The 19th ASEAN Summit and follow up East Asia Summit concluded on the weekend, following 5 days of meetings in which US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and leaders from Japan, Australia, Russia and South East Asia discussed their views on security and commerce in the region.
The meeting has largely been hailed as a success, with many agreeing ASEAN members were able to effectively "walk the talk" and challenge ASEAN's usual accusations of being merely a talking shop that offers an economic alternative for countries to China and India's manufacturing operations.
Report: ASEAN partners walk the talk (Jakarta Post, 20 November 2011)
That said, in the many agreements signed over the course of the summit, ASEAN and China pledged to further liberalize trade in services, signing a new protocol beyond the existing general agreement on trade in services (GATS) and the first package of ASEAN China Trade in Services agreement (AC-TIS), according to an official ASEAN press statement.
ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said the enlarged free trade pact, which previously only included trade of goods and investment, would further boost trade and investment between ASEAN and China.
He also rejected suggestions that ASEAN's success depended upon larger powers in the region. Instead he asserted that it was up to ASEAN to ensure its own fate. “I think it’s up to ASEAN, up to ASEAN’s diplomatic finesse to make sure that with all this conflicting and contending agenda … that we will be able in the end to achieve stability, confidence and security for our region,” he told reporters at the summit on Friday.
Report: ASEAN unity ‘can blunt effects of US-China rivalry’ (Jakarta Post, 19 November 2011)
After three years in office, dominated by domestic political wrangling, and the troubles of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, US President Barack Obama made the first appearance of a US head of state at the East Asia Summit, hoping to boost relations with the east as a counter balance to China, and enhance regional and security partnerships.
On security matters, the US and ASEAN countries aligned to effectively pressure China on their claim to hold "indisputable sovereignty over the South China Seas. 16 of the 18 nations spoke out on the question of territorial rights, putting China on the defensive. When it came for his turn to speak, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao appeared to acknowledge the concerns of ASEAN countries. Indeed, it was more telling that he did not rule out multilateral negotiations as China has done previously.
All week, Mr Obama took pains to say that the U.S. welcomes a rising China, while insisting that Beijing adhere to certain "rules of the road" on trade, maritime security and other issues. After expressing its reservations about a US military base in Darwin, Australia, Indonesia appeared to soften its stance towards the issue, saying it "must not be seen as something disturbing,” according to foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.
Other issues discussed included the approval of Myanmar's chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, passed over by states previously due to its human rights record.
As the Summit wound down, questions turned to how Cambodia's chairmanship of ASEAN would affect the blocs momentum, when the country takes over next year. Lacking the political and economic clout of Indonesia, many wonder whether the small nation will be able to lead with the same weight and connectivity with the world.
However, it is more likely, despite Mr. Pitsuwan's assertions, that it will fall on non-Asean members, the US and China, to decide how much attention the grouping will get in the coming years.
Report: Asean Wraps Up Big Year with Bang in Bali, Now What? (WSJ, 21 November 2011)
Report: US return to Asian stage a counter to China (Bangkok Post, 21 November 2011)
Report: Obama Pushes New Asia Ties (WSJ, 21 November 2011)