Foreign Affairs: Time for East Asia


July 9, 2018

Time for East Asia

By Bunn Nagara@www,thestar.com.my

READ : https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Future-of-Asia-2018/Mahathir-revives-Look-East-policy-to-join-ranks-of-economic-giants

AS an indication of how out of touch some international pundits of Asia are, they still call North-East Asia (China, Japan and Korea) “East Asia.”

East Asia as a region comprises the sub-regions of North-East Asia and South-East Asia, the latter being the countries of ASEAN and Timor-Leste.

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The ASEAN region developed steadily with peace and prosperity as its watchwords. It became known as a region consistently posting some of the highest growth rates in the world.

Yet ASEAN and its member countries were severely constrained by a lack of economic weight and global reach.

ASEAN’s diplomatic clout is fine, but South-East Asia as a region falls short of economic heft in a rapidly globalising world. Nonetheless, the forces of globalisation themselves would take care of that with growing economic integration within East Asia.

North-East Asia included two of the world’s three largest economies, so as a region it had no problems of limited reach or heft. Despite global constraints, China on the whole continued to grow.

As the economies of North-East Asia and South-East Asia grew more integrated, growth in East Asia as a whole would soon reach an altogether different plane.

Studies generally find intra-regional trade surpassing foreign direct investment (FDI). A 2009 study found that tariff reductions as well as closer monetary cooperation among East Asian countries made sense.

A report by the Asian Development Bank Institute last year acknowledged the impressive growth of East Asia’s intra-regional trade ratio over the past 55 years.

It noted how trade had become “more functionally linked to international production networks and supply chains” as well as FDI in the region. This is indicative of East Asia’s deepening regionalisation. Typically, after Japan’s export of capital to South-East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, China took up the slack as Japan’s economy leveled off from the early 1990s.

In 1990, ISIS Malaysia and Prime Minister Tun (then Datuk Seri) Dr. Mahathir Mohamad worked on a proposal for an East Asia Economic Grouping (EAEG). It was time for East Asia to come into its own.

When Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Kuala Lumpur in December 1990, Dr Mahathir proposed the EAEG to him. Li Peng accepted and supported it.

The idea had not been discussed within ASEAN before. Indonesia, the biggest country and economy regarding itself the region’s “big brother,” felt miffed that it had not been consulted about the plan.

Singapore’s position, traditionally more aligned to a US that was not “included” in the East Asia proposal, was slightly more nuanced. Lee Kuan Yew, upon becoming Senior Minister just the month before – and on the cusp of the Cold War’s demise – still preferred an economic universe defined by the West.

At the time this was the European community and the Uruguay Round as an outgrowth of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

It was still three years before the European Union (EU), and four years before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Generally the world was still beholden to Western economic paradigms and game plans. The EAEG was thus seen as the work of some upstart Asians, in turns brash and occasionally recalcitrant.

Most of the six ASEAN countries, like South Korea, accepted the EAEG even as they tried to learn more about it. But it was still at best tentative.

The EAEG’s critics, however, proved more vocal. US President G.H.W Bush and Secretary of State James Baker wanted to crash the regional party by becoming a member also, or else would see the idea crash.

The Uruguay Round was then seen to be quite rudderless, and APEC, itself formed just one year before, appeared fumbling in the doldrums.

The EAEG, misperceived as an “alternative”, would be thinking and acting outside the box. An energised Asia owing nothing to Western patronage was far too much for an Occidental-conceived world order to contemplate, much less accept.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen and China’s President Xi Jinping

Malaysia tried to soothe anxieties about the EAEG by emphasising its soft regionalism. It was to be only “a loose, consultative” grouping and no more.

Why should a booming, rapidly integrating East Asia be deprived of a regional economic identity, when Europe and North America could develop their own?

Unfortunately the EAEG’s public relations campaign proved too little too late. The idea, albeit now conceived as an ASEAN project, lacked traction and ground to a halt.

Singapore saw its merits and tried a different tack. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong proposed an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) within APEC, allaying fears of an insecure US that this would remain within the ambit of a US-dominated APEC.

Several political speeches and conference papers later, the EAEC idea also failed to germinate. A Bill Clinton Presidency was lukewarm-to-cool to the idea, still without the encouragement Japan needed for a nod.

A flourishing East Asia would be left without a regional organisation of its own, again.

In 1997 the devastating Asian economic and financial crisis struck, hitting South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia particularly badly. If the EAEG had been in place by then, greater regional cooperation and coordination would have helped cushion the shocks.

Suddenly, South Korea took the initiative to push East Asia into forming a regional identity: ASEAN Plus Three (APT). This grouping would consist of the same EAEG countries.

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Indo- Pacific Partnership –An Alternative to China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI)

Japan this time was more accommodating, and the APT was born.

For decades, “the West” led by the US was identified with open markets and free trade. But now a Trump Presidency deemed protectionist, even isolationist, is hauling up the drawbridge and raising the barricades with tariffs and other restrictive measures.

These are aimed at allies and rivals alike, whether in Europe or Asia. Equivalent countermeasures have been launched, and the trade-restraining spiral winds on.

China, by now identified globally as a champion of open markets and free trade, has called on Europe to form a common front. Strategic competitors are making for strange trade bedfellows and vice-versa.

Dr Mahathir was on his annual visit to Tokyo last month for the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia. He duly revisited the idea of an East Asian economic identity and community.

For emphasis, he added that he preferred this to a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership that the US has now rejected. How would an EAEG now play in today’s Japan and East Asia? More to the point, how would it play in Washington? The answer may still determine its prospects in Tokyo and East Asia as a whole.

It is possible that the US has become too tied to the idea of battling trade skirmishes, if not outright trade wars, with any presumed adversary to have time to frown on an EAEG.

Dr Mahathir has noted how this is the time for such a regional grouping, since we still need it and particularly when the US is helping to justify it. It is also conceivable that Japan today is more open to the EAEG, just like with the APT post-1997.

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America First Fallacy– In fact it is US retreat from global engagement

 

The more the rhetoric of a US-China trade war rages, the more likely East Asia can finally develop a regional economic identity of its own.

Even a US-EU trade conflict will do. East Asia should not be too choosy about its benefactors.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Bunn Nagara

Moving from Defence to Offence on Trade Strategy


March 5, 2018

Moving from Defence to Offence on Trade Strategy

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

Image result for Trump declares a trade war  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with his Boss,President Donald Trump

 

The trade architecture in East Asia — the most dynamic region in the global economy — is up for grabs. The very system on which regional arrangements are built is under threat.

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his ‘America First’ agenda and his declaration last week of the first shots in a global trade war undermine the WTO and the global rules-based economic system that it underpins. Asia and the global community, including the United States, have relied upon and benefitted from that system for over 70 years.

Can East Asia put aside its differences and define a set of arrangements that protect its own economic security interests absent the United States? US leadership put this system in place and drove its expansion throughout the post-war years. Now the United States is generating the headwinds that threaten to unravel it. Just last week Trump announced the first salvo in what could be a trade war with a 25 per cent tariff on all steel imports and 10 per cent tariff on aluminium imports. The temptation for other countries is to retaliate with their own self-harm policies.

What’s at stake?

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The multilateral trade regime provides the cement and ballast that makes it easier to manage tricky rivalries and conflictual relationships of the kind that abound in Asia but around which large-scale economic interdependence and prosperity have been built. The ‘America First’ challenge threatens the collapse of that system and a descent into beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism and political conflict reminiscent of the lead-up to World War II.

How leaders in Asia respond to this challenge and the arrangements that the region settles on will matter for three important reasons. It will substantially affect the welfare of individual countries and the communities within them. It will affect the atmosphere for both economic and political cooperation in the region. And, given the size of the Asian economy, it will matter for whether the global rules-based economic system withstands the assault upon it.

No single country  acting on its own can lead a response to the vacuum that United States is daily creating in global governance. This US-sized hole in the Asia Pacific will have to be filled with leadership from the rest of the region as a whole.

Asian and Pacific nations have responded definitively so far. And leadership has come from one of the most unexpected places: Japan, traditionally shy to step out in front.

Once Trump declared that the United States was getting out of the TPP, Japan led the remaining 11 members towards the agreement’s conclusion without the United States. That deal is expected to be signed in Chile this week. The awkwardly named Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), otherwise known as TPP-11, would not have happened were it not for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Australia’s also played a major role, but Japan (the Partnership’s largest economy absent the United States) was the decisive player.

As Shiro Armstrong explains in this week’s lead essay, ‘conclusion of the CPTPP does not deliver the big strategic goal of keeping the United States entrenched in Asia. Instead, it sends to Mr Trump a strong message of the region’s commitment to openness. Holding the line and pushing back against growing protectionist sentiment keeps the pressure up, with market opening and reform on which US businesses and consumers miss out’.

Most surprised about Japanese leadership are the Japanese themselves. As Armstrong says, Japan ‘has found itself in an unusual position. Japan has often relied on external pressure, usually from the United States, to advance its diplomatic goals and even to push domestic reforms’.

Asia cannot count on Japanese leadership alone, nor can it count on Japan’s continuing in this manner. In saving what’s left of the TPP, Mr Abe saw an opportunity to hedge ‘against the uncertainties that Trump has generated in regional and global trade policy, strengthening ties with other partners like Australia and India and laying the groundwork for improving relations with China’.

Australia almost single-handedly led the push back against Trump’s team  tearing up multilateralism as APEC’s central tenet at the summit in Vietnam last November.

With Australia having held the line in APEC and moved forward on the TPP, what is needed now is for the other powers in Asia to join Australia and Japan in preserving and protecting the global system.

The CPTPP, even if it expands membership to include other middle powers in East Asia, is not systemically important enough to do the job. With the United States in the agreement, the TPP would have accounted for 38 per cent of the global economy but without it the agreement accounts for only 13 per cent.

In East Asia, there is fortunately another vehicle that has the weight to do the job. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is currently being negotiated, involves the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. That grouping accounts for 31 per cent of global economy.

RCEP (perhaps the second-worst acronym in Asia after the CPTPP) is as important as it is difficult to realise with the required ambition. Including the major economies of Indonesia, India and China makes a tall order out of large and credible commitments to economic opening . The anxiety to get a deal done quickly could compromise the quality of the arrangement and therefore its impact. A hastily concluded RCEP deal that is not credible in its ambition would be a mistake and a huge lost opportunity, risking more harm than good. India is still playing its familiar role of spoiler by dragging the agreement down and other leaders have yet to expend political capital that they need to on RCEP.

There is no clear leader in RCEP. The Partnership is not China-led as is often wrongly claimed: ASEAN is the hub and inspiration, and the major powers, including China, are the spokes. The only leadership that China can show that Australia, Japan, India and others can accept is one where it commits to reforms and opening up its economy. That will benefit both China and the global economy.

RCEP is the best chance at an agreement that is inclusive of China and locks it into reforms. The CPTPP may be easier for countries to join than the original TPP since it has frozen ‘some of the more egregious provisions of TPP — especially the US-pushed intellectual property protections that were likely to benefit big business in the United States at the expense of consumers in the region’, as Armstrong explains. But expanding CPTPP membership to China is unlikely since it would close the door to any possibility that the United States might rejoin at some time in the future.

There is little chance of the United States rejoining the TPP under Mr Trump or even the president after him. Piecing together political leadership on trade in Washington will be difficult without making progress on an agenda for dealing with the issues that have led to the current problems: stagnant middle-class incomes, wider distribution of the gains from trade and a properly functioning social safety net. The US Congress is unlikely to agree to join an existing deal, even though the United States was the driving force of the original TPP. The United States’ joining a deal that China is party to any time soon is inconceivable.

If East Asia does not hold the line on corrosion of the global trade regime and protectionism, no one else is likely to.Crafting regional trade architecture without the constructive participation of the United States is the immediate challenge and will remain the challenge for the foreseeable future. Australia and Japan have led the initial charge, but China, India and Indonesia will need to step up.

Asian powers may not be ready for the sort of leadership that is needed, but the threat to their interests in the global system will not wait until they are.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

 

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper


December 4, 2017

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/27/australias-foreign-policy-white-paper/

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The Australian government has published a new Foreign Policy White Paper. It is 14 years since the Howard government launched its own Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper in 2003, although the Gillard government produced the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2013. Much has changed in Australia’s international environment since either of those papers were released.

 

Indeed, much has changed since the initiation of the current White Paper process some 15 months ago. Few would have predicted the election of Donald Trump, the extent of protectionist sentiment in North America and Europe or the acceleration of the North Korean nuclear crisis. In this new and more complex international economic and strategic environment, the Australian government has produced a foreign policy blueprint that is refreshingly frank in its depiction of the challenges its policymakers now face.

In this week’s lead essay Peter Drysdale describes the White Paper as ‘a masterly articulation of the fluidity and uncertainties in Australia’s diplomatic circumstance today’.

The White Paper makes clear that the most significant of these challenges stems from the two major powers in our region — the United States and China — and the relationship between them. Few will be surprised by Australia’s view that it faces a more contested and uncertain international environment as a result of the changing balance of power between the United States and China and its concerns about how China may use its political, military and economic weight in the future.

What will surprise observers is the White Paper’s unequivocal statement of the threat to international order emanating from the United States. Those threats include deep-seated protectionist and anti-globalist sentiment, a lack of support for key global and regional institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and debate about the country’s willingness to pay the costs of ongoing global leadership. The White Paper states time and again that the United States will remain Australia’s most important international partner and ally. But in betraying such a note of alarm about US retreat it is apparent — as one observer has argued — that the Australian government ‘doesn’t believe its own public rhetoric about the United States as some sort of security guarantor’. Drysdale explains that ‘for the first time here there is clear official acceptance, and disclosure to the public, of the diplomatic problems that Australia and its partners now confront’.

So the Australian government is shifting its diplomatic attention to the region — in particular to what it calls the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. It has adopted the Indo-Pacific label because it sees India as a future economic power and, more importantly, as a hedge against China. In the face of an uncertain US ally and a more assertive China, the Australian government sees partnerships with major Indo-Pacific democracies — India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea — as the best means of shaping the future regional order.

Australia’s decision to commit greater diplomatic attention (and presumably resources) to these regional neighbours is a welcome and much-needed change. But its focus on the democratic character of the countries with which it is choosing to partner is problematic. Such a strategy will likely inhibit Australia’s ability to deepen its engagement with governments of a range of different political stripes across Southeast Asia — a region that is critically important to Australia’s economic interests and which the White Paper defines as sitting at ‘the nexus of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific’.

The reframing of the region to downplay continental Asia — a region that is responsible for the largest part of global economic weight and dynamism — and emphasise the Indo-Pacific — a primarily maritime security construct — brings some risk for Australia. As Drysdale explains, the Indo-Pacific nostrum is not a diplomatic concept anywhere tested in the White Paper, ‘except through its footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe’.

More importantly, the White Paper proposes no clear framework for how to deal with China: the major power in the region. Instead, it is a relationship that the White Paper seems to suggest will proceed largely ‘business as usual’. This is a missed opportunity. Drysdale notes that President Xi’s ’19th Party Congress commitment to the multilateral system and a shared community of interests’ is the obvious agenda on which to engage China and put real meat on the bones of an upgraded Australian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China (which the White Paper recommends).

The paper acknowledges the importance of the China relationship for Australia both in terms of China’s economic weight and in terms of the challenges posed by China’s rise. Those challenges are seen as China’s potential use of coercive power, anxieties about its influence on Australia’s domestic institutions and society, frictions stemming from differences in the two countries’ interests, values, and political and legal systems as well as questions about China’s record on international rules and norms.

On the latter point, the White Paper clearly views China’s behaviour towards smaller countries in the South China Sea and its apparent challenge to freedom of navigation as litmus tests for how Beijing will operate in other international settings, although it fails to acknowledge that while China may be challenging freedom of (US) military navigation in the South China Sea, freedom for commercial shipping remains unimpeded.

Given the scale of these political and security challenges, the importance of China to Australia’s economic future and the fact that China will influence every regional and global issue on which Australia has an interest, it is disappointing that the White Paper does not propose specific measures for how to elevate the Australia–China relationship in ways that will allow the two countries to manage this critically important relationship and the difficulties that will inevitably ensue.

The White Paper succeeds in spelling out Australia’s foreign policy challenges and, as Drysdale advises, ‘should not be relegated to the dustbin’ by any future government. Some of the gaps in the strategy to achieve the White Paper’s aims are filled by existing, carefully considered public studies that engaged the public in their making. The previous government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has a clear strategy for engaging the Asian economy and developing the diplomatic, business and community assets to do so. The Australia–China Joint Economic Report defines clear ways to elevate the bilateral relationship, to work at furthering shared interests and to make the management of the complex relationship much easier. Some of the central ideas in these complementary studies are reflected lightly in the Foreign Policy White Paper, but taken together these strategic documents offer practical guidance for Australia to navigate and shape its region in the coming years.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised  Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Dr. Peter Drysdale on Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper

Hard work, getting Australia’s foreign policy right

by Peter Drysdale, ANU

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/26/hard-work-getting-australias-foreign-policy-right/

Getting foreign policy right at this point in world diplomatic history has never been more difficult.

For that reason the Foreign Policy White Paper launched by Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo in Canberra last week is a welcome beginning to an important public debate.

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Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (center) with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and her Cabinet colleagues

It is a masterly exposition of the fluidity and uncertainties in Australia’s diplomatic circumstance today. For the first time, there is clear official acceptance and disclosure to the public of the diplomatic problems that we confront as regional tensions rise. The White Paper explains in detail, reassuring as its tone may be, that Australia is caught between an unpredictable and perhaps unreliable US ally and an unpredictable and possibly unreliable Chinese partner. It offers few solutions but the franker admission of what the situation looks like is a big step forward.

The economic growth that’s come with globalisation has quickly changed the international balance of power. The United States, which has been the dominant power in the Asia Pacific region since World War II is now challenged by the rise of China. The world is more interconnected than at any other time before. New technologies as well as the transmission of the know-how and scientific knowledge lifts opportunities and prosperity at the same time as it spawns political alienation and the reach of non-state actors who would do us harm. Risks to the global commons demand collective action. These are the big challenges that Australia and its partners now confront.

What’s new is the intensification of the tensions around this change and its corrosion of the pillars on which Australia’s foreign policy is based. If the White Paper had been written when it was initiated well over a year ago, before the election of President Trump, the escalation of the Korean crisis and Brexit’s blow to Europe, it would have had an unquestionably less urgent and less ambiguous tone.

In the White Paper there is no budging on rock-solid faith in the US alliance relationship as the bastion of global rules and its importance to Australia’s navigating new uncertainty. Equally there’s unequivocal statement of the importance of Australia’s partnership with China and acceptance of legitimacy of China’s sharing responsibility and power as well as the reality that (like all great powers) China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests.

What the White Paper makes clear is that the Australian government and bureaucracy, which have been so closely entwined with the United States in the past, are alarmed by the decline of US military power and influence and Trump’s discarding the conventions of the international economic order. He has abandoned the rules-based system — commitment to abiding by the WTO, the TPP, NAFTA, the Paris Accord and probably its KORUS agreement with South Korea — on which the world has depended to bring order to the global system.

In China’s militarising of the South China Sea and heavy breathing in disputes over territorial issues as well as increasing internal repression and the cult of personality surrounding President Xi, the White Paper sees dangers from the international use of coercive power.

The White Paper’s refreshing frankness is nonetheless folded in a conceptual frame that accentuates the negative response. The paper adopts the Indo-Pacific idea but neither tests nor defines it — except through its footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe. We know it is a maritime security construct that’s been part of military dialogue for some time. That is one element in responding to the complex problems we now all face — but only one. It is an element that vastly underestimates the complex economic and political interdependence with mainland Asia that Mr Trump in Washington, Mr Xi in Beijing and everybody else in the region has to deal with day by day.

There are other strategies and actions which Australia can take: asserting constructive influence with like-minded countries to persuade both China and the United States that their current courses court danger more than opportunity.

The day that the White Paper was launched, the Wall Street Journal reported escalation of the Trump administration’s plans for trade war. Unchecked, these moves will wreak havoc on the global trade regime — a regime that more than any other rules-based system is the foundation of Australia’s and Asia’s economic prosperity and political stability.

There needs to be an immediate and vigorous response from Asia through conclusion of the ASEAN+6’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its calibration as part of an over-arching strategy on global trade to check Trump’s recklessness.

China will not be turned towards reducing security concerns without up-close engagement. The White Paper identifies one important priority: to upgrade Australia’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China. But on how and to what purpose, the White Paper is silent. There’s chance to work with China on Xi’s 19th Party Congress commitment to the multilateral system and a shared community of interests. That is an investment worth the risk.

Yelping from the sidelines is no effective strategy. Delivering regional security and prosperity requires resourcing and developing diplomatic strategies in concert with Asian partners, including China, as the White Paper urges. Strategies that engage China will alleviate concern in Beijing by those who read the White Paper as an attempt to contain it.

The temptation of some subsequent government will be to tear this document up, like the current government discarded the Asian Century White Paper, expunging Asia from its diplomatic lexicon and short-changing Australians.

That would not be wise.

Both the robust narrative and the more fragile conceptions of how to deliver Australia’s prosperity and security in the White Paper invite serious debate. It would be unfortunate if partisan disputes (not least between the more unthinking supporters of the United States and China) resulted in the paper’s being sidelined or ignored in future policymaking.

Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor, Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Editor-in-Chief of East Asia Forum at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

Foreign Policy: South Korean Perspective on Trump’s Visit to Asia


November 23, 2017

South Korean Perspective on Trump’s Visit to Asia

by Joonhyung Kim@www.asiasentinel.com

 

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“America First” is fundamentally different from pursuing national interests. In essence, it is tough diplomacy that has no regard for means and methods in pursuit of interests, changing anything that is disadvantageous to the US, regardless whether the opponent is an ally or a foe.Joonhyung Kim

 

It is now time to cool down and check the balance sheet of US President Trump’s Asia trip calmly. The whole world was awaiting the tour, a year after he was elected.

In addition, there were considerable implications in the destinations he visited. The Korean Peninsula is on the brink of war due to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Japan is getting even closer to the US following its eight-year honeymoon with President Barack Obama and China is starting to show its teeth in a hegemonic confrontation with Washington.

There was the possibility of an unforeseeable eventuality during Trump’s visit, considering that Trump has used the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia with the mindset of a businessman under his “America First” policy.

Despite this, it seems that most observers consider the visits as being better than feared. During his trip to South Korea, he made little to no aggressive remarks that might have heightened the crisis, and differences between South Korea and the US did not stand out. Trump’s trademark provocative tweets were also generally absent.

Not much could be new 

In fact, as this summit was the fourth meeting between the Presidents of the US and South Korea, and the third bilateral meeting in just six months since the Moon administration was inaugurated, nothing much could be new. Public confirmation of the solidarity of the alliance and cooperation against North Korea has always accompanied these meetings.

Items of interest included whether trade issues such as a renegotiation of the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), increasing South Korean contribution to US forces stationed on their soil, or confirming early deployment of THAAD would be discussed, as well as how much Trump would seek to pressure Moon. The South Korean government seems to have focused on building friendship through hospitality and on controlling possible damage rather than persuading the US or expecting big things. The unexpected visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek and large armament deal were positive factors that South Korea wanted.

The sensitive issues mentioned above and Trump’s address to the South Korean National Assembly, which possibly could have been another UN General Assembly-type speech, inflamed by Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who mentioned that military options on the Korean Peninsula would be a priority, worried the South Korean government. This is especially so because South Korea and China jointly announced that additional THAAD deployments, South Korea’s participation in joint Missile Defense with the US, and a military alliance between South Korea, Japan, and the US would not be an option just a week before Trump visited South Korea.

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 Despite these concerns, many inside and outside South Korea believe that Trump’s visit was quite successful. The most important factor is that Trump didn’t resort to his typical blunt remarks or unpredictable actions. He didn’t say or do anything that would hurt the pride of South Koreans, didn’t heighten the threat of war by saying he would destroy North Korea as he did in his address to the UN, and maintained a cautious and toned-down appearance. One can agree that Trump showed a different side of himself.

However, it is difficult to agree with the assessment that Trump’s visit was one where South Korea paid what it had to pay and earned what it could. It was, instead, one where the US got what it wanted from South Korea. It was unidirectional. Trump behaved as though it was a prerogative of the United States as Korea’s guardian when he visited the large-scale high-tech US military base, even with South Korea picking up 92 percent of the bill.

He didn’t, however, forget to criticize the KORUS FTA in the joint press conference with Moon after the summit. As he was celebrating the first anniversary of his presidential election, Trump was busy bragging about the fruits of his “America First” policy to his domestic audience. His emphasis was on the fact that he sold weapons and that this would help decrease the trade deficit and create new jobs.

Moon, on the contrary, was unable to secure any benefits or emphasize negotiation with North Korea or promote the Korean Peninsula Peace Initiative.

Trump focuses on the alliance’s cost 

Although one can agree that the strength of the South Korea-US alliance was confirmed, it seems that we are blind to the cold reality that the cost of maintaining this alliance is increasing sharply. Trump repeatedly referred to South Korea as a great ally and a perpetual ally, more than a simple alliance partner. However, he was more into taking benefits in response to the nuclear crisis. The principle that reciprocity and national interests come first could not be found, even if we consider that the South Korea-US alliance is asymmetric.

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Trump maximized the reality of the alliance’s unilateral cost rise. He pursues only business interests and does not voice values ​​such as democracy, peace, or democratic leadership, as previous US presidents did. While not hypocritical, the bare face of the “America First” policy shows no solicitude or room for others.

“America First” is fundamentally different from pursuing national interests. In essence, it is tough diplomacy that has no regard for means and methods in pursuit of interests, changing anything that is disadvantageous to the US, regardless whether the opponent is an ally or a foe.

The Korean Peninsula, along with the Balkans, is often said to be cursed by its geography. It is, indeed, an asset to have the US as an ally present on this peninsula. Not only North Korean nuclear threats, but also China’s rise makes the US presence more important. However, the unilateral rise in alliance costs is not an issue that South Koreans can afford to overlook.

Despite these facts, why would many evaluate Trump’s visit as a success? First, it is the learning effect of the Trump style. Trump is a type of US president we have never seen before, and he has been carving out his own territory, constantly breaching taboos and crossing limits. He has so far not thought of becoming the president for all Americans. He has and will continue to rule as if running a campaign for hardcore supporters. He divides sides and picks fights regardless of whether the opponent is domestic or foreign. He attacks African-American football players for kneeling during the national anthem and encourages conflicts rather than addressing white supremacist rallies.

He also clashes with the Republican Party, his own party, and mocks his own Secretary of State whom he himself appointed. He publicly announced that he would destroy North Korea at the UN General Assembly, a hall of peace, and declared Iran to be a murderous regime. Allies are no exception. He criticized NATO members. He called President Moon’s position a policy of appeasement, an ahistorical rudeness. He has also said that the US will not be hurt in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, despite the fact that there would be thousands of casualties in South Korea were a conflict to occur. Some say this is a high-level “crazy man strategy,” but it is simply gangster leadership, bereft of any class.

Tunnel vision

It seems that Trump’s South Korea visit was viewed as relatively fine because of the learning effect of these characteristics of the US President. However, this is the error of groupthink, which appears in policy decision theory of international relations. Groupthink refers to a tendency to strengthen conformity or consensus in decision-making groups. The actors participating in the group are pressured to follow the opinion of the group as a whole, while contrary opinions are hard to advocate or are easily ignored. It resembles the tunnel vision phenomenon in which the view is narrowed as one enters a tunnel, or a situation where balanced thought or objective judgment is blurred because one is excessively immersed in one thing.

This error is evident in the assessment that Trump has withdrawn from his hardline stance toward North Korea and has offered the possibility of opening a dialogue. This assessment seems to be based on the fact that Trump, who previously insisted on the uselessness of dialogue, made few intimidating comments about the military option and rather talked about negotiation.

However, this is groundless. The trouble-free expressions of hatred and contempt for North Korea, which accounted for more than two-thirds of his address to the National Assembly, were about how he would never be able to recognize North Korea as a dialogue partner. Such language as hell, cruel dictatorship, torture, rape, and murder were typical of his prejudice against the reality of North Korea.

This far surpasses the rhetoric of President George W. Bush, who called North Korea an outpost of tyranny, a pygmy, and a part of the “axis of evil,” and under whom North Korea-US relations were at their worst level up until now.

The error of groupthink also applies to the recent South Korea-China summit. The South Korean government and its media concluded that the South Korean and Chinese dispute over THAAD has been resolved with the three No’s that the two countries jointly announced. China did not revoke its position opposing THAAD. It just decided to take a two-track strategy.

China maintains its basic position opposing THAAD, while its practical relationship with South Korea will be separated from the issue and be allowed to recover. It is similar to the Moon administration’s position towards Japan: restore a practical relationship without giving up on the comfort women issue. This has very important implications. The more publicly South Korea acts as if China yielded, the more China will have to pull back its position on THAAD and, in severe cases, restart the sanctions. Also, for China, the joint announcement has become a benchmark, where it intends to see if South Korea actually complies.

In other words, the THAAD issue may reemerge depending on what South Korea does in the future.

Room for Korea to Maneuver 

Early November was filled with summit diplomacy: Trump’s visit to South Korea, the South Korea-China summit, and Moon’s visit to Southeast Asia. Although we should be cautious of groupthink, this does not deny the achievements on the diplomatic front. The South Korean government did very well to restore its room to maneuver between China and the US, which was obliterated thanks to the diplomatic failures of the previous administration of President Park Geun-hye, including the THAAD issue. However, the possibility of repeating failures while overestimating successes still exists.

South Korea has barely returned to a situation where it can make a choice. In other words, South Korea is back to the point where it can choose after a long period of lost diplomatic leverage when it muddled between the US and China, telling each side only what they wanted to hear without any real strategy. The issue has not been resolved nor has South Korea succeeded in achieving something. Depending on its future choices, South Korea may succeed or fail.

Now is the real contest in which diplomacy is crucial. The course is correct to stitch up the THAAD issue with China and to pursue a practical two-track strategy regarding Japan. It is also a desirable time to diversify diplomacy with the New Northward policy and the New Southward policy. The strategy serves as an economic vision for mid- to long-term prosperity and an alternative multilateral regime that can overcome the confrontational structure and security dilemma in Northeast Asia.

But the biggest threat is still a complete break of inter-Korean relations stemming from the North Korean nuclear crisis. And as much as this, the unilateral framework of the US-South Korea relationship, where South Korea cannot exert any real power at all, is also an issue to be addressed. The three No’s between South Korea and China are a desirable position, but it would be hard for the US to accept such a position, because it represents South Korea practically drawing the limits of US Asia strategy.

There will also be a harsh backlash to the Trump administration’s focal strategy against China, a trilateral alliance between the US, South Korea, and Japan, and thorough strategic preparation is necessary.

Negotiations need to begin behind curtains. It is natural that even diplomatic matters should be explained and communicated to the public. In that regard, the Moon administration has dissolved the past government’s mismanagement and secret diplomacy and declared a so-called “People-participatory Diplomacy.” However, closed diplomacy might sometimes be necessary in the national interest, and it seems to be necessary now. The recent series of diplomatic movements have become too open to the public and room to maneuver has been narrowed by politicization.

A closed-door strategy is becoming more necessary as the influence of domestic politics on diplomacy is growing in almost all countries compared to the past. It would have been better if the three No’s between China and South Korea had been left unpublicized for a while. North Korea policy, including seeking dialogue, should happen behind curtains.

South Korea holds the fewest options 

The reason why the North Korean nuclear crisis is a difficult problem today is that while South Korea is the biggest victim, it holds the fewest options. In this situation, the attitude most likely to emerge is defeatism or vague hopelessness and desperation. These two extremes are prone to fall into the error of groupthink. At the joint press conference by Trump and Moon, a reporter asked Trump about whether he was “passing” South Korea. It was surely a dumbfounding question, but on the other hand, it shows the current situation and the perceptions of South Koreans. Trump’s answer that there is “no skipping” on South Korea does not dictate South Korea’s standing.

But South Koreans should ask themselves hard questions and try to take the initiative. Despite the geopolitical difficulties stemming from the nuclear crisis and the power struggle among the US, Japan, China, and Russia, South Korea does possess considerable power of its own and should make use of the fact that its strategic importance is as high as the problems it faces.

Joonhyung Kim received his undergraduate degree in political science from Yonsei University, and obtained his Master’s and Ph.D. in Political Science from The George Washington University. He is currently a professor of International and Area Studies at Handong Global University, and is serving in the Office of National Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Policy Planning and International Organizations Office, as well as a member of the innovation committee of the Ministry of Unification.  Reprinted with permission from the East Asia Foundation. Views expressed are those of the author.

 

Duterte as ASEAN Chair in 2017


November 20, 2017

Duterte as ASEAN Chair in 2017

by  Purple Romero

https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/rodrigo-duterte-as-asean-leader/

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President Rodrigo Duterte, who took over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a year ago, is responsible for a decision to mute controversy over ownership of the South China Sea that has drastically changed ASEAN’s role in the resolution of the longstanding territorial dispute between its claimant-states and China.

Duterte’s year-long leadership of the 10-member pact was hardly a watershed. Overall, the Philippines did put ASEAN towards a more productive path on some points by steering clear of the more contentious issues of addressing human rights issues or giving claimant states much-needed regional support in their territorial conflict with China.

“Given ASEAN’s constraints and limitations, its modus operandi and increasing workload of consultations and discussions, it is difficult to see what else it [the Philippines] could have done within the one-year chairmanship that could make ASEAN more progressive and more productive,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

 “It was enough for [the Philippines] to have been able to competently chair and host the meetings without potential serious controversies (particularly regarding the South China Sea and the Rohingya) paralyzing its processes.”

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On the issue of the South China Sea and China’s claim to virtually all of it via its so-called Nine-Dash Line, the events of the last year draw a clear contrast to previous actions. Two decades ago, the Philippines had to ask for the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over China’s reported military installations in Mischief reef, an atoll claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

ASEAN came to the rescue with a joint communique calling for a code of conduct in 1996, designed to set restrictions on the construction of buildings and military activity in the sea, which was being claimed by ASEAN members Malaysia and Brunei. Vietnam, another claimant, joined ASEAN later.

Fast forward to 2017. ASEAN, under Duterte’s chairmanship, and China has endorsed a framework for the code of conduct. It was Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi – and not ASEAN – which announced the adoption of the framework at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August.

Wang said both parties would discuss “the principles, and plan for the next stage of consultation of the COC” and build a “consensus.”

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ASEAN and China now have announced their commitment to negotiate, saying it “is important that we cooperate to maintain peace.” After 21 years since ASEAN first raised the need for a code of conduct, the negotiations will start next year.

It won’t ultimately show ASEAN’s unity. Ironically, even as it signals an important milestone in the history of resolving the maritime rows between China and clamant-states, it also cements the return to settling the territorial discord over South China Sea through bilateral talks – just the way China wants it.

Duterte’s pivot: Good to a point

As the height of irony, the first sign of the thawing of Manila’s cold relations with Beijing started when the Philippines won its dispute against the latter when an international court in The Hague struck down China’s nine-dash claim in July 2016, scoring a significant win for the Philippines which, devoid of military might, had to cast its lot in the international court of arbitration.

It was a historic win in a David-vs-Goliath scenario. But Duterte was quick to change the tone of the triumph, calling “on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety” instead of celebrating the stunning rebuke to China.

There are two major explanations behind Duterte’s lackluster reaction. US President Barack Obama chastised the Philippine leader for alleged human rights violations allegedly committed under Duterte’s violent and murderous war on drugs, sparking a furious response from Duterte, who responds to criticism of his actions with hair-raising rhetoric.

But in addition, Duterte has always maintained that the Philippines is no match for the military and economic superpower China and that as an Asian neighbor it is in the Philippines’ interest to make its own pivot.

That is a mantra that defined the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship. And, while it marked a shocking turnaround for the Philippines – which used to be counted on as one of the most aggressive and vocal ASEAN-member states in its opposition to China’s expansionism in South China Sea – it did help keep China at the negotiating table until a framework on the COC was finalized.

“The Duterte administration’s ‘softly’ approach on its disputes with China in South China Sea permitted the framework agreement to be realized,” said Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Prior to Duterte’s reign, his predecessor Benigno Aquino III explored different ways to strengthen the position of the ASEAN claimant-states. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs proposed a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Cooperation in the South China Sea in 2011 to enclave the Spratly and Paracel islands and turn them into a Joint Cooperation Area.

The proposal, however, did not gain much support from other ASEAN members. The following year, China and the Philippines would engage in a standoff in the Scarborough Shoal, pushing the Philippines to consider taking the legal route – and eventually winning – against China.

ASEAN, however, was divided over the Philippines’ victory in 2016.  While Vietnam lauded it, Cambodia – which considers China a major economic ally – objected to it being referenced in the joint communique at the 2016 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, resulting in the first time the organization failed to agree on a joint communique.

When the Philippines chaired ASEAN in 2017, it adopted Cambodia’s stance, negating the mention of Manila’s momentous victory in any forum involving ASEAN and China. The Philippines took that a step further by opposing the inclusion of any objection to China’s alleged militarization and land reclamation in South China Sea in the joint communique in August.

In the ASEAN Regional Forum in August 2017, Philippine foreign affairs Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano admitted that the Philippines wanted references to land reclamation and militarization in South China Sea dropped in the joint communique, forcing Vietnam into a corner. “They’re not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again this year?” he said.

In the end though, consensus prevailed and the chairman had to give in. The Philippines withdrew its opposition and the joint communique contained language showing concerns over China’s reported militarization and land reclamation activities.

But up until the 31st ASEAN Summit in November, even as the Philippines was caught in another standoff –   albeit briefly – with China in Thitu (Pag-asa) island, the Philippines was still generally cordial in its approach.

The most that Duterte did is to bring up with China the concerns of ASEAN about freedom of navigation in the strategic trade route, which China said it wouldn’t impede.

 “The warmer ties between Philippines and China, combined with the chairmanship of the Philippines, were instrumental in drawing down the prominence of the (South China Sea) SCS disputes on the ASEAN agenda, from being a divisive issue in 2013 into a practically peripheral matter in 2017,” Jay Bongalo, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said.

“This will allow ASEAN to essentially remove the controversial aspects of the SCS issues from its agenda, move on from playing any really significant role in the resolution of the territorial and jurisdictional rows, and allow the ASEAN claimant countries to deal with their respective issues bilaterally with China.”

Even if the Philippines was able to get the negotiations on the COC going, ASEAN as whole and at its best, will now largely focus on crisis management or prevention. When it comes to resolving territorial tiff, each country will now be left on its own – a crucial victory for Beijing.

 ASEAN’s expected “lowest point:” human rights

In the 31st ASEAN Summit, allegations by a long list of human rights organizations over violations and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines were brought up by the US (though this was denied by the Philippines), Canada and New Zealand, countries that are external partners of ASEAN, but not by ASEAN members themselves.

The Philippines, which decried any criticism over the issue from other countries, was also silent on another human rights concern, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Rohingya ethnic group had to flee the Rakhine state in Myanmar due to cases of persecution and discrimination.

This was a curious reaction as Duterte appeared sympathetic to the state of refugees from the Middle East, even saying that they are welcome to the Philippines. In the case of the Rohingya however, the Philippines drew the line when it did not mention the “Rohingya” in its statement at the UN General Assembly in New York in September. This was challenged by Malaysia, which slammed the statement as a “misrepresentation of reality.””

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Malaysia has yet to find an ally from ASEAN. At the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, Philippine Defense Sec. Delfina Lorenzana said that ASEAN agreed the Rohingya problem is an “internal matter” in Myanmar.

ASEAN’s hands-off attitude over the human rights problems in the Philippines and Myanmar were to be expected, however according to political analysts given the body’s principle of non-interference.

“ASEAN’s handling of the most prominent human rights issues such as the Rohingya crisis and the drug-related killings in the Philippines are definitely the lowest points in its performance,” Batongbacal said. “However, this is to be expected given ASEAN’s non-interference principle and reluctance to discuss human rights issues, as both directly involve the domestic policies of member-states.”

Malcolm agreed, saying ASEAN’s hands are further tied by its principle to act based on consensus. While saying that ASEAN’s response to the reported human rights violations in the Philippines and Myanmar were far from sufficient, one should not expect much from it.

“As ASEAN is an inter-governmental, consensus-based body, one should not expect much from ASEAN in relation to human rights abuses undertaken by member-states,” Malcolm said. “Quiet diplomacy and moral suasion is the best ASEAN will do in this front.”

There’s one bright spot, however when it comes to ASEAN’s action on rights – and that is the signing of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The agreement, which gives allows migrant workers to form unions apart from enjoying other rights, came 10 years after ASEAN member-states adopted the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in Cebu, Philippines.

United against extremism

ASEAN, while divided on a number of issues, was united when it comes to tackling terrorism, a problem faced by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Philippines in particular just ended a five-month siege in Marawi city, Mindanao which was caused by the ISIS-inspired Maute group.

ASEAN said it will take on additional preventive measures to stop the growth of terrorism in the region. These include education and enlisting the help of the women and youth sector to counter extremist leanings.

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When it comes to another threat to security, however – the nuclear ambition of North Korea – ASEAN, while one with the rest of the international community in condemning its launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles, did not go as far as asking its member-countries to cut ties with North Korea.

“Cambodia and Laos in particular have close relations with North Korea and this has not changed despite the focus on international pressure in North Korea,” Malcolm said.

In trademark ASEAN diplomacy, the regional bloc also kept its doors open to North Korea in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF has previously been touted by ASEAN as a venue for the six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan.

 Not paralyzed by controversy

Under the Philippine chairmanship, Malcom said ASEAN gained some headway when it comes to trade, signing the ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement (AHKFTA) and the ASEAN-Hong Kong Investment Agreement which could spur business opportunities in the region. The regional bloc has yet to gain significant progress though in the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Agreement, which aims to lower tariffs and strengthen regional economic integration and cooperation.

Batongbacal said that ASEAN also deserved some plus points for putting the spotlight on the role of micro, small and medium economic enterprises in economic growth.

The 2017 APEC Summit: A Game Changer for the Asia-Pacific?


November 16, 2017

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Number 405 | November 15, 2017

ANALYSIS

The 2017 APEC Summit: A Game Changer for the Asia-Pacific?

By Le Dinh Tinh

One of the most important diplomatic, political, and economic events for the Asia-Pacific region this year – the APEC Summit – was held in Da Nang, Viet Nam (November 6-11, 2017). Amid the fast changing geostrategic context and domestic situation in a number of countries, the APEC Leader’s week may have been a game changing moment for the Asia-Pacific region for a number of reasons.

First, APEC is the premier forum in the region to facilitate the realization of the development goals set forth by the United Nations. Home to around 2.8 billion people, approximately 59 percent of world GDP and 49 percent of world trade, APEC includes the world’s biggest economies, such as the US, China, Japan, ASEAN, and thus has the potential to make important economic contributions to the region – and the world. APEC could help to promote economic development in the region in many important ways. Even though the Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing region at a time when the world economy is witnessing positive growth, there are lurking risks such as inward-looking policies of many countries, aging populations, as well as traditional and emerging security challenges. With the focus on “creating new dynamism, fostering a shared future,” the 2017 APEC under the host of Viet Nam proposed four areas for cooperation: a) sustainable, innovative and inclusive growth; b) regional economic integration and connectivity; c) dynamism for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) – a key driver of the region’s growth; and d) food security and achieving sustainable agriculture. Topics of discussion also included improving work force skills to meet the new demand for the fourth industrial revolution, reducing income gaps and, and promoting inclusive and equitable development. The Danang Declaration – unanimously adopted at the Summit – reaffirmed all these and called them “long-standing commitments” by all member economies. Similarly, the dramatic revival of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement talks (now changed to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) after intensive negotiations in Danang has helped tighten an embrace of “high-stardard,” “balanced,” “free,” and “fair” game of trade for concerned stakeholders.

Second, the APEC Summit provides an opportunity for regional economies to make their priorities better known to each other, thus boosting trust and cooperation. Through high-level interaction, the US and China, whose relationship is a crucial factor shaping the region’s geopolitical landscape, identified measures to address new realities. On the one hand, US policy toward the Asia Pacific, despite a rough start, has gained clarity, especially on the security-defense side. Soon after his arrival in Danang, President Trump delivered a speech promoting the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, with significant implications both for the regional architecture and the US future ties with allies and partners. On the other, China has become more confident internationally owing to its rise in both capacity and determination. Many argue that China has eased and even dropped the long-time brake on its strategy of “tao guang yang hui” (hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time). An American scholar Michael Pillsbury has gone further by stating that China’s international strategy is already effective both at present and in the longer term. President Xi called globalization an “irreversible historical trend”, affirming China’s place as a leader in the trend. Japan, South Korea, and Australia – important members of APEC – have recently played more active roles in regional affairs. These new-found strategic contours give birth to a hope that following the meetings in Viet Nam, the United States, China, and other powers will be able to make necessary adjustments to their new postures for the larger interests of the region.

Third, at the APEC Summit, for the first time ASEAN leaders had a dialogue with APEC members’ heads of delegation. This is a testament to both ASEAN and APEC’s continued aspirations for a wider community of cooperation. APEC, like ASEAN, constitutes a significant building block for the region’s deeper integration and connectivity. ASEAN has endeavored to keep its centrality in the regional architecture, one with values shared by APEC, such as open regionalism and inclusiveness. The Association is however facing new challenges. ASEAN fears of a regional lack of unity are starting to become a reality. The principle of consensus that has helped ASEAN in the past now raises questions about the organization’s effectiveness. The last ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Manila, for example, showed that to a certain extent reaching unanimity on vital issues like the South China Sea has become harder. Against this backdrop, the 2017 APEC, with its agenda on practical cooperation and community-building, and its multilateralism, should be a naturally complementary process for ASEAN.

For all of these reasons the November 2017 APEC Summit came at a critical time and has the potential to make important contributions. Da Nang – a beautiful coastal city in central Vietnam – provided an ideal venue for dialogue between leaders from member economies. In early October, advance teams from 21 economies expressed their satisfaction with Vietnam’s preparatory work. This same positive feeling was also witnessed when the Summit’s most important moment – the Leaders’ Meeting Retreat – ended on November 11. US President Donald Trump’s attendance bodes well for regional cooperation, and adds clarity to US policy toward the region. Unlike many past US presidential trips to Asia, President Trump’s took place in the first year of his administration. Chinese President Xi Jinping also drew a lot of attention because the meeting took place not long after China’s 19th Party Congress. The region wanted to know Beijing’s major policy lines for the new term as could be seen in President Xi’s numerous sideline meetings, and Vietnam was the first foreign country President Xi visited. Russia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Australia (an APEC founding member) certainly took APEC seriously with their respective agreement on the host country’s proposed agenda. As for ASEAN, with the presence of Secretary General Le Luong Minh, it was able to seize the opportunity to cement its solidarity and the working principles that have brought about its successes in the last five decades.

The 2017 APEC Summit presents a key medium for regional stakeholders to tackle current problems and promote better understanding. APEC’s consensus-based approach, broad inclusiveness, and efficient platform for numerous multilateral and bilateral meetings make the venue important. Cooperative programs within the APEC framework may be either substantive or symbolic, but given all the present challenges and needs, both  are valuable for the region.

About the Author

Le Dinh Tinh, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. He can be contacted at tinhiir@gmail.com.

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