Making Asian summits count

Asia enters its annual season of political summits in the coming weeks and US President Barack Obama will be a key player. Despite his Democrat party losing America’s domestic mid-term elections, the President will continue to be a key presence, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and then at the East Asia Summit (EAS), hosted by Myanmar.

Simply turning up shows that America is, indeed, making the effort to continue its rebalance to the region. But after the pomp and ceremony dies down, will Asia be satisfied with what America has to offer the region? And will Obama judge his time here as well spent?

Obama-XiThere has always been some debate about how to define the region — whether Asia should be paired with the US and others on the far side of the Pacific, or be a region unto itself.

APEC and the EAS are two key meetings in the jumbled and partly overlapping arrangements that result. APEC includes 21 members from both sides of the Pacific, and sometimes seems too sprawling.

In contrast, the EAS membership remains more limited. Hosted by ASEAN, the summit has gone beyond China, Japan and South Korea to include the US, Australia, New Zealand, India and Russia.

But a moratorium has been called on including more countries and the EAS currently seems to meet a kind of “Goldilocks” test — neither too small to matter nor so large that it is unwieldy. Hosting the Summit is a major part of ASEAN’s claim to ‘centrality’ in a region of rising powers.

The EAS is, however, neither without critics nor potential rivals. There is rising contention between the major powers, with many points of contention between the US and China, and between China and Japan.

Different major powers are taking different initiatives that are competitive. The Obama administration’s centerpiece for trade and economic ties, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), includes its ally Japan but just four out of 10 ASEAN member states — Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. China, moreover, is notably excluded.

On its part, China is upping engagement with the region in a number of ways. The most recent and juiciest carrot dangled by President Xi Jinping is the newly launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

ASEAN needs not only to be economically dynamic but also politically cohesive and strategically coherent.

Supported by some 21 countries to date, the AIIB has a US$100 billion kitty to fund the region’s infrastructure needs. The US has pointedly pushed against this Chinese initiative and inveighed its allies — Australia, Japan, South Korea — to also stay out.

Unless US-China or Sino-Japanese ties improve, there are risks for the region’s stability and progress. Expectations arise therefore for the EAS Summit to reduce tensions and increase trust. Otherwise, the old adage about buffalos fighting and grass dying applies.

The EAS is helmed by ASEAN, comprising just 10 smaller and middle sized countries. But there are limits to what can be done. Watch therefore US-China ties when Obama meets with Xi at the sidelines of APEC for an informal summit.

Since their first meeting in California in June 2013, the Chinese have sought a major powers dialogue with the US. Held privately and informally, the meeting is aimed at building personal rapport between the two leaders, and improving bilateral ties amidst their global interdependence. The relationship — colored by contentious issues ranging from cyber security to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — is far from cuddly.

But the leaders are likely to seek a reassuring baseline and some positive news to report. Cooperation on energy and climate change could be one — given the US embracing shale gas as a source of lower-carbon energy, and China’s own efforts to redress its emissions.

Sino-Japanese relations have been even worse, with the two leaders declining to meet since coming into office. This goes beyond the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute and interacts with fervently held nationalistic views on both sides.

Yet Beijing and Tokyo are beginning to recognize their economic interdependence, and the need to return to a working relationship that is somewhat isolated from the quite irresolvable political and historical differences.

The Sino-Japanese and US-China relations will be determined by these major powers bilaterally, and not by any larger Summit — whether APEC, EAS or any other acronym.

But ASEAN can assist with its EAS Summit, in which all three participate. This is especially if the aims for the Summit are reinforced and its process given more focus.

With its 10th anniversary coming up in 2015 and major power competition in the region, ASEAN senior officials are stocktaking the Summit. This is timely as some question whether the EAS is truly effective. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ recent policy brief outlines key issues to keep the ASEAN-led Summit relevant.

We believe the EAS has the potential to be the apex multilateral summit of the region to bring leaders of major and contesting powers together in the same room to discuss political, security and economic issues affecting the region. The EAS should continue to be led by leaders and informal, rather than having a larger, bureaucratic structure.

But more focus and better preparation are needed. For this, ASEAN and other EAS stakeholders should adopt ‘Sherpa’ system, akin to what is used in the G7 meetings.

There is no need to take over or control other regional meetings, but the EAS as a Summit among leaders should receive inputs from other regional forums, such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Further, for ASEAN to serve as effective hosts for much larger powers, the group needs not only to be economically dynamic but also politically cohesive and strategically coherent. Positions taken by ASEAN among the major powers must, moreover, not be biased towards one side or another.

Members can participate in initiatives that include some but not all ASEAN members — like the US-led TPP and China’s AIIB mentioned above. But they should be watchful if these strain intra-ASEAN unity, and work to speak increasingly with a common voice on key issues, with balance and based on norms of international law and regional practices.

Asia is witnessing major shifts in power and much will depend on what the major powers do, both separately and in relation to each other.

Without economic clout or military strength, ASEAN should not be complacent about the EAS and its claims to centrality. The group must work together and with other stakeholders to earn the right to shape the regional agenda, or otherwise will face the prospect of being dictated to.

Associate professor Simon Tay and Cheryl Tan are, respectively, chairman and assistant director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Both are currently in Nay Pyi Taw to observe the ASEAN Summit meetings.

-Jakarta Post