By Ernie Bower
President Barack Obama and the leaders of 17 other countries will meet this weekend, November 19–20, at the sixth East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia, the first summit in this forum to include the United States and Russia. So what will be the themes of the conversation? The EAS should be understood in the context of a major effort by President Obama and his national security team to convince the Asia Pacific that the United States has refocused its energy on the region.
The end goal is to build trust and find areas of common interest among the members. The members of the East Asia Summit recognize that in order to be relevant, it must also address the most compelling and important issues facing the region, even if they are politically sensitive to members. During this year’s summit, three overarching issues are expected to be addressed: (1) humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR); (2) ASEAN connectivity, meaning regional development, infrastructure (both on land and maritime linkages), and expansion of trade and investment ties; and (3) maritime security, which will encompass discussions of the South China Sea and related issues.
During the summit, Indonesia and Australia will share papers on how to enhance cooperation and facilitate disaster management and humanitarian relief in the region. This comes in the context of not only the severe flooding that has inundated many Southeast Asian countries, but also the crippling New Zealand earthquakes and tragic Japanese March tsunami and earthquake. Joint efforts to provide assistance are of high impact and value to people in need around the region. They are also the low-hanging fruit of security cooperation because such assistance is clearly a public good and cooperation drives expanded communication, builds trust, and eventually creates interoperability. That is important because the end goal is to have the region’s militaries working together on common and compelling missions, understanding one another, and in so doing mitigating opportunities for misunderstandings or conflict.
The second major theme is ASEAN connectivity, which seeks to bundle development, economic integration, and regional infrastructure into a common vision and set of goals. Asian partners want the United States to recognize explicitly the link between economic development and security. The United States has sent bureaucratic signals that it may want the EAS to focus on security and political issues and have APEC focus on trade and economic issues. That division of labor among U.S. officials is likely to erode now that the United States has handed over its APEC chairmanship duties to Russia. ASEAN’s connectivity plans are not only important for the ASEAN states and its regional partners, but for the United States as well. Success would see EAS members coordinating aid and capacity building around the region with an initial focus on ASEAN and its less-developed members. The United States recognizes that as Congress cuts spending, aid budgets will be lean and leveraging partnerships will become increasingly important. As President Obama noted in his address to the Australian Parliament yesterday, “As the world’s fastest-growing region—and home to more than half the global economy—the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority and that is creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.”
The third, and potentially most divisive, issue is maritime security and cooperation. The issue is highly sensitive, especially to China, which has indicated that it does not want South China Sea disputes discussed in regional forums. However, many Southeast Asian and other countries believe the issue needs to be addressed because it is central to regional peace and security. As I’ve argued here previously, convincing regional states that the goals of regional architecture are not zero sum will be crucial. President Obama reasserted this approach in his Australian speech, saying, “We seek security, which is the foundation of peace and prosperity…Where commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded. Where emerging powers contribute to regional security, and where disagreements are resolved peacefully.”
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.