The East Asia Summit: Looking for an Identity

The second annual East Asia Summit (EAS) concluded on January 15, 2007. Leaders of the 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — and six dialogue partners, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, and New Zealand, gathered in the Philippines to discuss matters of concern to the region.

The EAS held its first meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005, though the idea was first proposed by Malaysian leaders and some academics more than fifteen years ago. The initial meeting’s Kuala Lumpur Declaration defines the EAS as an “open forum” for dialogue on strategic, political, and economic issues in order to promote peace, economic prosperity, and regional integration in East Asia. It was planned that the EAS would meet each year at the time of the annual ASEAN summit.[1]

At the second meeting of the EAS, last month, discussion focused on energy issues and the main tangible product was a Declaration on East Asian Energy Security, which recognizes that the supply of fossil fuels is limited, identifies a continuing decline in environmental quality and public health, and posits that the development of alternative sources of energy is vital for sustained economic growth. The Declaration calls for strengthened regional cooperation on energy security to ensure a stable and affordable energy supply into the future. Specifically, signatory nations should improve energy efficiency and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Development of renewable energy sources and biofuel production is recommended, as is the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. The Declaration also proposes the creation of an ASEAN power grid and a trans-ASEAN natural gas pipeline.[2]

Judging by this focused and well-considered (though non-binding) outcome, the concept of the East Asia Summit does not seem to have lost momentum since its inaugural meeting. It therefore has some potential to fulfill a need in East Asian international relations: a sustainable multilateral body which builds community in the broad sense and produces real results.

Will the EAS be able to build on its momentum and carve out a unique and productive role for itself among a host of other multilateral fora in Asia? A brief examination of the other established multilateral bodies can help predict whether the EAS will thrive or whether it will fade.

APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) is the oldest such forum and is generally recognized as the highest-level multilateral process in Asia-Pacific. It is basically and fundamentally an economic dialogue body. Although in recent years APEC has spent more time talking about security issues such as counter-terrorism, its potential for becoming a workable economic, political, or security mechanism which can create tangible results is slight. In addition, as with the EAS, statements and declarations that come out of APEC are not binding. This perhaps increases the members’ willingness to be active in the process, but decreases the real importance of any outcomes.

Another major obstacle to APEC’s development into a genuinely effective organization is its range of membership. With a membership that includes countries such as Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and the European Union, it is difficult if not impossible for APEC to concentrate on issues that are specific to East Asia. APEC is more likely to continue to be an Asia-Pacific institution, emphasizing economic and political cooperation across the Pacific Ocean, including between Asia and the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia. It is better characterized as a “trans-Pacific,” rather than “inter-Asian,” process.

The ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) is an official security forum that has the potential to become a more results-oriented multilateral institution for regional security cooperation in East Asia and the whole of Asia. Such development will take some time because neither ASEAN nor China, not to mention other interested countries, is ready to make ARF a workable organization to manage or resolve regional security issues. Both China and the ASEAN nations are at this point comfortable with discussion on political and security issues, but would not be comfortable with an arrangement that leads to binding commitments on such issues.

ACD (Asia Cooperation Dialogue) is another vehicle for Asian regional cooperation. Proposed by the Thai government in 2001, the first ACD foreign ministers’ meeting took place in June 2002 in Thailand. Seventeen Asian countries — the ASEAN members (except Myanmar), China, Japan, the ROK, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, and Qatar — participated in the meeting, establishing economic cooperation as the priority. At the second meeting in Thailand in June 2003, it was decided to add an annual foreign ministers’ meeting beginning in 2004. Because of its pan-Asian character, it is hard for the ACD process to produce meaningful regional economic and security cooperation, because West Asia and other parts of Asia are too far away from each other, and their problems are so different. The members share little common ground from which to push for meaningful cooperation.

APT (ASEAN Plus Three) is more precisely focused on “East Asia”; the Three are China, Japan, and Korea. Among the multilateral activities, approaches, processes, organizations or institutions in East Asia, APT is the only one which is truly an East Asian body. It is not sub-regional or cross-regional, and does not include any non-Asian countries. APT thus far has served as a multilateral approach for economic cooperation, and its future direction is not very clear. Its membership and areas of cooperation seem to be open. It has the possibility to become a comprehensive regional mechanism covering multilateral cooperation in both economic and political/security matters in East Asia and even the whole of Asia, in the future. It is therefore more comprehensive than the ARF.

APT has become a major channel of East Asian cooperation because it has made more specific, concrete, and practical progress in regional cooperation than any of the other multilateral approaches. The most significant achievement is the building of free trade agreements (FTAs) within the APT framework, most notably the ASEAN-China FTA and several bilateral agreements. Unlike declarations by the EAS, APEC, the ARF, or ACD, these FTAs are in fact binding and obligate their members to uphold certain norms.

In addition to fostering real economic cooperation, eventually APT may also play a large role in non-traditional security issues. APT members have common interests and positions in dealing with transnational security issues such counter-terrorism, fighting illegal drugs, smuggling, and organized crime; environmental protection; and search and rescue. Later, after APT develops experience and consensus on those non-traditional security or “soft security” issues, then it will be logical and natural for it to “hard security” issues in the region. APT can contribute to regional peace-keeping efforts, including peace-keeping training, non-proliferation, and maritime security. Identifying solutions to security problems will be the most challenging and distant goal of APT or any regional security multilateral mechanism in the region.

The Chinese government has taken ASEAN Plus Three as “the major channel” of its efforts toward Asian regionalism and community building. China is more active in APT than it is in the other multilateral organizations in Asia, and it is more active than the other members of the group. Then-Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji stated at the 1999 APT summit in Manila that “APT can develop into a major channel for East Asia cooperation,” and that it can gradually develop cooperation on political and security areas while it emphasizes economic cooperation.[3] Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing stated at the APT Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh in June 2003 that China will take a more active role in participating in regional cooperation in Asia, and “continues to take APT as the major channel for Asian regional cooperation.”[4] Speaking to the APT summit in late November in 2004 in Vientiane, Laos, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated that APT “has developed the most active and promising mechanism of regional cooperation in Asia.”[5] Finally, in a briefing on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s attendance at the January 2007 meeting of APT and the EAS in the Philippines, Assistant Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said the Chinese Premier would like to “exchange views with other leaders for building an Asian community through APT as the main channel.” He said China would propose to “further strengthen the major role of APT in promoting East Asian cooperation and community building.”[6]

Beijing’s enthusiasm toward APT is based on its understanding and comparison of it to other regional processes in Asia. The APT process has made a number of important, and some substantial, contributions in the short period since 1997, the Chinese believe. It seems there are no other multilateral approaches that have greater potential and opportunity than APT, in terms of membership, topical scope, and practical outcomes, to become the key regional economic structure and community building mechanism.

At present therefore, it appears unlikely that China will take the lead role in pushing the development of the East Asia Summit. Of the other candidates for leadership, Japan showed a strong interest and enthusiasm toward the EAS when it was about to emerge in 2005. Tokyo thought the EAS could be different from other existing processes, like APT, which are heavily dominated by ASEAN countries and influenced by the Chinese, in the Japanese understanding. The EAS, on the other hand, would have more nations than ASEAN. And more importantly, it would have more “democratic nations” such as India, Australia, and New Zealand, with which Japan believed it would share more common ground and more influence with ASEAN, China, and the ROK. Japanese influence and enthusiasm cooled in the run-up to the second meeting of the forum, however. It is not clear whether Japan has changed its expectations for the EAS or whether it is simply waiting for opportunities to exercise its influence.

The United States is not a member of the East Asia Summit, but it is an important player in the region. The U.S. has participated in the pan-Asian or trans-Asia Pacific processes such as APEC and the ARF, but has not taken part in the more region-centered approaches such as APT and the EAS. The U.S. does not want to be excluded but at the same time does not show much interest in belonging to so many multilateral forums. Nobody will or can deny membership to the U.S. if it applies. However, Washington appears content to carefully watch these processes from a distance and assess their implications for the United States, remaining reluctant to play a leading role. For example, President Bush praised APEC in Hanoi in November 2006 and suggested it should work to create an Asia-Pacific free trade area, but the U.S. is now creating bilateral FTAs with Singapore, Australia, the ROK, and other individual countries, and is not seriously promoting multilateral cooperation within APEC or any other multilateral forum.

Although there is not a readily identifiable and unique role for the East Asia Summit to play, or a powerful nation willing to push its development at this time, it does have some potential to become a major form of East Asian cooperation and community building. First, the group focuses topically on East Asia and has a regional concentration. Its 2007 Declaration focused on East Asia’s energy challenges.

Second, it very selectively includes more than just East Asian nations. It is important that the three non-East Asian members — Australia, India, and New Zealand — are close to East Asia geographically and are increasingly integrated with the region economically. If the EAS were to become “open” to outsiders, such as Russia, the United States, and Canada, then the East Asian nature would be lost, and it would become a duplication of APEC.

In order to succeed, however, the EAS must build on these positive qualities. If it can create tangible results, rather than non-binding statements, on the economic side and carry this ethos over to political and security matters, it can grow into a vital and unique process. However, the current function of the EAS is to serve merely as a “forum” for “dialogue.” If it maintains this function, then most likely it will not develop into anything more than just a “talk shop,” and it will be neither as productive as ASEAN Plus Three nor as prestigious as APEC.