East Asia Summit: Next Step is Structure

By Ernie Bower

Sunrise in Bali. President Obama and regional leaders will meet in Bali at the East Asia Summit for the first time . Source: andycarvin’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Leaders of eighteen nations from the Asia Pacific will meet in Bali, Indonesia this week for the East Asia Summit (EAS) in recognition that new regional architecture is required to ensure peace and prosperity in a region that now accounts for over half of world economic activity and will be the center of 21st century security concerns.

The leaders will discuss regional security issues and steps to build trust and cooperation, for instance around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  They will talk about education, finance, and regional economic integration, as well as deal with some of the most compelling issues challenging the region, namely resolving disputes in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear threat, and Myanmar’s political reforms.

However, the question of the structure and next steps for the EAS does not appear to be on the agenda.  It should be. Over the next four years, smaller or less developed countries will host this forum including Cambodia (2012), Brunei Darussalam (2013), Myanmar (2014/2015), and Laos (2014/2015).  The order of the last two has not been finalized, but will likely be decided during the ASEAN Summit held concurrently with the EAS. Structure is an existential question for EAS.

The EAS is a relatively new structure formed in 2005.  The United States and Russia are newcomers, and the Bali meeting is their inaugural participation. The fact that EAS is a relatively new institution is both its strength and its weakness. As a new construct, it aptly captures the key power players of the Asia Pacific, but its structure is not fully defined.

EAS competes with other architectures in Asia, some based on security, others on trade.  Some of these structures are perceived to be dominated by one or another power, for instance China dominates and drives the agenda of the ASEAN Plus Three, comprised of the ten ASEAN countries plus China, Japan and South Korea, while the United States is seen to be the driving force behind the Transpacific Partnership (TPP).

The EAS is perceived as the most balanced of the regional structures because it is ASEAN based and includes all the major regional powers – China, India and the United States.  In terms of grand strategy, EAS could be the most capable structure for achieving the goal of accommodating the ambitions of major powers, building trust and transparency in key areas including security, political, financial and trade, and binding all by a common set of rules.

EAS leaders should not hesitate to rationalize its structure and take concrete steps to institutionalize the EAS.  Doing so will strengthen the value of leaders’ meetings by ensuring agendas supported by substantive ministerial meetings – including foreign ministers, defense ministers, economic ministers, and finance ministers – framing issues that require leaders’ attention and vision to move them forward.

In this context, ASEAN provides a viable and compelling structure. Annual meetings of its ministers in relevant portfolios including foreign affairs, defense, trade, and finance, for a start, can now include an EAS ministerial designed specifically to address and frame regional issues and refer them to the EAS.  As EAS evolves, new ministerial meetings can be added, such as energy, education, and the environment.

In Bali, the EAS should address this question of structure.  Specifically, the leaders should direct their governments to consider the following:

  • Direct the ASEAN Regional Forum, which counts many non-EAS countries among its 27 members, to add an EAS ministerial for foreign ministers.
  • The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, whose membership is consistent with EAS membership, should add the task of serving as a defense and security ministerial for EAS leaders.
  • The ASEAN Economic Ministers meeting and ASEAN Finance Ministers’ Meeting should be instructed by the leaders to immediately add an EAS ministerial to their annual meeting agendas.

Taking these steps institutionalizes the EAS as the predominant regional structure, adds economic and financial issues to balance the security and political dialogue, and provides an opportunity for all countries to mutually recognize the importance of the region. Where not currently the case, EAS members should upgrade their participation in these ASEAN meetings to the cabinet level.

Coming as it does on the heels of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, some will ask whether the substantive commitment inherent in this evolving structure for EAS is warranted.  If APEC was a sufficient forum for addressing Asia-Pacific political, security, and economic issues, EAS would not have been formed. Most glaringly, APEC does not include India.  However, APEC has served well as an annual general meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders and to promote trade facilitation. It should endure in that role.

APEC brings in Canada and some of the Latin American countries, but not all.  It also is missing three of the ten ASEAN countries.  Some would argue that the TPP, which is not directly linked to any of these regional architectures, fits better in APEC than in EAS because it includes Chile and Peru from Latin America, and Canada is keen to join.  Many see the eventual goal of TPP as being a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).  Those points are relevant and fit well within the new trend of “competing architectures” in the Asia Pacific.

President Obama and his fellow leaders at the East Asia Summit in Bali have important choices to make about the future of the Asia-Pacific region.  Installing a strong EAS structure is an achievable and significant step to promoting peace and prosperity in the region for decades to come.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and co-director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.