July 21, 2022
JAKARTA – The East Asia Summit (EAS) is the major summit in the Indo-Pacific region. All the powers that be gather annually in November for the EAS, a leaders-led forum with informality built into it. It is normally held just after the second ASEAN summit of the year when the ASEAN also meets with its dialogue partners. The ASEAN chair also chairs the EAS in acknowledgment of ASEAN centrality.
All such institutions are challenged by the altering nuances of engagement with their partners: The difficulties in consensus-based reform and consolidation, the hiatus between implementation and expectations, and the evolving strategic environment within which they coexist.
The discussion on the creation of the East Asia Summit preceded the expansion of ASEAN to its present levels. In the 1990s an East Asian caucus or association was considered by Malaysia. This was to build on the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation ( APEC) established in 1989.
The EA Study Group wanted to restrict EAS to the ASEAN Plus Three (APT). Malaysia and China in particular wanted a limited membership; Indonesia and Singapore are among the ASEAN members that sought a wider catchment.
In 2002 India elevated its partnership with ASEAN from a sectoral dialogue to a summit. India, Australia and New Zealand were invited into the EAS in 2005.
Some analysts believe that China lost initial interest in the EAS because it could not manage the proceedings. China preferred to lead EAS by dominating the APT but ASEAN turned EAS into an ASEAN-centric, not China led institution.
In 2011, Russia and the United States were admitted to the EAS. In ASEAN’s view, this brought all the big powers including three of the P5 of the UN, into an ASEAN-centric institution. It gave ASEAN leaders an exclusive opportunity to meet the global big powers annually.
At EAS meetings the US president was the main attraction. Obama attended the 2011 EAS when the US was admitted; then all except the 2013 summit due to domestic compulsions. Trump avoided the EAS during his term. Russia always participated at the level of the premier except 2018 when Putin participated in Singapore. China too allocated ASEAN to their premier while President Xi Jinping would attend the APEC.
ASEAN was relieved that regional security was now not only the responsibility of the US. Russia and China as part of the EAS could maintain regional stability. The functional nature of ASEAN required this security balance. Priority areas of EAS cooperation included energy, education, finance, global health including pandemics, environment and disaster management.
By 2012 ASEAN-China relations strained due to Chinese aggressive intent in the South China Sea (SCS).This created an ASEAN crisis in 2012 under the Cambodian chairmanship.
ASEAN remained anxious that the EAS should not discuss Chinese activities; they believe they could deal with China separately. A major act of imbalance in the region, the Chinese claim on the nine-dash line, was kept out by ASEAN from EAS discussions. In 2013, Xi announced in Jakarta the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which promised infrastructure projects in the region.
While this assuaged ASEAN concerns, it created anxiety among other EAS partners, particularly the Quad. ASEAN’s inability to counter China now impinged upon its EAS partners.
Every power wondered how to deal with the EAS for its best arrangements. Security matters were not being discussed at EAS. China engaged ASEAN to keep themselves insulated at the EAS and diverted attention from the ARF.
The EAS mainly dealt with functional issues like malaria, green economy, public health and mental health among others. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), attracted EAS support. The East Asia Low Carbon Growth Partnership Dialogue through which Japan promoted a Joint Crediting Mechanism is an EAS success. The RCEP was a co-EAS emergence though US and Russia were not in it and India withdrew in 2019.
The value was in the informal consultations which EAS provided. The pandemic in 2020 led to virtual Summits, robbing them of their main value.
ASEAN was scrambling to maintain EAS to ensure its centrality. EAS partners were wary of China leading to the enunciation of Indo-Pacific policies by Japan, India and Australia and the reemergence of the Quad under Biden in 2021. This was a move to outflank ASEAN assuaging China.
In 2012, as China grabbed parts of the SCS, efforts to have EAS enunciate an Indo-Pacific policy faltered. Indonesia, India and Russia presented draft papers to an EAS group but it came to nought, like strategic initiatives in EAS did.
In 2019, ASEAN finally came up with the ASEAN Outlook for the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). It was drafted so as not to annoy China and tell EAS partners about their serious intent. China did not object to the AOIP since it uses the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ only in the title and not in the document. The tenets of the AOIP have become the mainstay of ASEAN collaboration with partners and it seeks to bring them to the EAS for wider dissemination and acceptance and consequently maintain its centrality.
EAS partners have no problem with ASEAN centrality. They are worried about ASEAN responsibility toward that centrality and whether it can maintain unity.
The Quad is more vocal making ASEAN anxious and looking over their shoulder at China. They did not visualize that the Quad were all part of the EAS and the emergence of the Quad was a reflection on the lack of efficacy of the EAS.
This is where the EAS stands in 2022, at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific. It is the largest of the ASEAN-centric bodies where world leaders congregate, but since it’s not doing very much, the value has diminished. Over the years EAS has been looking more at non-traditional threats including illegal fishing, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, (HADR) migration and the like.
As the architect of the EAS, ASEAN needs to realize the “erosion challenges” faced by EAS. Its position “at the apex of the ASEAN-centered regional architecture” needs rejuvenation.
The basis on which the EAS was created have been trespassed by geostrategic realities. While functional and economic multipolarity is being attained, there is a greater trend toward bipolarity between the US and China and Russia.
Can ASEAN lead the EAS into staying relevant at this time when their partners are divided and ASEAN unity itself has weakened as noticed over the attitude to Myanmar and to the Ukraine crisis? On neither was ASEAN unified.
For the EAS to remain meaningful ASEAN and its partners must work together to create a new sense of trust and confidence building. This is easier said than done. China keeps dragging its feet on the code of conduct. US allies are strengthening themselves through AUKUS and Quad.
Often, ASEAN as a whole cannot act in unison. It is time for ASEAN to engage other EAS partners as individual countries? Trilaterals among India-Australia-Indonesia and India-Vietnam-Japan could help overcome US-China competition and have creative relationships.
India’s IPOI offers such an opportunity. Indonesia and Singapore are two ASEAN countries who engage the IPOI pillars. If Vietnam and Philippines could also step up to working with the IPOI, it would strengthen cross-EAS. cooperation.
This ASEAN plus approach by its members could actually strengthen ASEAN centrality and ASEAN guidance to the EAS.
*** The writer is a former Indian ambassador to ASEAN.