The United States Joins East Asia Summit
Implications for Regional Cooperation

Interview with Ann Marie Murphy
November 17, 2011

Immediately after the November 2011 APEC and ASEAN meetings, 18 nations gathered for the sixth East Asia Summit. The EAS provided a unique opportunity to advance regional cooperation at a meeting which Indonesia hosted for the first time and was the first to include the United States and Russia as formal participants.

NBR spoke with 2010–11 National Asia Research Fellow and Southeast Asia expert Ann Marie Murphy in advance of the summit. She described the dynamics of this East Asia Summit, what might change with the addition of two larger partners, and insight into the role of the EAS among the various regional institutions. Dr. Murphy is an Associate Professor at Seton Hall University.

The East Asia Summit has proved to be a forum for addressing controversial issues in the region. What major topics are likely to be discussed this year?

ASEAN is the “driver” or agenda-setter of the East Asia Summit (EAS). Its traditional focus has been on education, finance, and nontraditional security issues such as energy, disaster management, infectious diseases, and food security. This emphasis was driven in part by unfolding events and in part by a desire of some members to avoid more controversial issues that might raise tensions. In April 2011, however, ASEAN decided to place traditional security issues on the agenda, and so this year maritime security and nonproliferation are slated to be major topics of discussion. Disaster relief efforts will continue to receive prominent attention given the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis, as well as the current floods that are inundating Thailand and Cambodia.

Though not on the formal agenda, Burma’s bid to chair ASEAN in 2014, making it the host of the EAS that year, is likely to be the subject of much debate. In 2005, Burma passed on its turn as chair, a position that rotates annually, in response to pressure from other ASEAN members who feared Western countries would boycott Burmese-led ASEAN meetings. Burma has embarked on a chairmanship campaign, arguing that its 2010 elections, installation of a new civilian government, and release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, among other political changes, give the country the right to the chairmanship.

However, Burma’s bid has been opposed by those who argue the elections were neither free nor fair, the “civilian government” is led by former generals who simply exchanged uniforms for suits, and there has been little progress toward national reconciliation. In his role as ASEAN chair, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa expressed conditional support for Burma’s bid, arguing the country’s progress must be acknowledged and the ASEAN chairmanship is an incentive for further reform. Awarding the ASEAN chair to Burma carries risks: a backsliding of nascent political reforms, an upsurge in violent conflict, or a further deterioration of the country’s deplorable human rights situation could lead some countries to consider boycotting the EAS.

Indonesia is hosting the EAS for the first time. How does this responsibility fit into the country’s foreign policy goals?

Indonesia has made a concerted effort to raise its international profile and hosting the EAS buttresses that goal, particularly as the United States and Russia formally join this year. Indonesia is also pushing ASEAN to play a larger global role, in part by creating more extensive linkages between ASEAN and other international organizations. As Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest state and the de facto leader of ASEAN, enhancing ASEAN’s role in global affairs also enhances Indonesia’s international influence. As part of this strategy, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will attend the EAS where he will endorse a Comprehensive Partnership Agreement between the UN and ASEAN. The challenge facing Indonesia is that for ASEAN to play a larger global role it must overcome internal differences to hammer out common positions on issues, something that has proven extremely difficult in the past.

Chairing the EAS also helps Indonesia achieve important national and regional interests. As an archipelagic state of 17,000 islands that lacks the naval capacity to defend itself, Indonesia has a vital interest in ensuring major naval powers abide by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Indonesia, therefore, will use its influence to call for adherence to international maritime law. Regionally, a key Indonesian goal is to ensure that Southeast Asia remains free from hegemony of any outside power. Indonesia views the EAS as a mechanism to promote what it calls a “dynamic equilibrium” in the broader Asia-Pacific, which would accommodate rising powers such as China and India, recognize the geopolitical interests of the United States, and define a role for middle powers in the pursuit of peace and security.

The United States will officially participate in the summit for the first time this year. Why did Washington decide to join the EAS after being skeptical of the organization for a number of years? What are its goals for this meeting?

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the 2010 EAS as the Vietnamese government’s guest, this year will mark the first time a U.S. president attends the summit. The decision to join the EAS is part of a broader strategy to pivot American foreign policy away from the Middle East toward the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. The United States wants to help build the regional architecture through which future challenges will be addressed.

When the EAS was formed in 2005, the United States had a skeptical attitude toward the organization because its goals were unclear, as were how it might evolve and whether it would complement or compete with the existent “alphabet soup” of Asian regional organizations such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Furthermore, the American experience in other ASEAN-led organizations that operate on consensus raised concerns that the EAS would be a talk shop, long on symbolism but short on substance. As allies such as Australia and Japan advanced proposals for competing organizations, the United States adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the EAS. However, it ultimately sought membership after the rejection of rival plans coupled with increased efforts by ASEAN to tackle difficult issues and become more results-oriented.

The broad American goal is to support the EAS as the primary venue for dialogue on regional political and security issues and to strengthen its capacity for problem solving. The United States also hopes that the EAS will provide guidance and leadership to other institutions such as the ARF, which implies that Washington would like some role for non-ASEAN members in agenda-setting.

In Bali, the United States hopes to promote its maritime security and nonproliferation agenda. With respect to maritime security, the United States is seeking commitments by regional states to the principles of freedom of navigation, the right to unimpeded legitimate commerce and collaborative efforts to avoid accidental conflict or miscalculations that could raise tensions. The United States also wants to address its nonproliferation agenda, since many of its efforts to secure nuclear material require the cooperation of Asian countries, particularly with regard to the Korean Peninsula.

Russia is also joining the EAS as a new official participant. How might the presence of the United States and Russia affect potential EAS outcomes?

The inclusion of Russia and the United States in the EAS means that the summit now provides a platform for all the region’s major powers—China, Japan, India, Russia, and the United States—to engage both with one another and with middle and smaller powers such as South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia on matters of regional importance. Importantly, the presence of Russia and the United States expands the range of issues that the EAS can address comprehensively.

EAS outcomes are tied to its agenda. ASEAN’s decision to add security issues to the summit’s formal agenda was done in part at the urging of the United States, a choice that China opposed. If the United States continues to push to expand the scope of the EAS agenda and to achieve concrete deliverables, it may help to progress the summit from dialogue and confidence-building toward conflict resolution and more tangible outcomes.

Some observers have expressed concern that the United States and China might dominate the agenda. Is this concern well-founded? What interests do the ASEAN states have in relation to the two largest participants?

While the possibility that the United States and China might dominate the EAS agenda exists, focusing too closely on the Sino-American dyad obscures how many of the smaller Asian countries use occasions such as the EAS and ARF to harness the influence of larger powers behind their own policy objectives. At the July 2010 ARF meeting in Hanoi, Sino-American tensions over the South China Sea dominated headlines. At that meeting, Secretary Clinton stated that the United States had a “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea” and that the disputes should be resolved in accordance with international law. Clinton’s statement challenged China’s longstanding position that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved bilaterally, leading Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi to respond angrily to the “internationalization” of the issue.

Concentrating only on Sino-American dynamics blinds analysts to the extensive consultations between key ASEAN members and the United States before meetings. Vietnam, the target of assertive Chinese actions in contested waters, used its position as ASEAN chair to place the South China Sea issue on the agenda and lobbied the United States to take a strong stand. Too narrow a focus on the larger states misses the role played by smaller states.

There is no single ASEAN interest or set of interests with respect to the United States and China. All ASEAN countries want to benefit from China’s economic growth, but how much they also worry about the strategic impact of China’s rise varies tremendously. Most ASEAN countries value the role the United States plays as an offshore balancer, but the extent to which they are willing to support and facilitate that role varies widely. In essence, ASEAN members do not want tension between the United States and China to increase to the point at which it threatens regional stability and creates pressure to choose sides.

How can outside observers measure the success of the EAS?

It is difficult to measure the success of the EAS because the organization lacks a well-defined mission. Like other ASEAN-centric summits, the EAS tends not to produce groundbreaking agreements. Instead, it provides a forum to discuss and link issues, defuse tensions, and provide participants incentives to cooperate rather than engage in conflict. Evaluating the success of the EAS requires analysts to grapple with the counterfactual question: In the absence of the EAS would there be more regional conflict and less effective responses to emerging challenges?

Measuring the success of the EAS is also complicated by the lack of a clear-cut division of labor between the EAS and other regional institutions, such as the ARF. These organizations’ scopes overlap and discussions of key issues move between them. At a July 2011 senior officials meeting ahead of the ARF, China and ASEAN agreed on a set of guidelines to implement their nonbinding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Discussions at the 2010 ARF meeting clearly motivated this agreement, but does this mean it should be considered a “success” of the ARF? Since the guidelines failed to include mechanisms to reduce the potential for clashes at sea, this topic will be discussed in Bali. With discussion of maritime security moving between these regional venues—as well as global ones such as the UN—assigning credit for any breakthrough on the issue can be problematic.

This interview was conducted by Alan Burns, a Bridge Award Fellow at NBR.