ASEAN and American engagement in East Asia

Author: Donald Emmerson, Stanford University

Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson entitled his 1969 memoir Present at the Creation — the creation of a global order from the rubble of World War II. Joining or ignoring the East Asia Summit (EAS), some might say, is a comparably weighty choice — between being present or absent at the creation of an East Asian regional order in the wake of the Cold War.

The choice is conditioned by time and space. The East Asia Summit has been meeting without the United States since 2005. The Obama administration, unable to travel back in time to the Summit’s creation, can only be present or absent at its maturation.

Nor can the US play an insider’s part, the role of a local, in the growth of an East Asian regional order. Barring hilariously implausible continental drift, the US will never be an Asian country in geophysical terms. Washington can speed (or impede) East Asian integration, but only from a distance, never as a denizen.

That said, the political meaning of East Asia has already been blurred. In 1995 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed scoffed at the inclusion of ‘white’ Australia and New Zealand in the ‘East Asian hemisphere’ proposed by Australian Foreign minister Gareth Evans. But Evans had the last laugh a decade later when, alongside China, Japan, and South Korea, Australia was seated at the First East Asia Summit — convened, ironically, in Malaysia’s own capital, Kuala Lumpur. India and New Zealand were also present at the creation of the EAS, despite their respectively South Asian and Australasian locations.

Notwithstanding these six additions, the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) formed and still form the core of the summit. ASEAN invented the EAS, sets its agenda, and requires it to meet annually inside Southeast Asia in conjunction with ASEAN’s own summit. All of the criteria for joining the EAS were determined by and linked to the association: A country cannot join the EAS unless it has first acceded to the ‘ASEAN treaty of Amity and cooperation in Southeast Asia,’ been formally recognised by ASEAN as a ‘dialogue partner,’ and established a record of substantial cooperative relations with ASEAN.

The US meets these criteria, but doing so does not guarantee admission. In a further illustration of ASEAN’s centrality, it is the association’s ten governments — not the summit’s six non-Southeast Asian members — who must unanimously agree to accept or reject a request to join the EAS.

No Southeast Asian government has said publicly that it would oppose, and several have informally encouraged, an American application. China may not welcome US membership. But an open campaign by Beijing to keep the Americans out would risk offending those ASEAN members who want the US inside the EAS and confirming Southeast Asian fears of china’s hegemonic intentions. Besides, the profile and activities of the EAS pale by comparison with those of another forum, ASEAN + 3, which already includes China (along with Japan and South Korea) and fosters cooperation within a conventionally East Asian frame.

There is no evidence that the US either wants or would be allowed to join ASEAN + 3 and make it ASEAN + 4. That framework does not include a few plausibly ‘East Asian’ entities such as Mongolia, North Korea, and Taiwan. But its thirteen members all fit the consensus definition of East Asia as a composite of Southeast and Northeast Asia. No other regional arrangement is more patently East Asian in character.

Ironically, the EAS lays claim to ‘East Asia’ in its very name, whereas ‘Plus Three’ in the ASEAN framework could in theory refer to Ghana, Chile, and Iceland, or any trio of states. Nevertheless, of the two frameworks, it is ASEAN + 3 that has a far better chance of evolving into a delimited ‘East Asian community‘ as opposed to an amorphously ‘Asia-Pacific’ one.

If China wants to lead East Asia, it does not need the East Asia Summit as a vehicle for doing so. This could be one reason why Beijing is unlikely to campaign openly against US membership of the EAS. Whereas china is in both the EAS and ASEAN + 3, India and Australia belong only to the EAS. Because of this difference, New Delhi and Canberra are more likely than Beijing to view the EAS as a prototypical Asian community. The position of Japan is less clear. Like China, it is a full participant in both frameworks but, unlike China, it is an intimate security partner of the United States.

The new Hatoyama government in Tokyo is unlikely to endanger that trans-Pacific assurance. yet Tokyo would think twice before championing US membership in the EAS if doing so were construed in Asia as merely a ploy to help Washington encircle ASEAN + 3 and thereby prevent it from monopolising East Asian regionalism on behalf of Beijing.

If Washington is waiting for an invitation to join the EAS, so is Moscow, and their prospects may be linked. Russia attended the inaugural EAS in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, but only as a guest invited by the Malaysian host, and has been trying to become a member of the summit ever since. If and when ASEAN does take up the suitability of American affiliation, voices may well be raised on behalf of letting Russia in as well. Among several possible motives for linking the two accessions is the notion that by making the EAS even more diverse, it will become even less effective, and thus leave unchallenged the claim of ASEAN + 3 to represent East Asia.

As long as these uncertainties remain unresolved, the political shape of East Asia will remain, for better or worse, unfinished business.

Donald Emmerson is Director of the Southeast Asia Forum at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.


A longer version of this article can be found here.