For the first time in 60 years, sixteen countries gathered at an historic summit in Malaysia’s capital on December 13 to launch a new grouping that could reshape the region’s political architecture.
The East Asian Summit (EAS) promises to be an unprecedented milestone in the development of Asian security discourse that has hitherto been characterised more by bilateral relationships and alliances with extra-regional powers. This article examines the undercurrents that will shape the trajectory of the summit.
The broader geopolitics of Asia will shape how future summits evolve in the coming years. The EAS could be viewed as an intellectual and strategic step forward in co-operative security, which should ameliorate the simmering hotspots in the Asia-Pacific region. The inaugural summit, which has excluded the United States, will be seen in Washington as an anti-US hegemonic institution.
The prospects of the EAS as a new security mechanism would depend on the relationship of big powers such as the US, India, China and Japan. Smaller powers such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) do matter, but more in terms of facilitating dialogue than in shaping agendas. The EAS could turn out to be just another glorified talkfest, however, the value of greater institutional collaborations cannot be discounted.
EAS: An intellectual and strategic step forward
The historic East Asian Summit will include leaders from ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. The willingness of the three North-East Asian countries to come together should be a boost for regional confidence-building particularly as it comes amid growing tensions.
The North Korean nuclear crisis remains unresolved, and the recent round of Six Party Talks held under the leadership of China, experienced no breakthrough into the diplomatic impasse. North Korea appears to have won the game of political brinkmanship with the US as China has given it more energy and food aid, without any obligation from Pyongyang to dismantle the nuclear weapons program.
The US-China summit in November failed to address the growing suspicions that both states have about each other’s strategic intentions. Beijing and Washington have missed yet another opportunity for a mutually strategic reassurance to avert a continued drift towards an adversarial relationship in the decades to come.
Meanwhile the Sino-Japanese relationship is experiencing yet another round of animosity with Beijing reacting aggressively to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to the Yakuzuni war shrine. The chain of events appears to be less than promising but as in the nature of international politics, current developments may not have a bearing on future outcomes.
The prospect of the EAS becoming a productive institution enhancing regional security should not be dismissed. Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo has described the region’s unprecedented collective response to three dramatic changes that are taking place: globalisation, the re-emergence of China and India, and the challenge of international terrorism.
The inclusion of Australia and New Zealand, traditionally Anglo-Saxon and Western-oriented countries, and India means that the geographical definition of East Asia has become elastic.
The EAS is an intellectual and strategic step forward for three vital reasons.
First, it is a shift from the traditional emphasis of bilateral security to multilateral security. Since the end of the World War II, the “hubs and spooks” model of bilateral ties between the US and allied nations has predominated the Asian security architecture. Unlike Europe, there was no NATO equivalent of a multilateral forum in Asia. The US security umbrella provided the overarching guarantee of political sovereignty for a disparate group of nations, emerging from colonialism, to develop their economies and strengthen security. Specifically, it stabilised the security situation in North-East Asia, where a militaristic Japan was rehabilitated under the US-Japan alliance.
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