November 12, 2016
The East Asia Summit: a platform for confidence building
by John Pang, The Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU
The East Asia Summit (EAS) started with a vision of community building. With US participation and rising strategic tensions, it has instead become a regional confidence building and conflict prevention mechanism — a role that ASEAN should embrace and sharpen. The long-term task of community building could be left to sub-regional groupings like the ASEAN+3 forum and its offshoot, the Northeast Asian forum.
ASEAN should streamline the EAS agenda and actively frame the region’s most important security discussions. It should strengthen its public communications with the ASEAN public and the international community to better convey the role of the EAS.
This may mean having multiple-track discussions to formulate important issues ahead of time. It may also mean some level of integration with the ASEAN Regional Forum so that it more directly supports the EAS on security issues. ASEAN can do more to shape the conversation while ensuring that the meeting remains open enough to allow for personal interaction among the leaders. The EAS can play a crucial role if ASEAN retains the coherence and clout to push forward with regional discussions in a positive way.
The EAS originated as a project of the East Asian Economic Caucus. When Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad first proposed an East Asian Economic Grouping in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Area and the European Union were being formed and it seemed important for East Asia to form a grouping of its own.
The shared trauma of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis gave the project impetus. IMF assistance was conditional on the governments of stricken economies adopting austerity measures that aggravated the suffering of ordinary citizens. A Japanese proposal to render assistance was vetoed by the United States. So ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea came together to form a swap fund called the Chiang Mai Initiative as a contingency against such crises.
But by 2005 — when the EAS conducted its first meeting in Kuala Lumpur — the idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus had taken a backseat. No longer the obvious leader, Japan’s priority shifted to ‘balancing’ China’s growing might. Japan lobbied successfully for the enlargement of the EAS membership to include Australia, New Zealand and India with a path carved out for US and Russian participation. The Summit had become a forum for security issues, while the idea of a regional community receded to the background.
By 2011, the United States and Russia had become full participants. In recent history, the single biggest influence on the direction of the EAS has been the consistent presence of Washington’s ‘Pacific President’. Obama has attended every summit since the US inclusion, except once when he was prevented by a budget crisis in Washington. US participation has shifted the EAS agenda towards geostrategic concerns. This coincided with China taking a more confrontational stance in the South China Sea.
The EAS is by design a flexible forum for strategic dialogue and cooperation on the key issues facing the region. The leaders can shape the agenda with their personal interventions. The role of the United States is all the more prominent because the president attends, while China and Russia only send their premiers.
Its ASEAN-style menu of non-contentious and constructive discussion areas feature cooperation on environment and energy, education, finance, global health issues and pandemic diseases, natural disaster management and ASEAN connectivity. Post-2010, the EAS, whatever the official agenda, focused on contemporary and pressing ‘strategic issues’ such as the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program. Heightened US–China rivalry has strained ASEAN unity. Each ASEAN Summit since then has been a test of ASEAN unity.
Expectations going into this year’s ASEAN meetings and the EAS Summit in Vientiane were low. It was easy to dismiss Laos as being firmly in China’s camp. Over the course of the year, a narrative had built up about the danger of ASEAN being split between a China-leaning Indochina and a more pro status quo, pro-Western maritime ASEAN. The Hague Tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea raised the temperature of the discussions.
There were fears ASEAN might be so disunited that it might again fail to issue a joint statement, as happened in Phnom Penh in 2012. The Laos chairmanship confounded those expectations with an agreement to take the South China Sea issue forward in a manner long advocated by ASEAN.
Despite increased tensions, this year’s EAS Chairman’s Statement once again expressed concerns about ‘developments in the South China Sea’ without a veto by China. The statement affirmed a joint commitment to resolving disputes in accordance with the principles of international law. Most importantly it emphasised the need for ASEAN member states and China to ensure ‘the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’. They also signalled their intention to work towards the early conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
There are good signs that despite the international media and pundits’ alarm over the peril of the South China Sea issue, the United States and China retain the ability to deal with one another through ASEAN in constructive ways. ASEAN continues to draw the major parties to the table and appears resourceful enough to manage regional tensions and avert open conflict.
John Pang is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
A version of this article was first published here, by RSIS.