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Oct 28, 2010 | 18:35 GMT

7 mins read

Washington and the Evolution of the East Asia Summit

CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Before the end of the fifth East Asia Summit (EAS), Russia and the United States will be made full members of the group effective in 2011. The EAS was created as a counter to Western-dominated trade blocs, but China's increasing influence and assertiveness have led many of the group's members to seek ways to counterbalance Beijing's power. Meanwhile, the United States is seeking to re-engage with Southeast Asia and take part in all multilateral groupings. Although the EAS has thus far served as a talk shop, it is evolving and deserves to be watched carefully.
The fifth East Asia Summit (EAS), an annual meeting of state leaders from the East Asian region and adjoining countries, will take place in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi on Oct. 30. The countries represented at the EAS are China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This year, the United States and Russia will have observer status at the summit, and a statement to be issued by the end of the EAS will endorse their participation as official partners in the summit starting in 2011. U.S. and Russian full participation in 2011 will change the shape of the EAS, which was designed as an anti-Western bloc. This reflects the U.S. attempt to re-engage East Asia and participate in multilateral groupings. Furthermore, EAS members — including Japan, India and Australia — want to counterbalance China's influence in the group, and including the United States in the EAS would serve that purpose.

The Anti-Western Roots of the EAS

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad first promoted the idea of the EAS in 1991 as an "East Asia Economic Caucus," to serve as a pan-Asian economic grouping to counter Western-dominated trade blocs. Mahathir thought the bloc should include the 10 ASEAN member countries and ASEAN's three dialogue partners — China, Japan and South Korea — and should meet annually. Mahathir's vision was not realized until 2005; Japan withdrew due to the U.S. perception that the grouping was of little value and, at worst, was an attempt by Asian countries to undermine the U.S. role in Asian affairs. Washington felt that without U.S. participation, the group likely would become a China-centric bloc that could challenge U.S. involvement in the region and counter the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi brought up the EAS concept at the 2004 ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) meeting, and China quickly gave its support to the idea. China saw the group as a chance to increase its involvement and display its leadership in regional affairs, particularly amid declining U.S. involvement in the region. While many ASEAN countries saw the value of developing diplomatic and trade relations with Beijing, some were concerned that China could dominate the grouping and threaten ASEAN's role. To balance China's influence, the Southeast Asian states endorsed India, Australia and New Zealand (though the latter two are considered Western countries) as official members. This expanded membership received tacit support from the United States. China perceived the expanded membership as a threat to its influence and initially attempted to block India, Australia and New Zealand from joining the group. China proposed using the ASEAN+3 arrangement, where it has more influence, to avoid joining a coalition with the other three powers, which were either U.S. allies or interested in curbing China's predominant influence. However, China did welcome an application from Russia — which was invited as a special guest at the first EAS, in December 2005 — to join the bloc as a potential means to dilute the counterbalance. Even with India, Australia and New Zealand on board, without another major power for a counterbalance, the summit remains more China-centric, given that China has been the region's driving economic force while the EAS has existed. This has led to the fear that other EAS member states will find it difficult to block China's dominance and that Beijing will become the rule-setter. Meanwhile, China has become more assertive — not only on economic issues but also in other areas. The Southeast Asian states have seen a need to focus on balancing China's influence. At the same time, the United States has signaled its desire to re-engage with East Asia. Thus, the EAS has extended membership invitations to the United States and Russia, two of the world's largest powers, in hopes of counteracting China's growing assertiveness.

Washington's Renewed Interest in East Asia

As part of its geopolitical grand strategy, the United States is always on the watch for new coalitions taking shape that could undermine U.S. power. Southeast Asia, once one of Washington's high priorities, saw a significant decline in U.S. interest after the Cold War. Furthermore, the U.S. focus on fighting terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, has led the United States to focus only on some Southeast Asian states and solely on counterterrorism, rather than engaging with the entire region on a broad spectrum of issues. Though bilateral relations have continued, Washington only recently has sought to revitalize its relationship with Southeast Asia comprehensively. This period of neglect, coupled with China's rapid economic rise, has led to Beijing's influence in the region growing significantly. Under the Obama administration, the United States has revived its interest in Southeast Asia, partly to reassert itself in the region and partly to counterbalance China. Furthermore, as a percent of global trade and economic activity, the Asia-Pacific system is now bigger than the Atlantic system, so it is natural for the world's largest economy to want a strong role in the region. Washington has taken a comprehensive approach — not only working with Southeast Asian countries bilaterally, such as the resumption of military cooperation with Indonesian special force Kopassus, frequent military exchanges with Vietnam and re-engagement with the military-ruled Myanmar, but also in engaging the region's multilateral institutions. The U.S. plan for re-engaging with Southeast Asia includes the signing of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in July 2009, which laid the groundwork for U.S. participation in the EAS (signing the treaty is one of the essential steps in participating in the EAS). It also proposed the first U.S-ASEAN Summit in Singapore in 2009 and held the second summit in New York. The U.S. campaign to participate in EAS fits into its broader Southeast Asian policy. The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S. participation in EAS are means for Washington to ensure it has a hand in shaping future economic blocs in Southeast Asia. ASEAN members welcome the renewed U.S. presence in the region, as it could add leverage to these countries' interests on some contentious regional issues involving China. However, ASEAN could be well aware of the U.S. intention to use ASEAN-related meetings and the EAS to serve its own interests, particularly since the presence of the United States and several of its allies could force other attendees to choose sides between the United States and China. ASEAN also did not want to introduce one Cold War rival into the EAS while excluding the other, as Russia has expressed interest in participation. Russia's presence is supported by states like Malaysia and China, and its interest in participation is driven by Moscow's re-energized Far East and Pacific policy. Russia's participation could prevent the EAS from becoming a bipolar environment where countries have to choose between the United States and China on contentious issues.

A Bloc to Watch

The past four summits have led to few notable achievements; the bloc remained mostly a talk shop. Unlike ASEAN and related meetings, the EAS has not been a platform for regional free trade deals aimed at expanding trade and investment, despite its original purpose. It also was not used to initiate a regional currency swap program and emergency liquidity fund, and it has not led to major cooperative exchanges in security, commerce, law, health and tourism issues. Nevertheless, as the EAS bloc evolves, it could take new forms. The U.S. effort to participate in the EAS suggests that the bloc could serve Washington's broader geopolitical interests in the region. As a full participant, the United States will send representatives to the meeting regularly, which will help demonstrate U.S. involvement in the region and enhance ties with ASEAN countries while checking Chinese influence. Insufficient dialogue in ASEAN-related meetings will create opportunities for the EAS to play a larger role in regional affairs. Thus, the ongoing development of the EAS is to be watched closely.

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