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Regional summits can still play a role in reducing tensions

11 Nov Regional summits can still play a role in reducing tensions

Asia has entered its annual season of political summits and US President Barack Obama will be a key player, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and then at the East Asia Summit, hosted by Myanmar.

Simply turning up shows that America is making the effort to continue its rebalance to the region. But after the pomp and ceremony dies down, will Asia be satisfied with what America has to offer? And will Obama judge his time here well spent?

There has always been some debate about how to define the region – whether Asia should be paired with the US and others on the far side of the Pacific, or be a region unto itself. Apec and the East Asia Summit are two key meetings in the jumbled and partly overlapping arrangements that result.

Apec includes 21 members from both sides of the Pacific, and sometimes seems too sprawling.

In contrast, the East Asia Summit membership remains more limited. Hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the summit has gone beyond China, Japan and South Korea to include the US, Australia, New Zealand, India and Russia. The summit currently seems to meet a kind of “Goldilocks” test – neither too small to matter nor so large that it is unwieldy.

Hosting the summit is a major part of Asean’s claim to “centrality” in a region of rising powers. The East Asia Summit is, however, neither without critics nor potential rivals.

Different major powers are taking different initiatives. The Obama administration’s centrepiece for trade and economic ties, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, includes its ally Japan but just four out of 10 Asean member states – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. China, moreover, is notably excluded.

For its part, China is strengthening its engagement with the region in a number of ways. The most recent and juiciest carrot dangled by President Xi Jinping is the newly launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The US has pointedly pushed against it and inveighed its allies – Australia, Japan and South Korea – to also stay out.

Unless US-China or Sino-Japanese ties improve, there are risks for the region’s stability and progress. Expectations arise therefore for the East Asia Summit to reduce tensions and increase trust.

But there are limits to what can be done at the summit, which is helmed by the 10 smaller and middle-sized countries of Asean. Watch therefore US-China ties when Obama meets Xi on the sidelines of Apec for an informal summit. Sino-US relations – coloured by contentious issues from cybersecurity to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea – are far from cuddly. But the leaders are likely to seek some positive news, and cooperation on energy and climate change could be it.

Sino-Japanese relations have been even worse, yet Beijing and Tokyo are beginning to recognise their economic interdependence, and the need to return to a working relationship.

Sino-Japanese and US-China relations will be determined by these major powers bilaterally, and not by any larger summit – whether Apec, the East Asia Summit or any other forum. But Asean can assist with its East Asia Summit, in which all three participate.

We believe the summit has the potential to be the apex multilateral summit of the region.

Asia is witnessing major shifts in power and much will depend on what the major powers do, both separately and in relation to each other. Without economic clout or military strength, Asean should not be complacent about the East Asia Summit and its claims to centrality.


Associate professor Simon Tay and Cheryl Tan are, respectively, chairman and assistant director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This commentary appeared in the South China Morning PostThe Jakarta PostThe Nation,TODAYonlineThe Malaysian Insider and The Establishment Post.