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Building on Asia

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In Brief

The ASEAN summit ended Friday 9 April in Hanoi not only with further plans for its ten members but also ways to widen Asian dialogues. Most agree to now include the USA and also Russia.  There are however differences over how best to do so.

The differences are not well understood. One suggestion is to expand the existing East Asian Summit (EAS), in which ASEAN annually hosts the six leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.


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The EAS expansion idea is to include the USA and Russia as full members.

A second option is for an EAS+2, where the USA and Russia join only after the EAS concludes. A new proposal is for an ASEAN+8, independent of the existing EAS. The same leaders would attend but it would have its own format and could be called regularly but not annually.

Beyond suggestions from ASEAN are proposals by Australia and Japan.  Australian premier Kevin Rudd talks about an Asia-Pacific Community while Japan’s Prime Minister Hatoyama ponders an East Asian Community.

The question is more than just a choice of acronym and numerals.

All three ASEAN and EAS-based proposals retain the group’s centrality. The Australian and Japanese suggestions have in contrast been silent on this point.

The ASEAN+8 and EAS+2 proposals, while opening dialogue with two vital non-Asian states, allow an intra-Asian agenda to continue. They also try to account for the possibility that the participation the American leader cannot be guaranteed. On the other hand, expanding the EAS risks undermining the stature of that Summit, if the USA is absent.

This is a real possibility. Witness President Obama’s postponed visit last month. The reason – the major health care bill – was understandable. But it shows an important parameter in any effort to widen Asian dialogue. This is that while Asians may propose, much will depend on American attitudes and capacity.

The current administration started off ambitiously with the first ASEAN-US Summit and Obama’s personal declaration to be the first Pacific president. But by end 2009, when he journeyed to APEC in Singapore as well as to Japan, China and South Korea, the President was pilloried at home.  Frustration about joblessness in the USA grew and the president’s approval ratings fell. If the American economy continues to be fragile, the consequence may well be drift and uncertainty.

Consider trade. The USA is negotiating entry into a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But concluded trade agreements – with South Korea for instance – remain stuck without US Congress approval. Add to this, the growing litany of American complaints against China.  This signals a growing sentiment among Americans that trade with Asia is not always to their benefit. In this mood, America may either be largely absent from Asia, or else engage acrimoniously.

In the past, Asians would have sought ways to ensure America’s continued presence and tried to accommodate their demands. But post crisis attitudes seem to differ. China will not be seen to bend to American pressures. Even long time ally Japan is openly debating American military bases.

Asians are now more confident and self assertive, and with justification. But Asian triumphalism must be avoided. In both political and economics, Asians should not go ahead alone, without America. How then to sustain engagement with the USA in the post-crisis world?

APEC must be part of the answer, especially as President Obama will host the Summit in 2011. The new ASEAN-US Summit must also be built upon. But APEC is primarily economic and ASEAN is not all of Asia.

A useful initiative would have wider participation, and strategic in nature. Hence the various suggestions.

The American preference is not clear. But some principles can be suggested. First, any new arrangement should be regular without being too often or onerous. The political reality is that while the US-Asia relationship continues to be important, the US leader may have to give urgent attention on issues at home or elsewhere.

Second, any new arrangement cannot trump intra-Asian frameworks, in which ASEAN has been central. No major power, including the US, can be allowed to dominate or negate these arrangements.

Third, any new arrangement should be inclusive and based on principles of equality. Asia cannot be run by a small directorate of major powers. Medium- and small-sized states must be included for peaceful cooperation.

Fourth, building on Asian initiatives makes sense given the region’s dynamics. If the dialogue builds on ASEAN or the EAS, then these must have sufficient substance on which to build broader and wider strategic dialogue. Whatever emerges should help wish Asia to continue to engage America and vice versa, meaningfully but realistically.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, with a book, Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America, is forthcoming from the publishers Wiley.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Jakarta Post, the Nation (Thailand), South China Morning Post and TODAY (Singapore).

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