December 27, 2005 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved.

East Asia Summit: Much Ado About Something?

By Ralph A. Cossa
Global Beat Syndicate
—Was the inaugural East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur "much ado about nothing," as many critics are already claiming, or the "historic event" its proponents are proclaiming?

It is too soon to say. While it remains unclear what the EAS will eventually become, it is already clear that it will not be—nor does it wants to be—a threat to U.S. interests. It is also unlikely to form the basis for the much-heralded but still dormant East Asia Community. That role will remain with the more exclusive “Association of South East Asian Nations Plus Three,” comprised of the 10 Southeast Asian states plus China, Japan, and South Korea.

In an apparent attempt to address one of Washington's potential concerns about this new regional grouping, the Summit Declaration following the Dec. 14 gathering noted that the EAS would be "an open, inclusive, transparent, and outward-looking forum in which we strive to strengthen global norms and universally recognized values." Washington's membership would still require it to accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, something the Bush administration (like its predecessors) has been reluctant to do. Observer status for the United States appears possible, however, and is more likely to be sought by Washington.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao seemed to be opening the door for this when he noted that the EAS should "welcome the participation of Russia"—President Putin made an appearance at the Summit but Russian membership will not be decided until next year—and that it "should strengthen contact with the United States, the European Union, and other countries." Wen stressed that the EAS would not be "closed, exclusive, or directed against any particular party." In fact, Australia, New Zealand, and India all participated this year.

Nonetheless, the EAS host, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, made it abundantly clear that the 10 ASEAN countries and their Plus Three partners constituted the core, noting that "You are talking about a community of East Asians, I don't know how the Australians could regard themselves as East Asians." The architects of East Asian community-building, he clearly inferred, would all be Asians; the EAS would merely provide a vehicle for outsiders to endorse the process.

The EAS Chairman's Statement twice underscored that ASEAN remains the "driving force" behind East Asian community-building. The Declaration declared that future meetings "will be hosted and chaired by an ASEAN Member Country." Beijing wanted to host the second round but ASEAN remains as concerned about sharing driving privileges with its other community members as it does allowing outsiders a greater say in the process.

Still undefined is how the EAS (or the “plus three” for that matter) will interact with broader regional organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Community or the ministerial-level ASEAN Regional Forum, which also includes Washington among its members, and which addresses key regional strategic and military security concerns. Hopefully, this will be one of the "modalities" to be addressed by EAS participants when they convene again in December 2006 in Cebu, Philippines.

In the interim, Washington should begin exploring the possibility of seeking observer status in the EAS. For that matter, it should also be asking itself why it continues to resist acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. As a ARF member, Washington has already endorsed the purpose and principles of that treaty "as a code of conduct governing relations between states and a unique diplomatic instrument for regional confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and political and security cooperation."

Perhaps it is time to take the next step, in order to demonstrate U.S. commitment to regional prosperity and stability and to underscore U.S. support for East Asian community-building.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS and a member of the ARF Experts and Eminent Persons Group.

© 2005 The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of The Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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