Much ado about something?


HONOLULU — Was the inaugural East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 14 “much ado about nothing,” as many critics are already claiming, or the “historic event” its proponents say?

It’s too soon to know. While it remains unclear what EAS will eventually become, it is already quite clear what it will not be: It will not form the base of the much-heralded but still dormant East Asia Community. That role will remain with the more exclusive ASEAN-Plus-Three (A+3), comprising the 10 Southeast Asian states plus China, Japan and South Korea. It is also highly doubtful that it will, or wants to, pose a threat to U.S. interests.

The EAS host, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, made it clear that A+3 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, or the New Zealanders for that matter.

“We are not talking about members of the community,” Badawi continued, even though Australia, New Zealand and “our immediate neighbor” India have “common interests in what is happening in the region.”

The architects of East Asia community-building, he inferred, would all be Asians, with A+3 participants providing the base. EAS would provide a vehicle for outsiders to endorse the process; it “could play a significant role,” but would not drive the process.

The chairman’s statement underscored, twice, that ASEAN remains the “driving force” behind East Asian community-building. According to the Kuala Lumpur declaration, future summits “will be hosted and chaired by an ASEAN member country . . . and be held back to back with the annual ASEAN Summit.”

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.

The chairman’s statement and Kuala Lumpur declaration both acknowledge that building an East Asia community is “a long term goal,” indicating that first priority will go toward building “a strong ASEAN community which will serve as a solid foundation for our common peace and prosperity.” This should make Indonesia happy — Jakarta, which had previously put forth its own proposals for building an ASEAN community, had believed that pushing for EAS was premature.

In an apparent attempt to address one of Washington’s potential concerns about this new regional grouping, the Kuala Lumpur Declaration noted that 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 (TAC), something the Bush administration (like its predecessors) has been reluctant to do. Observer status 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 EAS should “welcome the participation of Russia.” Russian President Vladimir Putin made an appearance at the summit, but Russia membership will not be decided until next year. Russia “should strengthen contact with the United States, the European Union, and other countries,” Wen said, stressing that EAS would not be “closed, exclusive, or directed against any particular party.”

Washington had previously warned Beijing that if it wanted to be seen as a “responsible stakeholder” it should not use its participation in multilateral organizations like EAS to “maneuver toward a predominance of power” or otherwise be seen as deliberately trying to undercut Washington’s influence or interests. Beijing (and others) clearly heard this message.

Still undefined is how EAS (or the A+3 for that matter) will interact with broader regional organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum or the ministerial-level ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Hopefully, this will be one of the “modalities” 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 — another modality yet to be defined. It should also be asking itself why it continues to resist acceding to TAC. The oft-stated contention that this would somehow undercut America’s Asian alliances appears unfounded: Two of Washington’s Asian allies — Thailand and the Philippines — are charter members of ASEAN, while the other three — Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea — have now acceded to TAC without any perceptible impact on their alliance commitments.

As a member of ARF, Washington has already endorsed the purpose and principles of TAC “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’s time to take the next step, in order to demonstrate its commitment to regional prosperity and stability and to underscore its support for East Asia community-building.