This essay originally appeared in December 2005 issue of Freeman Report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC as a featured essay.
The United States appeared to be of at least two minds about the December 14th East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, eventually involving the ten states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, and Korea plus Australia, New Zealand and India. At one point Washington seemed to resent being left out, and was seen by others as chasing an invitation. (American officials deny this.) Later it adopted a stance of indifference, broadly hinting it would not show up even if invited as an observer.
In large part this vacillation stemmed from uncertainty about the real purposes of the summit. Would it do anything other institutions do not already do? Perhaps even more important, did it reflect an effort by China to carve out a more influential regional role for itself at American expense? In the end, the U.S. said it welcomed all regional groupings as long as they do not replace broader membership institutions (where the U.S. is an important presence), such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).
If Washington appeared schizophrenic about the summit, Asians might be seen as afflicted with multiple personality disorder. They disputed even the origins of the summit idea (parentage is claimed at least by Malaysia, Korea and Japan). More important, arguments raged also about its purposes, its relationship to other regional institutions (most particularly to the ASEAN Plus Three grouping, or APT), its role in working toward an East Asian Community (or “ommunity,”depending on your preference), its composition (including, but not limited to, the issue of American participation) and, relatedly, the requirements for summit membership, and even the definition of “the region.”
In the end, two overarching issues were played out: ASEAN’s insistence on being at the center of all regional efforts and competition between China and Japan over the summit’s composition and role, a competition related to their broader rivalry for power and influence. The result was something of a muddle, but a muddle that everyone can live with for now.
According to various official statements, ASEAN will be the “driving force”of regional community building, APT will “continue to be” the “main vehicle” in working toward that (admittedly long-term) goal, while the summit, as a complement, “could play”a “significant role” in community building “in this region”(but without specific reference to an East Asian Community).
One of the reasons all of this is so muddled is that it overrides the original concept that the summit was to replace the APT, eventually morphing into a “community.” One goal of the Northeast Asians, who agreed to this, was to make the grouping less ASEAN centered and more “East Asian.” But everyone eventually caved in to ASEAN’s insistence that it be the “core”organizer, doorkeeper, and always the host. As one prominent Northeast Asian observer put it, given the overlapping and even conflicting roles of the summit, the APT and other Asian institutions, the result has been the introduction of more disagreement and confusion than progress into regional affairs.
That said, from China’s perspective the result has been favorable. When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced that the inaugural East Asia Summit would take place in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, China offered to host the second meeting in 2006. Although, as noted, ASEAN wanted to keep control and turned the offer down, Beijing then deftly adjusted its position and offered its “continuing support” of ASEAN’s “dominant role,” disavowing any intention of seizing leadership of the summit.
More important, when ASEAN agreed to a larger East Asia Summit membership that might dilute Beijing’s influence, China worked assiduously–and ultimately successfully–to ensure not only the continued existence, but the central guiding role, of the APT. At the same time, to deflect fears about its clout under these arrangements, Beijing promoted its “good neighbor”image by denying any intention to “seize the initiative” for regional cooperation or to “pursue privilege” and affirming its opposition to turning the region into “an enclosed and exclusive bloc.”
It was, of course, precisely because the broader summit could better balance off Chinese influence that Japan (and others) worked not only for a larger membership but also for a larger summit role in future regional community building. In explaining Tokyo’s success in the first effort but its failure in the second, Southeast Asians say they have looked to Japan to balance China, but report frustration at Tokyo’s refusal to “move in a helpful way.” Among other things, they criticize Japan for tensions caused by Prime Minister Koizumi’s continuing visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which led to cancellation of the traditional trilateral meetings in Kuala Lumpur among Japan, Korea and China. And they report a “perceptible shift” of attention and solicitude in the region from Japan to China.
All of this presents a dilemma for the United States, which must figure out where its interests in the region lie and how best to serve them. The American post-9/11 laser-like focus on countering terrorism, the invasion of Iraq and the general posture of unilateralism have cost the US greatly in terms of its “moral authority” in Southeast Asia. That ASEAN’s terms for participation in the summit (which included signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation–or TAC–which the US had refused to do) automatically excluded the United States is seen by many as a consequence of this loss of American standing.
Still, many Southeast Asians stress that, much as they value their relationship with Beijing, they are not comfortable with China as the dominant regional player and are wary about being drawn into its orbit. Beyond some enhanced US-ASEAN cooperation, already under way, they see in the East Asia Summit the nub of a structure that can effectively balance China’s weight. But, especially with Japan’s declining influence, they believe that balance requires the US being there. And, for that to happen, the United States must sign the TAC.
Not to confront China, but to promote American interests– this would seem a wise course.