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Community Building in the Asia-Pacific: Ideas, Concepts and the United States

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 06, 2009

    In the season of Asian gatherings, the East Asian Summit brought together all the key players of Asia along with the leaders of 16 countries (ASEAN+3+3) in Thailand in October 2009. The leaders considered competing Japanese and Australian proposals to expand regional cooperation, but failed to clarify whether the US would be involved. Prime Minister of Thailand and summit chairman Abhisit Vejjjajiva said that the member countries were open to further discussions on both proposals as part of “an ongoing process to flesh out the concepts.” As it transpired, neither Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama nor Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spelt out how their proposals would work, or whether the US would have a role to play. At the moment, both concepts are ambiguous.

    Again almost all of them will meet in Singapore at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in mid-November, which will include other Pacific leaders, plus US President Barack Obama. At the ASEAN summit, leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian countries met their counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea. These 13 countries then met again with India, Australia and New Zealand.

    The Chinese reaction to the proposals of Hatoyama and Rudd was muted. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, said that China was prepared to discuss the proposals, but did not express a preference for either option. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said it could be a good time to rethink about the membership and the progress that has been made thus far. One thing emerged clear, however. Both plans would have their grounding in the 16-country EAS membership.

    Kevin Rudd’s marketing strategy for his idea in the Asia Pacific region has been rather aggressive compared to Hatoyama’s. Earlier, he dispatched his marketing manager Robert Woolcott to Asian countries to spell out his idea of community building. It may be recalled that Woolcott played a similar role when the APEC took shape in 1989 by travelling to several countries in South East Asia selling the idea of APEC. It was then thought that the idea was unachievable. Rudd’s hope thus rests on Woolcott using his persuasive skills to sell the idea to the leaders of the region. Rudd, in fact, claimed that a wide range of countries had welcomed his Asia-Pacific Community plan and agreed to send representatives to a conference on the issue to be held in Australia in December 2009.

    In contrast, Hatoyama’s approach was relatively mild and soft. He had earlier floated his idea to his Northeast Asian neighbours – China and South Korea – and their response was not very clear. Hatoyama is trying to generate support for his East Asian Community idea, reflecting his government’s determination to engage more with the rest of Asia than his predecessors had done.

    Notwithstanding the community formation ideas in different shapes coming from Japan and Australia, the EAS came out with as many as 42 deals on issues ranging from outstanding trade and economic matters to the launch of a human rights commission. Seen against the backdrop of the meeting that was planned earlier in April in Bangkok but which was postponed due to “red shirts” protestors supporting ousted Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the EAS summit in October was a success.

    The EAS, the first in the series, inaugurated an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights but suffered an immediate setback after Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore refused to meet the five individuals chosen by civil rights groups to represent their countries. The ASEAN nations also held a number of bilateral meetings as well as a summit with China, Japan and South Korea, dubbed the ASEAN+3 meeting.

    After the leaders of the Asian region have done their summitry, some are getting ready to welcome US President Barack Obama when he travels later this month to the Asian region. Obama is slated to visit Japan first on November 12-13 against the backdrop of the Japan-US security alliance showing some signs of fissure because of the change in focus of Japanese foreign policy under the Hatoyama dispensation.

    The US is increasing its diplomatic efforts in Asia. After visiting Japan, Obama will attend the APEC summit in Singapore during which he will also hold the first US conference with ASEAN leaders on the sidelines, before flying to China and South Korea. It is to be seen if Obama brings with him any additional ideas and concepts for the Asian leaders to consider. Some countries view the EAS as the last in a series of meetings held in October that provided an annual opportunity for Japan, China and India to compete for influence in South East Asia.

    At present, Obama is saddled with a host of domestic issues. His priority at present is the domestic healthcare initiative. He also has to act on the climate change issue in time for the Copenhagen summit, which is set to debate a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. It is, therefore, expected that Obama is unlikely to push hard any new ideas during his Asian sojourn, apart from working towards maintaining the existing relationship with US allies in Asia. His response to Hatoyama’s idea for an East Asian Community may be muted, since keeping Japan close would be the priority. In any case, China is against widening the circle and therefore Obama will be watchful of Hatoyama’s initiative and would prefer engaging with Asia as a whole.

    One point of interest would be how Obama interacts with the leader of Myanmar though he is expected to support democracy and push for a fair process in the elections that the military junta has promised for 2010. ASEAN has been the hub for Asian regionalism and some of the ASEAN member states have expresses their preference for openness towards US leadership as the route for seeking their regional aspirations. While intra-Asian trade agreements have proved to be successful, the US might prefer to advocate a free-trade agreement between the US and ASEAN. The inclusion of Myanmar in the ASEAN grouping might make it politically difficult and as such an ASEAN-sub grouping seems to be more realistic.

    The main thrust of Obama’s Asian sojourn is likely to be to ensure that Asia continues to see the United States as essential for maintaining the Asian order. The Bush administration had proposed a Trans-Pacific Partnership with a view to forge close economic links with some of the ASEAN members – Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei. If the long-term aim of the US is to achieve an APEC-wide agreement, then the inclusion of other open Southeast Asian economies such as Malaysia and Thailand may be necessary. If Obama can achieve this objective by 2011 when he is due to host APEC leaders, his Asian policy would have proved successful. But with the US economy in difficult straits and unemployment rising, the American public may not approve a free trade agreement with ASEAN as Asian markets are vital for American businesses and overall American recovery.

    Under the circumstances, Obama’s Asian policy will be a policy of engagement in any framework – political and economic – that the Asian leaders may be coming up with. China has been charming the Southeast Asian countries during the past few years in order to further its economic and strategic interests, though there always lurks a perceived fear in some quarters in South East Asia about any regional initiative being hijacked by China. It is to be seen if Obama will offer an attractive alternative.

    The APEC is seen as a talking shop, while ASEAN is an example of successful regionalism. There has been an ongoing contest between Japan and China for influence. India is also mentioned as a potential major player in regional affairs. Both China and India are rising, both economically and politically. Even while Asian regionalism might appear messy amidst tensions and flashpoints that continue to threaten to derail the community building process, the fact that Asian countries are coming together is a positive development. Obama has to convince Asian leaders that the US role in the region will be a benign one and a stabilizing factor.

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