First published as a PacNet commentary on 1st September, 2016.
President Obama’s final trip to Asia — the region toward which he has rebalanced the US — has generated considerable media interest. Yet, the reason for the timing of this trip and the inclusion of Laos, Southeast Asia’s weakest state, in the itinerary is missing from much of the coverage.
Obama is going to Vientiane, Laos’ capital with a population of just 800,000 people, to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS), the annual gathering of 16 of Asia’s crucial powers’ heads of government. Its membership – the ASEAN 10 plus China, ROK, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Russia – its full spectrum policy remit and political clout give the EAS huge potential. At the 10th anniversary meeting last year the summit took small but important steps to improve the grouping’s collaborative potential. As the 11th approaches what can we expect?
Optimists look at November 2016’s Kuala Lumpur Declaration and see an EAS that is on ASEAN pace to becoming the premier strategic forum in the region. It is beginning to figure out how to relate to other institutional processes. It has, in the permanent representatives’ committee in Jakarta, a mechanism to develop ideas and maintain momentum. And finally, there is a dedicated staff in the ASEAN secretariat to provide institutional support. Pessimists, when they bother to acknowledge the EAS existence, see little more than a two-hour meeting in which leaders read bland statements to bored and disengaged peers. From this perspective, the EAS is a policy-free zone whose contribution to regional security is miniscule at best.
The potential of the EAS is real. It is the peak inclusive regional strategic forum in the region, recognized as such by virtually all powers. Yet, the summit, like other parts of the regional institutional architecture faces a conundrum. Rising security tensions mean that the need for improved cooperation and understanding among its members is pressing. Yet it is precisely this gloomy security environment that is constraining the effectiveness of inclusive regional institutions.
In the decade leading up to the creation of the Summit in 2005, East Asia was notable for its uncertain strategic environment. The Cold War had ended but no obvious new set of forces was driving security policies of the region’s states. Relations among the region’s great powers and between these powers and other regional states were undetermined.
A burst of institution building that culminated in the EAS’s establishment reflected three key facets of this uncertain Asia. First, ASEAN was at the heart of regional multilateralism and, in making signature of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) a requirement for EAS participation, had perhaps its greatest diplomatic achievement in getting major non-member states to acknowledge ASEAN centrality in practice. China was the second non-ASEAN state to sign the TAC in 2003, the US the most recent.
Second, competition between China and Japan was evident in the development of multilateralism, with the more expansive membership that the summit established in 2005 reflecting Japan’s preference and broader uncertainty about the potential for Beijing to dominate a narrower grouping.
Finally, the US was committed to Asia, it saw ASEAN-led multilateralism as key to its regional strategy, and Washington felt optimistic about the prospects of managing its relations with China. This culminated in US signature of the TAC in 2009 and participation in the summit from 2011. In 2010, the US became the first non-ASEAN member to establish a dedicated ASEAN diplomatic representation.
The EAS’s creation reflected a conducive regional security environment for inclusive mechanisms intended to drive security cooperation and for non-major powers and ASEAN to take leadership initiatives. Over the past four years or so, however, the region has moved from having an uncertain strategic environment to one of overt contestation. This environment has significant consequences for the dynamics shaping regional institutions. The most important feature of Asia’s present security order is China-US competition.
This is evident not only in the visible points of tension in maritime East Asia but also in regional institutions. The US, largely supported by its allies and security partners, sees regional mechanisms like the EAS as important instruments in effort to sustain its preferred regional order, which is perceived to be under challenge from China.
Contested Asia also hurts ASEAN itself. Where once ASEAN was central both to the dynamics of regional security cooperation and to the international ambitions of all its members, disunity of the organization in relation to rising strategic tensions undercuts ASEAN and its proclaimed centrality.
Paradoxically, the security environment of Contested Asia demands greater collaboration while the prospects for the kind of inclusive regional institution that the EAS represents are considerably lower than in the recent past. Participants should adjust their expectations accordingly. This does not mean the pessimists are right and that the EAS has or will join other members of international affairs’ legions of the living dead and vanquished. The trick is to find the right place for this grouping given its membership, strategic agenda, and political heft in an increasingly competitive region.
In Contested Asia, ASEAN member states are becoming marginalized by the vast differences in military budgets and capabilities and isolated from the growing number of minilateral alignments among the more militarily capable regional powers. The EAS provides a vital platform for members and other lesser powers to retain some influence. Contested Asia is notable not only for the number of flashpoints but also the lack of mechanisms to manage them. The annual summit provides not just an opportunity to develop hotlines and crisis management procedures but also an annual politically-less charged means to deal with challenges as they emerge or intensify.
Finally, while rivalry is the region’s most obvious geopolitical marker, Asia is also a place of growing economic interdependence. The EAS can also promote and enhance the stabilizing forces relating to trade, investment as well as diplomatic codes of conduct that can offset or at least contain the region’s contested dynamics.
East Asia is the world’s most dynamic economic region as well as one of its most challenging security environments. The EAS is a lead body that reflects these contradictory trends and while its capacity to build a new strategic order is limited it has an important supporting role to play. The challenge is to ensure that the membership can sustain interest in the benefits it can provide and to invest sufficiently for these to be realized. If they do not then the region risks contestation becoming much more dangerous. The reason behind President Obama’s last trip to Asia and first to Laos deserves more coverage and consideration.
Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, Australia. Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.