Questions about ASEAN and the East Asian Summit

Amitav Acharya, Washington,DC

 

As the 9th East Asian Summit concludes, it is time to wonder where the forum and its principal sponsor, ASEAN are heading. I think the role of the two should be judged in terms of the following issues.

To begin with, there remain questions about ASEAN’s role. To some observers in Washington, Myanmar has done well, or may even have exceeded expectations as chair of ASEAN. But were these expectations too low to start with? Myanmar’s approach has been to accommodate all positions with ASEAN. It has used media creatively to promote knowledge of ASEAN and its reforms.

In the meantime, ASEAN centrality in EAS endures because only ASEAN has the “convening power” in Asia.  ASEAN can be counted for not taking sides. There is really no other country which can replace ASEAN’s role in this sense. But sceptics feel that the principle of ASEAN centrality exists only in theory, not in practice. Territorial disputes like the South China Sea conflict can weaken ASEAN, especially if China pursues a divide and rule strategy. A major progress in concluding a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea is unlikely this year, with Myanmar playing a balancing role between US, China and ASEAN.

The EAS key to emerging regional architecture. But there remain differences among its members. The US would like to use EAS to discuss strategic matters and keep economics out. Japan is not happy with this. There is also the question of a division of labor between the EAS and the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is also geared to strategic issues.

The US wants the EAS to discuss real issues, like the South China Sea conflict. It also encourages more discussion of global issues in ASEAN and EAS, like ISIS, Ebola, and climate change. ASEAN and EAS might pay more emphasis on food security, climate change, health and pandemics. But will it crowd ASEAN/EAS agenda??

The EAS should stay ‘nimble’ as ASEAN had originally wanted, i.e., a leaders’ meeting without a huge bureaucracy. But there is a need for it to develop more coordination among the members between the annual summits and to equip it with a mechanism to convene meetings of ministers or officials when there is a need, such as a crisis.

Another issue here is the role of the US rebalancing strategy. US officials insist that the rebalancing is going well. The US has increased its engagement with ASEAN, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus( ADMM Plus), and the ARF. The ADMM plus has been active, holding three exercises last year: including ones on humanitarian assistance/military medicine, counter-terrorism, an maritime security.

But skepticism over the US rebalancing strategy persists. Moreover, while multilaterals like the EAS and ADMM Plus help to institutionalize the US presence in Asia, they are not ends in themselves, but linked to America’s bilateral and trilateral security ties. There is little doubt that the US policy towards Asia will not be focused on institutions  alone, but will depend on calibrating the role of institutions and its bilateral relationships. The nature of that mix is not yet clear. At the same time, China’s push for a Free Trade Area of Asia and Pacific competes with America’s preferred Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) the conclusion of which has yet again been delayed. And the US has been lobbying allies like Korea and Australia to stay out of the Chinese initiative for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Is the US-China rivalry playing out through institutional competition?

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