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The U.S. and East Asian Regionalism

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Leaders at a recent East Asia Summit.

As United States thinks about its future approach to East Asian regionalism, perhaps one of the most important questions is whether or not it should join the East Asia Summit (EAS), and what other options it could pursue beyond this.

I’ve got a new piece out at World Politics Review analyzing a few of these options as they stand now.

I’ve pasted the full article below, but you can also read it here.

The U.S. and the East Asia Summit

Prashanth Parameswaran | 02 Jun 2010

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for his visit to Asia in June — one of three potential roundtrips to the region this year — it is worth exploring what Washington’s future policy options are with respect to Asian regionalism.

The alphabet soup of the so-called “regional architecture” includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), to name just a few groupings. The main question now facing the United States is whether to join the East Asia Summit (EAS), a five-year-old body that groups the 10 countries of Southeast Asia as well as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The impetus for joining is clear. Legally speaking, the United States meets all the criteria necessary for membership, having finally acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) last year. Substantively, participating in Asian summitry demonstrates Washington’s commitment to multilateralism, a symbolic yet significant metric in a region where process is equally important — and sometimes more so — than outcomes. “Half of diplomacy,” as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her speech on regional architecture earlier this year, “is showing up.”

More tangibly, the United States could also use its membership to energize the grouping or influence regionalism more generally in constructive ways. For instance, Washington might be able to provide leadership in ensuring that the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia within the EAS is compatible with the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific within APEC, thereby averting potential overlap or conflict.

Yet there are also compelling arguments against joining the EAS. The other half of diplomacy, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell politely put it, is about “delivering results” and focusing “increasingly on action,” or “developing the capacity for problem-solving.”

Judged from this prism, the EAS, which has been referred to by some leaders and experts as a “brainstorming session” or “a dinner followed by 16 speeches,” looks more like a discussion forum compared to the APT. In the latter grouping, Southeast Asian nations along with Japan, China and South Korea have achieved more concrete results, including establishing a joint fund — the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization Agreement — to guard against future financial crises.

Some countries have acknowledged that the EAS “could make a significant contribution to . . . establishing an East Asian Community,” and it is clear that there is room for growth. But Washington may not want to sign off on a grouping that has yet to demonstrate its capacity for producing results.

Showing up is also easier said than done. Take Obama’s schedule for the rest of 2010. As of now, he already has three planned trips to Asia: a June trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia (which has already been postponed three times due to domestic imperatives), a series of ASEAN leaders’ meetings in Hanoi in late-October (including the Fifth EAS and the Second U.S.-ASEAN Summit), and visits to South Korea and Japan in November for the Fifth G-20 Summit and the 18th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting respectively. Yet there is deep skepticism over whether the president’s political advisers will let the EAS summit take precedence over domestic campaigning come October, just weeks before critical mid-term elections that his party could lose.

While the Obama administration could push for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit to be held in Honolulu or for it to be postponed so it coincides with his November visit, rescheduling the EAS is much harder to do, since it also requires agreement by six other non-Southeast Asian members, including China. There are ongoing discussions about this, but the outcome remains unclear. Furthermore, beyond 2010, in order for the U.S. to attend regularly as a member in the future, EAS nations would likely have to time meetings with the APEC or G-20 summits, and perhaps even consider holding them outside of Southeast Asia.

Alternatively, as Stanford University’s Donald K. Emmerson has suggested (.pdf), the United States could choose to “ease into” the EAS by first sending the vice president or secretary of state to Vietnam, the summit’s host in 2010. That would express U.S. support for regionalism while also affording it the opportunity to evaluate the grouping’s productivity before determining if it is worth pursuing membership. When Assistant Secretary Campbell spoke at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington last year, he said (.pdf) that Washington would “hang back a little bit” and see how both existing institutions and proposed initiatives — like Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific community and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s East Asia Community — evolve before stating its own preferences.

As U.S. policymakers mull these various options, it is worth noting that the decision about whether or not to join the EAS is hardly an exclusively American one. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan hinted earlier this year in a speech at the Asia Society that Washington had to adapt to existing arrangements because “the landscape has changed” in the region. ASEAN leaders themselves are also currently weighing other options beyond just expanding the EAS to include the United States. These include a separate ASEAN+8 grouping — all current EAS members plus the U.S. and Russia — that would meet every few years. ASEAN+8, some have argued, would take into account the U.S. president’s scheduling problems by convening only every few years — as opposed to the annual EAS summits — and back-to-back with the APEC Leaders’ Meeting when it is hosted in the region.

In Tokyo last year, Obama insisted that the United States “expects to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve.” But in order to do so, his administration must first consult with Asian nations and determine how much it wants to actually commit to multilateralism in Asia, including the EAS.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that covers Asian security issues.

Photo: East Asia Forum


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