US, China rivalry may sway ASEAN agenda at EAS

Officials and experts voiced concerns over the inclusion of the US and Russia into the East Asia Summit (EAS), saying it could weaken the current 16-strong forum if their rivalry was to simmer amid the absence of proper modalities to address it.

Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo warned recently of the "danger of EAS losing its original focus", referring to tensions

between the two powers. He pointed to sharp rhetoric between China and the US over the South China Sea dispute that has involved other Asian countries. "Yes, there is some tension, which we could detect during the Shangri- La dialogue, and reports that it was manifested when the US and China had a strategic dialogue. Again, it is over the South China Sea," he said, referring to the recent international security dialogue in Singapore attended by US Defense Minister Robert Gates and high ranking Chinese defense officials.

The US has joined Russia in announcing its interest in joining the East Asia Summit, which next year convenes ten ASEAN members with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and New Zealand, when Indonesia chairs ASEAN. The modalities to host the two Cold War rivals is still under discussion and Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said it would come under an expanded EAS instead of the new

ASEAN+8 forum. Yeo said the new inclusion of the US and Russia should not sway the already agreed proposals of connectivity programs that would see the initial 16 members getting more integrated into a free-trade zone. "The modalities that the ministers have tasked the officials to work on have become very important. We must make sure that the regional focus is retained and existing priority areas remain a point of focus,"

he said. University of Indonesia international relations lecturer Syamsul Hadi said the expansion of the EAS may risk the effectiveness of the forum as US-Chinese rivalry for influence would hog the spotlight at the forum.

However, he said, an expanded EAS was inevitable because the dynamic of the region had changed the orientation of the US to be more Asia-focused.

"China will not feel comfortable with the presence of the US as the USโ€™ new membership would be perceived as an effort to counter Chinaโ€™s role in the forum."

"China would again be challenged with the presence of the US. But this a political dynamic in which both countries should exercise their diplomacy muscle, especially China, to convince ASEAN partners that they are not a threat that needs to be countered," he said.

China has said it welcomed the inclusion of the US but that ASEAN+3 (ASEAN states plus China, Japan and South Korea) should become the driving force. On the other

hand, the new EAS would rival Japanโ€™s idea of the East Asia Community (EAC), floated last year during the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama, to boost Japanโ€™s leadership role in the region. Japanese Ambassador to ASEAN Takio Yamada said the EAC was a long-term goal and the expansion of the EAS would not diminish the new regional architecture idea floated by his government


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By: Lilian Budianto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
When: 7/2/2014

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