America is being left behind in Asia

Author: Evan A. Feigenbaum, CFR

So the US is going to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) … and you can hear the cheers all the way to Hanoi.

But why exactly are they cheering? Here are a few of the arguments:

(1) The US has been ‘missing in action’ in Asian institution-building; so joining EAS ‘puts the US firmly into the picture.’

(2) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the convener of EAS; so joining EAS ‘signals US support for ASEAN.’

(3) US membership can help counterbalance pan-Asian groups that exclude Washington, such as ASEAN Plus Three.

(4) US membership in EAS ‘could help bring Presidential attention to individual Southeast Asian countries that are downplayed in US policy.’ It would enable President Obama to ‘become the first serving President of the United States to visit Cambodia.’ And in 2013 we would have ‘the first-ever visit of a US President to Laos.’

Seriously, the US should join EAS to assure a presidential visit to Laos?

Actually, I’m not that surprised the US is joining EAS; American officials have been signaling as much for a year. But does joining EAS do anything at all to remedy the most important challenges to American interests in Asia?

I’ve argued repeatedly over the last year (for example, here, here, here, and here)

that America’s problem in Asia is not that the US is absent from every regional institution. Rather, America’s problem in Asia is that the institutions that are most meaningful to US interests are precisely those that have defined the United States out. Put differently: joining EAS gets the US into yet another room. But the rooms Washington is not in, is not being invited to enter, and will probably never be invited to enter are the ones that actually matter. At the end of the day, EAS simply may not matter much at all.

The fact is, most pan-Asian institutions will move forward regardless of American views and preferences. So the groups that merit vigilance from Washington are those that pursue functional agendas detrimental to American economic or security interests, such as preferential trade agreements. Some pan-Asian formations are inevitable. And so, while joining a group like EAS allows the US to barrel its way into yet another room, it does little to solve America’s central problem in Asia—namely, that Asians (including some of Washington’s closest allies) are groping for their own solutions to regional problems, especially economic and financial challenges.

The US continues to have a very static view of a region that is changing rapidly. Linked by a growing web of economic and financial connections, a diverse Asia is searching for a common identity—and for ways to turn economic success into greater global clout. And Asians are increasingly doing this on a pan-Asian basis, without the United States.

It is widely—if nearly always privately—acknowledged by diplomats and intellectuals in the region that the proliferation of Asian fora has done little to address functional problems. Some of my closest friends, even in Southeast Asia, readily admit that these fora are long on rhetoric and long overdue for a stock-taking:

What works, and what doesn’t?

How could multilateral efforts be more effective?

Would Asia really be less secure if the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) did not exist?

Who does Asia call when there is a tsunami or a cyclone in Burma?

What is needed isn’t a headlong American rush into groups like EAS, but a hard-headed assessment of what tables Washington actually needs to sit at, and when and where it can afford to just step aside.

The dominant trend in the region is that Asians are making pan-Asian groups, not trans-Pacific ones, their defining regional institutions. And the United States still isn’t adjusting to these.  It remains too focused on getting into whatever rooms it can, and merely for the sake of it.

The challenge I see for the US is how to redefine the American role—how to link trans-Pacific groupings, such as APEC and ARF, to the pan-Asian groups. Several key US partners (not least Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea) badly want the US involved. They know the current architecture is flawed, and either have ideas for how to fix it or are open to such ideas.

What to do?

Ulitmately, the problem of Asian architecture is a functional one: too much redundancy, and too much architecture that does nothing much at all. The problem for the United States, then, is that the groups that do actually do something, usually on economic and financial issues (not least trade, investment, and standards) are pan-Asian clubs.

Skillful American diplomacy would use the US entry into EAS as leverage, seeking to redefine the group as more than just another leaders’ group-grope of little material consequence. Ultimately, joining EAS does nothing to resolve the fundamental challenge to US interests.

To the contrary, it is ASEAN Plus Three, not EAS, that is already the most functional body at the core of a new pan-Asian regionalism. And ASEAN Plus Three is likely to focus on an economic agenda that challenges traditional American approaches and ultimately disadvantages US firms and manufacturers.

For example, if Japanese and Korean firms enjoy tariff-free treatment of the manufactures they sell in China while US firms face the current average most-favored nation rate of 9 per cent, American firms will lose substantial sales in an import market worth well over one trillion dollars. The same will be true if Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo use their ‘Plus Three’ dialogue to agree on telecommunications or other standards for emerging technologies that create impediments for US firms in a very large Asian market. US firms will lose substantial sales in Korea and Japan too, as ASEAN Plus Three moves toward further tariff reduction and becomes the locus of Asian trade liberalisation.

Since the US has been defined out of ASEAN Plus Three, a more vigorous trade policy would do far more for American interests than will pounding down the door of yet another large, unwieldy, mostly purposeless group. Not every architectural problem requires an architectural solution.

Let’s at least hope the US parlays its membership in EAS into an attempt to rationalise pan-Asian and trans-Pacific groupings. That would be useful.

Evan A. Feigenbaum is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article was first published here by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog.