In working to establish the role of the EAS, Asean must keep a number of factors in mind, including ensuring that Asean continues to be the driving force of the Summit, writes S. PUSHPANATHAN. THE inaugural East Asia Summit has come and gone. Already, some have described the EAS as a mere talk shop and another regional process heading nowhere.
Others see the EAS as a constructive venture that could lead to a new process and even a grouping in the future, which may rival Apec or even the Asean Plus Three process.
The question in everyone’s mind is where do we go from here and how we can ensure that the EAS will find a niche for itself in the web of regional and multilateral processes spun by Asean.
One cannot ignore the interest the EAS has generated in the region and beyond. This reflects the potential force it could be in world politics and economics if all the gears click into place. This is especially so since the EAS countries collectively account for half of the world’s population, and one- third of the global GDP, and hold half the world’s foreign exchange reserves.
One message that came out clearly from the discussion of the leaders at the EAS was that more than culture, geography and history, the common concerns and the sense of a shared future motivate the participating countries to work together.
The stability and prosperity of the region and common challenges, such as transboundary infectious diseases, terrorism, and energy insecurity, provide a common platform for co-operation.
There is also a palpable need for a forum for the leaders of the participating countries to socialise with each other in a manner not possible in a bilateral or localised context.
As a result, they agreed to meet annually following the Asean Summit. They tasked their officials and the Asean Secretariat to look at the next steps to substantiate the EAS.
In looking at the next steps, Asean will have to keep a number of things in mind. First, the EAS is a dialogue and could become a process involving Asean as a bloc together with other participants of the EAS on an equal footing.
As such, it is a meeting of seven parties and not 16 countries. Therefore, consolidating the Asean Community will be a key factor that Asean will have to ensure when embarking on EAS initiatives. The fundamental point is that any co-operation undertaken under the EAS should not dilute Asean integration and community building but must complement and reinforce it.
Second, the EAS will have to co-exist and complement the Asean Plus Three process, which has increased the comfort level among the Asean Plus Three countries, involving Asean, China, Japan and South Korea.
Despite the tension in China-Japan relations, the process has brought about mutually beneficial co-operation in the last nine years. Just as connecting light bulbs in a parallel circuit will produce brighter light than a serial connection, EAS and Asean Plus Three process developing side-by-side will reinforce East Asia community building efforts.
Third, the EAS is not going to displace Apec and the Asean Plus One process with Australia, China, India, Japan, the ROK and New Zealand.
Apec continues to be an important forum where the US is engaged with the region. Besides, the US President has utilised the Apec Leaders’ Summit to meet and conduct essential business with regional leaders.
The Asean Plus One process with the Dialogue Partners has yielded good dividends for Asean, particularly in trade and investment liberalisation. Asean is developing free trade areas with China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia and New Zealand which by 2015 could facilitate the realisation of a giant free trade area in East Asia.
More importantly, the EAS is not expected to produce any institutional mechanism as yet and implementation of substantive measures pertaining to the EAS will have to rely on those mechanisms in the Asean Plus One process.
Fourth, Asean should ensure that it stays as the driving force of the EAS now and in the future. This means Asean will have to plan, initiate and co-ordinate the co-operation in the EAS in partnership with the EAS participants.
In doing so, it must balance the interests of all participants with a clear focus on tackling common issues and supporting regional community building efforts; ensuring that the other regional processes remain viable and non-duplicative; and the EAS stays open and outward-looking to take into account the interests and concerns of those outside the EAS.
Besides, Asean will have to ensure that the EAS does not become an Asean Plus Six or an Asean Plus Three Plus Three process as it will create a tiered structure. This will certainly be a disinvestment for the Plus Three countries and Australia, India and New Zealand as the key factor of “shared ownership” for cranking the EAS will be missing.
Fifth, Asean has to maintain the EAS as a top-down process that leaders expressly desire. They would like to use the EAS as a brainstorming forum for coming up with fresh and bold initiatives.
However, setting up some form of mechanism to help coordinate and pursue the initiatives of the leaders is inevitable. While EAS co-operative initiatives could be implemented using existing Asean Plus Three and Asean Plus One mechanisms, there should be a mechanism under the EAS to ensure overall coordination and that the endeavours taken up by the various mechanisms add up to what the leaders want through the EAS.
The leaders have mentioned the role the Asean Secretariat could play in co-ordinating the co-operative initiatives of the EAS since Asean is the driving force of the EAS.
Finally, on the issue of participation, Asean and the EAS participants should use the three criteria established by Asean for future participation in the EAS, which includes dialogue partnership with Asean, accession to Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia, and substantive relations between Asean and the interested country. In this regard, Russia’s participation in future EAS will have to be considered.
The EAS has now been established. However, whether the EAS will be firmly rooted to the ground in the overall regional architecture will depend on the next course of action to be taken by Asean together with the other EAS participants.
The EAS should be seen as an endeavour of seven parties, driven by Asean, working collectively to define a shared future based on common interests.
* The writer is the Unit Director for Asean Plus Three and External Relations at the Asean Secretariat. The views expressed in this article are his own.