US-China rivalry in Asean looms over an expanded EAS

Foreign ministers of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) tried to stomach the response by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi last week when he noted with "an open attitude" Asean's latest decision to expand the leader's forum, the East Asia Summit (EAS).

He then proceeded to say that China looks "forward for further consultations" and "would abide by Asean's decision". On the same day in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman said China respects the Asean consensus on EAS. All said, this is China's new sentiment towards Asean.

What surprised the Asean leaders this time was Beijing's lukewarm support - it was no longer the usual thumbs-up as before on any proposed Asean plan. Other East Asia foreign ministers and their representatives from Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India were more forthcoming and all welcomed the decision by Asean to include the US and Russia.

China's latest posture is obviously linked to the ongoing discussion over efforts to implement the 2002 agreement on peaceful cooperation in the South China Sea (SCS) between China and Asean. Brunei, Malaysia, Viet Nam and the Philippines are the Asean claimants. A recent working group meeting in Viet Nam on this issue between the two sides did not yield progress. So far China has been successful in confining the discussion within the bilateral Asean framework since the Mischief Reefs debacle in 1995.

Beijing is explicit that the South China Sea disputes must be settled "bilaterally" among the concerned Asean claimants only. Other parties should not interfere. At the 27-nation Asean Regional Forum (ARF) last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi explained at length its position on the South China Sea. At least six members raised this issue. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wisely focused on the 2002 document and issues related to freedom of navigation, flights over the SCS and international norms. Indeed, it's this "multilateralised" dimension that non-Asean claimants are pushing forward that greatly worries China. It could backfire if China views the whole debate as a set-up.

Beijing does not want the dispute under any international radar screen. Now, the possibility is high that the expanded EAS could discuss this sensitive topic in the future. Under the current Asean chair, Viet Nam has been walking a tightrope as it is also a party to the conflict. Ha Noi did not touch on the problem directly but discreetly reminded all claimants of its concerns. While Asean wishes for some tangible progress emanating from the agreement signed eight years ago, the grouping is also mindful of China's growing frustration with its collective assertiveness.

Both sides are now stuck with the guideline signed by Asean and China. It states that Asean nations would meet first among themselves before the Asean claimants spoke with China - a procedure which the latter strongly objected to. A compromise way out is unlikely this year under the Vietnamese chair because Beijing does not trust Ha Noi, believing it to be mobilising others to raise concerns at the ARF. When Indonesia takes up the Asean chair next January, a solution must be found before the US and Russia join the EAS, otherwise it could seriously undermine Asean-China relations.

Like China, other non-Asean EAS leaders have called for more consultations between them and Asean members in regard to the future of this strategic dialogue. In fact, the grouping can no longer take these members for granted by imposing its decision verbatim as before, without prior consultations. For instance, in regard to a modality of expanded EAS, all would have to be involved in the consultations.

As such, the newly defined East Asian region, which extends from South Asia to the Southern Reefs to both sides of the Bering Sea, is akin to the 18th century's "Great Game". The difference in the 21st Century it's US and China rivalry playing out in Asean and through invitation only!

With the US and Russian commitment to contribute to the EAS as an evolving regional architecture, Asean inevitably has to do more homework such as identifying new strategic trends, especially in non-traditional areas and further consolidate their common positions on key strategic issues. At the G-20 forum, the envisaged 18-member EAS block will comprise all global players. Asean economic performance and governance would be key to gaining membership.

At the Washington meeting on July 15, Kurt Campbell, Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, told Asean envoys the US would like the EAS, as a strategic forum, to discuss political and security issues. In Ha Noi, Clinton said US wants EAS to be a fundamental political and security institution in Asia in this century. Future clarification is needed from the US whether it would discuss other matters as EAS also touches on economic and social issues. Obviously, Washington wants to distinguish the EAS from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, which deals mainly with economic matters. President Barack Obama will have a chance to do that with the Asean leaders, who have been invited to Washington DC immediately after their meeting with European leaders in Brussels, on October 4-5.

After the tragedy of September 2001, the US under the Bush Administration put security related matters high on the APEC economic agenda during its two terms. In the case of Russia, there is no pre-condition attached in joining the leaders' forum. Moscow is ready to take part in all topics. Next year the US will host the APEC meeting in Hawaii.

With such a rapid changing strategic environment, Asean has to ascertain it still has the capacity to control the agenda and discussion as well as possessing value added for the members to play active roles in the ongoing regional community building process. Otherwise, the group's priorities could easily be gobbled up by the major powers' agenda and interests. Asean cannot rest on its laurels from the past five years, even though it has served as forum anchor.

It is interesting to note how easily Asean forgot the Asean plus eight proposal put forward by Singapore in April, once the US revealed its preference. Earlier on, Singapore was very confident its proposal, which sought to guarantee the US President's attendance and serve as a new "jump-start" for Asean and key dialogue partners, would prevail because the island republic had closely consulted with Washington. Within hours, Singapore recognised the changing circumstances and accepted an expanded EAS would be the framework.

To slow down the EAS process, at the informal EAS foreign ministers' meeting, some have called for a moratorium on membership rights after next year. Both the EU and Canada have expressed keen interest in joining EAS, which it would take some time. But during that time one can expect additional criteria. Others called for the institutionalisation of this foreign ministerial forum, similar to those convened by the East Asia Energy Ministers, East Asia Financial Ministers, et al.

They decided to maintain the current format as the EAS is a strategic dialogue group, it should not have any bloated mechanism. Ideas and initiatives from their discussions could be put into good use in other frameworks within Asean. Some initiatives from the Asean Regional Forum or the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting could be discussed.


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By: Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation (Thailand)
When: 7/2/2014

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