THE meetings today and tomorrow between European and Asian leaders in Bangkok demonstrate that, at least in economic terms, East Asia is the center of the world.
The United States has worked hard in recent years to ensure a major role in Asia. The US has supported a loose-knit trade organization called the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. And American defense officials are struggling to make sure that American troops stationed in Japan do not wear out their welcome.
Now Europe has decided that it must broaden its ties to East Asia, the home of the world's most dynamic economies.
The historical ironies are unmistakable. Countries that centuries ago colonized Asia and exploited its resources are now treating the region with a good deal more respect. In Bangkok, ''respect'' will mean only gingerly addressing topics that many Asian leaders resist discussing at international forums: human and labor rights.
The fast-growing economies of China and the East Asian countries are increasingly important markets for goods manufactured in Europe. Between 1990 and 1994, European Union exports to the countries at the Asia-Europe meeting rose 9.6 percent, while EU trade with the US grew only 3.9 percent, according to a survey by Japan's
External Trade Organization. In terms of volume as well, Europe trades more with Asia than with the US.
The Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, will likely concern itself with economics and trade. The gathering includes leaders of the 15 states of the EU and 10 Asian leaders representing China, Japan, South Korea, and the seven countries belonging to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In the days before the summit, many Europeans and Asians concerned with human rights and labor issues have wondered how these matters would be treated in Bangkok.
Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, visiting Singapore on Monday, promised that ''Asia has no reason to be afraid of conflict at the meeting.'' Earlier press reports had indicated that some European leaders, mindful of constituencies at home, were planning to use ASEM to make points about the Indonesian annexation of East Timor, China's human-rights record, restrictions on labor unions in many Asian countries, and other contentious issues.
''It is no use doing what we do too often,'' Mr. Dehaene told Reuters, ''which is to say we transplant our model here. I think they have to develop their own approach,'' he said. ''We understand they have to do it at their own rhythm and in their own way.''
This attitude leaves some Asian activists with a hollow feeling. ''It's too bad the Western countries will not defend human rights in Bangkok,'' says Vo Van Ai, a longtime opponent of Vietnam's Communist regime who now lives in Paris. ''They are silenced by their economic interests.''
More than 100 advocates of human and labor rights have gathered in Bangkok ahead of ASEM, demanding that both European and Asian leaders hold each other's feet to the fire of international scrutiny.
Many Asian leaders argue in response that there is a time and a place for everything, and that sensitive political and human-rights issues are not appropriate topics at international conferences.
ASEAN maintains a policy of members not criticizing each other's domestic affairs.
''Human rights is not the kind of subject that ASEAN member states are ready to discuss in ASEM,'' says Yozo Yokota, a professor of international law at the University of Tokyo and a United Nations-appointed monitor of human rights in Burma.
At the same time, says Mr. Yokota, Asian leaders must realize that they cannot do this forever. ''They have to think more seriously about the well-being of individual people. They can afford to do it now.''
Yokota is referring to an argument by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and others that Asian societies place greater value on stability and collective advancement than on accommodating individual rights. Singapore and other Asian states justify a certain amount of authoritarianism in the interest of economic growth.
The activists may have history on their side. Some world trade groups have become concerned with labor and social issues as they have matured. Europeans added a ''social chapter'' to the treaty that binds the EU, an annex that addresses labor, social, and political rights. President Clinton reopened deliberations on the North American Free Trade Agreement in order to add a side agreement on labor rights and environmental protection.
Even though APEC is relatively new, activists from member countries already are demanding a voice in the group, which they say is dominated by corporations and bureaucrats. ''There probably is a certain inevitability'' to trade groups concerning themselves with labor rights, says Lee Swepson, chief of the equality and human rights coordination section at the International Labor Organization in Geneva. ''But why wait until it just happens?''