Pushing the East Asia Summit to a new level

The East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw on Thursday could be a blessing or a curse for Asean’s engagement with the major powers on two levels

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation November 10, 2014 1:00 am

The East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw on Thursday could be a blessing or a curse for Asean’s engagement with the major powers on two levels.

Before passing the baton to Malaysia later this week, it is incumbent on Myanmar, the current Asean chair, to ensure the grouping comes out with strong and consolidated position on these topics. Failure to do so would downgrade the grouping’s often-cited mantra of increasing its international profile and promoting Asean’s centrality. In the case of contagious diseases, Asean and East Asia demonstrated their good practices when they worked together successfully to contain the spread of Sars from November 2002 through till July 2003.

Washington has made clear the international community must come forward to deal with these emergencies with stronger policies and support. At the EAS, the US would propose the creation of a mechanism, allowing EAS leaders to meet and discuss immediate issues of the day. Currently, there is no mechanism in place within the EAS to call for such a gathering.

In other regional groupings such as the African Union and Mercosur, their leaders are on call for special meetings to address emergencies at any given time. The EAS, with some key global leaders taking part, should be able to do the same in response to crisis.

Since its inception in 2005, the EAS agenda has been prepared solely by Asean focusing on developmental issues such as education, science and technology, disaster management, energy and environment health and connectivity. However, as the EAS has gained significance, US, Japanese and Australian desires to shape future strategic dialogues have also increased — pressing Asean to open-up the agenda-setting process.

Apart from the development issues and emergencies, the current EAS agenda is more comprehensive – including the South China Sea dispute, nuclear non-proliferation, the Korean Peninsula and the situation in the Middle East. This time, the South China Sea will not feature highly in the agenda due to immediate issues related to extremist Islamic groups, global warming and Ebola, which have already dominated preparatory discussions among senior officials. EAS leaders will reflect on similar concerns.

Furthermore, progress was made in the drafting process on codes of conduct in the South China Sea. Recently at the meeting in Bangkok, Asean and China agreed on early harvest projects and a hotline among search and rescue agencies, as well as among Foreign Ministries, for maritime emergencies. China also agreed to host a table-top exercise on search and rescue early next year. A total of 13 projects — submitted by Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand — await consideration in China’s US$500 million Maritime Development Fund.

As far as the EAS leaders are concerned, there is a change of heart in the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who missed the previous two expanded EAS meetings in 2012 and 2013, has assigned Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to present Russian views and concerns — immediately raising the EAS profile and imperatives. In past meetings, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s views were dwarfed by other top EAS leaders. Following the Chinese model with a clear division of labour between the president and prime minister, Putin will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Meeting in Beijing and G-20 in Brisbane.

What has made the EAS so special this time is the unique opportunity for rivals to meet and reconcile in a non-treaty and neutral setting. Better relations between the US and Russia as well as China and Japan are a prerequisite for global stability and progress. Whatever transpires from the EAS, especially at the level of leadership rapport, will directly impact on their relations in years to come.

After the midterms electoral defeat last week, leading to the Republican control of both upper and lower houses, Obama’s return to Asia has become even more important in terms of foreign policy commitment. From Washington’s vantage point, the US-Myanmar relations have been the Obama Administration’s greatest foreign policy success, albeit with many defects.

What kind of attitude or pressure Obama will bring to bear on the chair is worth watching. The human rights violations and the plight of the Rohingya people remain the Thein Sein administration’s Achilles’ heel. Asean leaders are also watching closely the White House’s diplomatic gestures towards regional dynamics with a rising China in the background.

If the greatly improved US-Vietnam ties served as a barometer, the US is now trying to strengthen the overall Asean defence capability — through a country-by-country approach and on a case-by-case basis. Some Asean countries were flabbergasted over the US decision to partially lift the lethal arms embargo on Vietnam to strengthen the country’s defensive capacity in maritime security. For the first time, Washington did not set forth any conditions — just paid lip service to human rights issues. Vietnam has already prepared a list of new equipment for immediate procurement.

In more ways than one, the US and China are wooing Asean in their own distinctive ways. While the grouping continues to rely on the US on security matters, it has responded enthusiastically towards China’s numerous economic schemes — the soon-to-be-established Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank is a good example. Amid Western sanctions, it remains to be seen whether Russia can reinvent itself and fit into the latest strategic outlook in this neighbourhood.

As of now, Asean will continue to adopt a dual approach toward the US and China because there is little policy conflict. However, in the long run, when China’s growing economic power morphs along more strategic-oriented pathways, pressure will mount on Asean members to reciprocate China’s regional and global interests.

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