many local innovators would admit.

Patent filing is one such issue. The number of patents filed by member states of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is increasing by 12 per cent a year, regional representatives said proudly. But the acceptance rate is still very small, suggesting that SEAP-originated patent applications are of much lower quality than those in Europe.

Worse, this innovation growth does not translate into visible partnerships with Europe. The ASEAN nations filed only 442 patents with the European Patent Office in 2014, said Ruben Schellingerhout, who represented the European Commission at the meeting. For comparison, the German multinational Siemens alone filed 757 in the same year.

ASEAN legislation also remains far behind Europe. European companies told stories of how — despite all the talk about equal partnerships — they struggled to access funding in ASEAN member states and faced insurmountable red tape and legal obstacles to settling in the region.

The meeting demonstrated that both the SEAP region and the EU aspire to see eye to eye on innovation, something that is becoming increasingly possible as Asia becomes more innovative.

Inga Vesper

But I also heard evidence of bad practice from European partners that put a question mark on their definition of ‘equal partnership’. Simon Cheetham, who works for the ASEAN-European Union (EU) helpdesk that supports small businesses, said many Europeans perceive Asian countries as places with legal loopholes that can be easily exploited to facilitate the cheap copying of patented technology. “It’s a question of ignorance,” he said. “In fact, Asian legal systems around intellectual property are often quite comprehensive.”

But regardless of these bad apples, the meeting demonstrated that both the SEAP region and the EU aspire to see eye to eye on innovation, something that is becoming increasingly possible as Asia becomes more innovative.

A strange nugget of information was presented by the European taxation directorate general, which tracks EU intellectual property violations of imported goods from ASEAN countries. Traditionally these were mostly observed in shoes, perfumes and sports equipment, designed in Europe and reproduced cheaply in Asia. But lately, pharmaceutical products have made an appearance — evidence of the region’s increasing ability to access and copy European medical R&D.

As the SEAP region’s innovation capacities grow, so do opportunities for truly equal partnerships. The will is certainly there, and Asia’s growing economic prowess means that, increasingly, there also is a way.