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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 13, 2005
Why the East Asian summit matters
By Barry Desker

The first East Asian summit of regional leaders in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday is a historic event whose future impact is likely to be as significant as the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held in Bali in February 1976.

The first Bali summit led to the emergence of a cohesive ASEAN 5 (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) in the aftermath of the emergence of communist regimes in Indo-China.

Today, the presence in Kuala Lumpur of a rising China and

resurgent India and the absence of the United States, which has played the role of an Asia-Pacific hegemon since the end of the World War II, suggest we are on the cusp of a new era.

The inaugural East Asian summit (EAS) comes on the heals of ASEAN's 11th summit on Monday, also in Kuala Lumpur. It occurs as East Asia demonstrates a new vitality following its recovery from the trauma of the Asian financial meltdown and subsequent economic crisis in 1997-98 while the US is distracted by its commitment in Iraq.

EAS inclusiveness
Wednesday's meeting is significant because it goes beyond narrow geographical definitions or ethnic/racial identity in attempting to lay the groundwork for a new regional institution.

The EAS summit is preceded by the annual ASEAN gathering, separate meetings of the ASEAN leaders with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea, and the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) meeting involving the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries, China, Japan and South Korea.

The inclusion of India, Australia and New Zealand and the presence of Vladimir Putin of Russia demonstrate an outward-looking, inclusive approach to participation in the emerging East Asian regionalism.

This broader inclusive identity is likely to subsume the earlier focus on an East Asia comprising the ASEAN 10 plus China, Japan and South Korea. Its emergence is somewhat accidental. In Vientiane, Laos last year, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia offered to host an East Asian Summit involving the ASEAN Ten Plus Three.

Premier Wen Jiabao of China offered to host the second summit. The center of gravity would move away from Southeast to Northeast Asia, an unwelcome development from an ASEAN perspective. This led to a desire to include other states that had substantial interactions with the region.

The participation of India, Australia and New Zealand was seen as ensuring that ASEAN remained at the center of any emerging East Asian community. India was also perceived as a balance to China. Indonesia, for example, sought to avoid aligning with China while retaining friendly ties to other powers such as the US, a classic "hedging" strategy.

Growing Sino-Japanese antagonism
Growing antagonism between China and Japan will make Southeast Asians wary of being enmeshed in a new regional cold war.

China continues to remind the region of Japanese expansionism during World War II by pointing to the lack of Japanese remorse, as evidenced by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni shrine - which includes the remains of Class A war criminals - as well Japan's downplaying of atrocities during the war.

Chinese criticism has evoked a strong reaction in Japan. Most worrying is the ultra-nationalistic response of young Japanese and Chinese. We are reminded of these trends by the heightened rhetoric between Chinese and Japanese decision-makers at closed door international and regional conferences, even as substantive economic links between China and Japan increase rapidly.

While ASEAN members have had four decades of institutional experience in regional reconciliation, Northeast Asians have focused on bilateral ties and multilateral forums with a specific agenda, such as the six party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

The EAS provides an opportunity for informal confidence-building and discussions on broad strategic issues that concern the region. But this will take time to develop. China's decision not to proceed with a separate summit of China, Japan and South Korea in Kuala Lumpur suggests that the ASEAN approach of using such opportunities to maintain informal contact even in the midst of bilateral differences has not yet percolated to Northeast Asians.

Nevertheless, the issue of Japanese lack of atonement for World War II is one that resonates around the region, especially in South Korea, and could lead to Japan's isolation.

The US: Regaining the initiative
For the US, the EAS represents a diplomatic challenge. Although the US is a leading trading partner of all EAS participants and has security relationships with significant players, including Japan, the US is not able to participate in the summit, as it is unwilling to accede to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation "to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and cooperation among their [ASEAN] peoples which would contribute to their strength, solidarity and closer relationship".

Given current White House priorities, it is also unlikely that the US president could be persuaded to make an annual trans-Pacific visit barely a month after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting.

The US alliance system, APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) , are therefore currently the key institutions for the management of US relations with the region. But a reassessment of US participation in the EAS is warranted as the EAS will form part of a network of regional institutions.

The American concern with the marginalization of Taiwan has led the US to downplay the significance of China's initiative to organize a meeting in 2004 of APEC foreign ministers in Santiago, Chile. However, given East Asia's emerging cooperative security architecture, it would be in the American interest to support a larger political and security role for APEC.

Such a revitalized APEC need not be competitive with the EAS or APT but would be complementary. The overlapping membership of these institutions includes a core that brings together key hubs in the Asia-Pacific.

While there already are APEC directors responsible for non-traditional security issues such as counter-terrorism and infectious diseases, APEC should consider appointing program directors to handle trade-related political, social and security issues such as supply chain security, maritime security, energy and the environment. A broader agenda for APEC would be fitting as APEC is the only Asia-Pacific institution that meets at the heads of government level.

US analysts such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago fret about the risk of confrontation with a rising China and the desirability of developing relationships with states on the periphery of China that could balance China such as Japan, India and Vietnam. I would argue that it is probably more important today to develop trans-Pacific institutions, which could enmesh China in a web of cooperative relationships in the region. In this context, the decision to engage North Korea through the six party talks is positive as US leverage on North Korea is much lower than that of traditional allies such as China and Russia.

Similarly, greater attention should be given to the ARF process. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to skip this year's ARF meeting was a mistake. Although the risks of conflict are greater in East Asia, US policy remains more focused on Europe.

ASEAN: Bandwagon or balancing?
During the Cold War, ASEAN was clearly identified with the West although nominally non-aligned. Today, as sophisticated Chinese diplomacy leads to the establishment of multiple regional organizations, ASEAN is developing closer linkages with China. These relationships are perceived as a balance against US unilateralism. Some of the newer members of ASEAN such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have benefited from Chinese largesse and are supportive of Chinese concerns within ASEAN. Older members such as Malaysia and Thailand are beginning to bandwagon with China.

For ASEAN states that prefer a regional balance of power, a regional security architecture that is outward-looking and promotes the observance of international norms and codes of conduct is preferable to one dominated by a single power. An active US presence enables this vision of the region's future to be sustained. In future years, the US should therefore participate in the EAS as it is likely to emerge as the key institution for East Asian community-building.

Barry Desker is currently the Director of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Singapore. His past portfolios include being chief executive officer of the Singapore Trade Development Board, Singapore's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, and Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia.

(This article is based on a paper delivered at a conference on the "Regional Security Architecture in Asia" held in Washington, DC on December 14.)

(Copyright 2005 Barry Desker)

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