TCS Daily

The East Asia Summit

By Yang Razali Kassim - December 12, 2005 12:00 AM

International relations in East Asia have been a bit chilly at times over recent months. A newly formed grouping of 16 regional nations, known as the 'East Asian Summit', will meet for the first time on December 14. If successful, the forum would contribute to stability and growth in a region where the security landscape is shifting rapidly. But if it's to work, the new grouping must be willing to be more decisive than its counterpart, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Known as the East Asia Summit (EAS), this historic gathering will be composed of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan and South Korea, as well as Australia, New Zealand and India. The inclusion of China, Japan and South Korea is significant. Encouraging the three key countries of Northeast Asia to come to accommodation with each other is one of the key reasons for this summit. Save for the "ASEAN plus 3" process started by ASEAN in the late 1990s, the three Northeast Asian countries don't really have a history of sitting down together periodically, especially to discuss issues which can affect their core interests. But to be fair, it is the "ASEAN plus 3" that has enabled the emergence of the East Asia Summit.

Coming at a time of growing tension in Northeast Asia resulting from historical baggage and divergences in security outlooks, the willingness of the three countries to come together for dialogue through the EAS is a welcome boon for inter-regional confidence-building. China's latest decision to call off the regular "ASEAN plus 3" meeting this week reflects this underlying tension. But such events also illustrate the necessity of both the "ASEAN plus 3" and the EAS.

Likewise, China and India have never been linked together strategically in one institutional set-up. The inclusion of India in the EAS means that the geographical definition of East Asia has been expanded to tie the two emerging giants of Asia into the evolving architecture of the region. Both China and India are key engines of Asia's future growth, making this new "club" distinctly important. By the same token, the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand - two countries which are European by heritage -- will underscore East Asia's changing face. And of course, a key feature of the EAS is the exclusion of the United States. But the non-involvement of the US from this new process may allow East Asia room to grow its own identity, though clearly an identity which will not be based exclusively on Asian ethnicity.

The EAS will have far-reaching implications for a large part of the world. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo said in September that the EAS represents the region's "collective response to the dramatic changes taking place in the world" - notably globalization, the re-emergence of China and India, and the challenge of international terrorism. In so doing, the EAS members show that they not only do not want to be left behind by the changing dynamics. They want to influence these changes as well. Now that this new regional process is emerging, what can be done to ensure that it will end up as a force for peace, stability and prosperity in East Asia?

A report issued ahead of the summit by Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, spells out a list of things that the East Asian leaders should look into. Entitled An Agenda for the East Asia Summit, the report argues for a new approach to confidence-building that is not necessarily tied to the "ASEAN Way" of consensus, i.e. informality and minimalism. For more than a decade, multilateral cooperation in Asia has been driven by ASEAN. As a result, ASEAN has shaped the three key regional processes namely the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and most recently the "ASEAN plus 3". Now, ASEAN looks set to assume the leadership of the EAS as well.

But again, the IDSS report says it is unlikely that the "ASEAN Way," which had worked relatively well for Southeast Asia in the past, will be sufficient for present-day East Asia. Because the many challenges confronting the East Asian region may require EAS members to "think out of the ASEAN box". For example, the move to give a legal personality to ASEAN by formulating an "ASEAN Charter" may mean that the ASEAN Way of taking decisions by consensus, and not through legally-binding agreements, could be consigned to the past.

The IDSS report says the EAS should neither be a replacement for the APEC, ARF or ASEAN+3, nor a surrogate for the host of functional mechanisms provided for under these regional frameworks. Rather, the Summit complements these arrangements. Moreover, the EAS is a new grouping of sixteen members distinct from the "ASEAN plus 3" and other institutional expressions in the region. The EAS could thus be viewed as an important venue for East Asian leaders not only to meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest but also to build trust and confidence in each other.

Confidence and Institution Building

Indeed, it is imperative, the report argues, that members of the East Asia Summit establish a level of comfort amongst themselves first. It is true that the ASEAN countries have had almost four decades of collective experience in regional reconciliation. But this has not been extended to the Northeast Asian members of the EAS, whose relations with each other have largely been confined to bilateral ties and the Six Party Talks, an ad hoc forum with a highly focused objective of dealing with North Korea. Likewise, countries such as Australia and India also require time to establish confidence with their counterparts from East Asia. In this context, the IDSS report recommends that the East Asia Summit must not fail to capitalize on next week's inaugural session in December 2005 to become a major platform for regional confidence-building.

Functional Cooperation

But more than confidence-building, the EAS can also be viewed as a future venue for substantive cooperation, the report says. To that end, it proposes 30 policy recommendations so that the EAS can graduate into a regional mechanism armed with a problem-solving agenda. The report advocates two time-sensitive "baskets" of issues:

For the immediate term, it envisages a series of cooperative efforts to deal with terrorism, piracy and maritime security as well as health security. It proposes that EAS members devise a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that includes operational, ideological and functional dimensions. It urges the creation of joint cooperation zones and more accurate assessments of the piracy and maritime terrorism situation in the Malacca Straits. It also advocates developing a disease-surveillance control mechanism for the East Asian region to better deal with pandemics.

For the medium to long term, the report recommends tackling economic and energy challenges, human security concerns, forms of transnational crime, and more. For instance, it sees the EAS as an alternative venue - in conjunction with the APEC and "ASEAN plus 3" - for initiating informal discussions to realise an East Asian Free Trade Area. The EAS can in effect act as a new pressure group to nudge world trade towards the successful completion of the Doha Development Round.

Getting it Right the first time

In essence, confidence-building will be at the core of the East Asia Summit and will be an ongoing objective. What comes out of this new process should be watched closely by the rest of the world because the summit brings together some of the world's major players. Such a gathering cannot but carry great clout and bear far-reaching significance. Getting the EAS started with the right mood, and on the right footing, is therefore crucial. As Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo puts it, "getting the DNA right" is critical when it comes to designing regional institutions. Should the EAS get its DNA right, East Asia will become a major force in international relations and global diplomacy. But should it fail, this exercise can also spell disaster for the region.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore.



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