Will the United States join the East Asian Summit?

Author: Parameswaran Prashanth, 2049 Institute

Washington’s future policy options regarding Asian regionalism are worth exploring, particularly given US President Barack Obama’s series of planned visits to Asia this year.

The alphabet soup of the so-called ‘regional architecture’ includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), to name just a few. The main question for the US is whether to join the East Asian Summit, a five-year-old body comprising the 10 countries of Southeast Asia as well as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The impetus for joining is clear. Legally, the US meets all the membership criteria, having finally acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) last year. Participating in Asian summitry demonstrates Washington’s commitment to multilateralism, a symbolic yet significant metric in a region where process is equally, if not more, as important as outcomes. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when speaking on regional architecture earlier this year,  ‘half of diplomacy is showing up.’

The US could energise the grouping or influence regionalism more generally. For instance, Washington could provide leadership in ensuring that the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia within the EAS is compatible with the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific within APEC, thereby averting potential overlap or conflict.

Yet there are also compelling arguments against joining the EAS. The other half of diplomacy, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell politely put it, is about ‘delivering results’ and focusing ‘increasingly on action,’ or ‘developing the capacity for problem-solving.’

On this basis, the EAS, which has been referred to by some leaders and experts as a ‘brainstorming session’ or ‘a dinner followed by 16 speeches,’ looks more like a discussion forum compared to the APT. In the latter grouping, Southeast Asian nations along with Japan, China and South Korea have achieved more concrete results, including establishing a joint fund, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation Agreement, to guard against future financial crises.

Some countries have acknowledged that the EAS ‘could make a significant contribution to . . . establishing an East Asian Community,’ and it is clear that there is room for growth. But Washington may not want to sign off on a grouping that has yet to demonstrate its capacity for producing results.

Showing up is also easier said than done.

Take Obama’s schedule for the rest of 2010. He already has two planned trips to Asia, and a third that he recently cancelled:  there is a series of ASEAN leaders’ meetings in Hanoi in late-October (including the Fifth EAS and the Second US – ASEAN Summit), and visits to South Korea and Japan in November for the Fifth G-20 Summit and the 18th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. There was the planned June trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia, which has now been postponed four times—most recently due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Yet there is deep skepticism over whether the president’s political advisers will prioritise the EAS summit over domestic campaigning come October, just weeks before critical mid-term elections that his party could lose.

While the Obama administration could push for the US-ASEAN Summit to be held in Honolulu or for it to be postponed so it coincides with his November visit, rescheduling the EAS is much harder to do, since it also requires agreement by six other non-Southeast Asian members, including China. There are ongoing discussions about this, but the outcome remains unclear. Furthermore, beyond 2010, in order for the US to attend regularly as a member in the future, EAS nations would likely have to time meetings with the APEC or G-20 summits, and perhaps even hold them outside of Southeast Asia.

Alternatively, as Stanford University’s Donald K. Emmerson has suggested, the US could ’ease into’ the EAS by first sending the Vice President or Secretary of State to Vietnam, the summit’s 2010 host. That would show US support for regionalism while also affording it the opportunity to evaluate the grouping’s productivity before deciding to join. When Assistant Secretary Campbell spoke at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington last year, he said that Washington would ‘hang back a little bit’ and see how both existing institutions and proposed initiatives, like Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific community and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s East Asia Community, evolve before stating its own preferences.

As US policymakers mull these options, it is worth noting that the decision about whether to join the EAS is not exclusively American. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan hinted earlier this year, in a speech at the Asia Society that Washington had to adapt to existing arrangements because ‘the landscape has changed’ in the region. ASEAN leaders are also weighing other options beyond just expanding the EAS to include the US. These include a separate ASEAN+8 grouping, of all current EAS members plus the US and Russia, that would meet every few years. ASEAN+8, some have argued, would take into account the US president’s scheduling problems by convening only every few years, as opposed to the annual EAS summits, and back-to-back with the APEC Leaders’ Meeting when it is hosted in the region.

In Tokyo last year, Obama insisted that the United States ‘expects to participate fully in appropriate organisations as they are established and evolve.’ But his administration must first consult with Asian nations and determine how much it wants to actually commit to multilateralism in Asia, including the EAS.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that covers Asian security issues. He blogs regularly about Asian affairs at the Asianist.