Will the US commit long term to the East Asia Summit?

Author: Anita Prakash, ERIA

The sixth East Asia Summit (EAS) and 19th ASEAN Summit were held from 17–19 November 2011.

The EAS in particular helped renew regional channels of cooperation, a development marked by the entry of the US and Russia into the summit. While Dmitry Medvedev did not attend the 2011 summit, the US’ participation was extremely valuable to existing regional cooperation among the EAS countries. Washington must nevertheless ascertain what level of commitment other member countries expect from it — and also what it can gain from a renewed partnership with the region.

The US has numerous close allies in the Asia Pacific region, and shares good relations with many others. Despite these traditional relations, the US’ decision to become a member of the EAS was big news. This was the first time the US had joined a multilateral platform that consists of countries which are uniquely ‘East Asian’. And though the US remains a member of APEC, some ASEAN countries are not members of this organisation, meaning the US’ presence in Honolulu had little bearing on a few ASEAN countries.

Before the sixth EAS, the summit was largely driven by ASEAN. The overall mood of the EAS was one of regional cooperation, with an overwhelmingly economics-focused agenda — even if there were underlying frictions over the mode and membership of this cooperation. And while the EAS provided a forum for ‘broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity [in East Asia]’, it was only during the last EAS that the issue of maintaining peace and enhancing security cooperation in the region was given real attention.

The adoption of the ‘Bali Principles’ at this summit also helped ensure the equal status of all member countries in all matters of strategic importance and spelt out the overarching importance of relevant international laws, especially those related to maritime matters. This was a positive move for countries previously concerned by a perceived flux between the ideal of ASEAN centrality and the reality of China’s weight in the forum. But while the US’ influence cannot be underestimated in this new development, it must be recognised that most ASEAN member countries were more than ready to welcome the US and Russia, as they realised that no amount of emphasising ASEAN centrality could make a dent in China’s growing influence — both inside and outside the summit.

The 19th ASEAN Summit saw many leaders requesting the EAS to focus on strategic and maritime cooperation in the region. Clearly, this appeal was aimed at the US’ attendance, and the EAS Chair’s Statement also shows that the participation of the US led members to agree on the ‘supremacy of principles and norms of international law’. The emphasis on equal roles for all members and the supremacy of international law has been the single most important achievement of the sixth EAS, and it would not have been possible without the anchorage and support provided by the US. Bali equally saw EAS members committing to positive multilateralism in the region, and the US can help ensure the sustainability of this multilateralism by preventing the balance of power from tilting to any one side.

But the success of Bali raises an important question: is the US willing to make this a long-term commitment? Washington will have to answer this question with unambiguous and concerted action. Its participation at the leadership level is an absolute must; attendance at the 2012 summit and its related meetings in Cambodia will perhaps provide the first test. Despite being an election year in the US, it is imperative that the US leadership attend the summit. At the very least, the US will have to bear in mind the ASEAN culture, whereby high-level representation at the summit is both desired and expected of all countries, including the US.

In terms of potential contributions, the lack of institutional support is one significant shortcoming in the EAS which may be of immediate interest to the US. So far, ASEAN members determine the EAS agenda and the admission of new members. The ASEAN Secretariat also provides support to the summit, but is otherwise beset by ASEAN’s day-to-day business, and is currently gearing up preparations for the ASEAN Economic Community. Non-ASEAN members argue that they should be able to set and contribute to the EAS agenda, and the summit’s expected outcomes have not received adequate monitoring in the past few years. The US may consider strengthening the EAS’ institutional support by establishing a lean and effective EAS Secretariat, which monitors the summit’s outcomes throughout the year.

The US’ presence in the EAS could well be a positive for both the US and other member countries. As the gravity of the world economy shifts toward East Asia, it would be worthwhile for the US to remain engaged with this region. The US will also bring with itself the equilibrium needed in the region. In this way, the newly reinvigorated EAS may turn out to be a win-win for all members and an important contributor to regional cooperation in its own right.

Anita Prakash is Director of Policy Relations at the Economic Research Institute for AESAN and East Asia.

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