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The debate on the regional architecture heated up again at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali last November.

The EAS was initially aimed at creating an East Asian political architecture, an idea that had its origins in Dr. Mahathir’s East Asia Economic Grouping/Caucus (EAEG/EAEC). Though the EAEG/EAEC never took off, the idea was resurrected as the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) in 1997. The APT, by setting up an eminent persons group called the East Asia Vision Group (EASG), submitted among others, a recommendation to launch the EAS in order to catalyse the emergence of an East Asian community. However, the problem of reconciling the difference between the APT and the EAS made it untenable to launch a geographically exclusive EAS.

Therefore, the first EAS hosted by Malaysia in 2005 brought together the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan and South Korea as well as Australia, India and New Zealand. In Bali, the grouping was further expanded with the admission of the United States and Russia.

By no stretch of imagination can the EAS be said to be representing East Asia. It is perhaps more accurate to refer to it as the Indo-Asia Pacific (IAP) region.

The EAS now brings together three permanent members of the UN Security Council. One of the criteria for EAS membership is accession to ASEAN’s non-aggression treaty known as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation or TAC. Since the treaty was open for accession by states outside Southeast Asia, 17 states have acceded to it. The United States signed the treaty in 2009. Several other countries have also expressed interest to sign. The European Union will be the first regional organisation to do so next year.

However, not all TAC signatories are members of the EAS. This includes France, another permanent member of the UN Security Council. Since the EAS is no longer limited to geographical East Asia, the EAS could theoretically see further transformation if signatories such as the EU seek membership in the EAS.
So are we witnessing the birth of a new political and security architecture?
This question is timely because the IAP region accounts for two thirds of the world population, 56% of the global output and 44% of global trade. With Europe and United States in economic doldrums, the IAP region is expected to be the engine of global economic growth for the immediate future.

However, this growth could intensify competition for dominance, resources and markets, and bring about new conflicts, aggravate or transform long-standing ones. Presently, the IAP region is host to numerous disputes and problems including among others, the Korean nuclear issue, overlapping claims in the South China Sea, Kashmir, piracy, insurgencies, separatist movements, terrorism, and macro-environmental issues such as natural disasters and pandemics.

Is the present architecture suited to handle these problems?

The main contending model of the present evolving regional architecture envisages an inter-linkage of various regional groupings such as ASEAN, APT, ASEAN regional Forum (ARF) and the EAS, with a division of labour between them.

In this model, the EAS will address broad strategic issues. ASEAN will be the driver of integration of the Southeast Asian states into the ASEAN Community while the APT will focus on a longer term integration of Southeast and Northeast Asia into a loose East Asian community. Other bodies such as the ARF will fill the gaps and act as connectors. APEC is expected to revert to managing economic issues. The evolving Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) could eventually form part of the architecture if it is moves away from its current exclusionary path.

With the exception of APEC and TPP, the other bodies in the present architecture are driven by ASEAN. The regional organisation has thus far been able to do so because of its non-threatening nature.

However, the main news coming out of Bali was not about ASEAN’s agenda. The signing of the Bali Concord III, formally known as ‘ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations’, boldly declaring a new role for ASEAN “in managing the new Asia-Pacific dynamic equilibrium and regional architecture”, and ASEAN’s push for discussion on practical approach on enhancing regional capacity in disaster mitigation were largely ignored. Instead the focus was on the maritime disputes in South China Sea and US plans to step up military presence in Australia.

While it is plausible that the attention to these issues was merely an outcome of Washington taking advantage of China’s missteps, it is more likely a reflection of ASEAN’s weak position within the regional architecture. Hence the future could probably see a further erosion of ASEAN’s role as the driver or centrality in the present regional architecture.

ASEAN is weak because it is weakly integrated. Despite detailed plans and roadmap for the creation of the ASEAN Community, there is no discernible evidence of an emerging community. Eloquent speeches extolling a “people centred” ASEAN have also remained mere words. Commitment to regional integration is uneven within the grouping, often with more attention given to form over substance. Even with the ASEAN Charter intended to support the organisation’s efforts to cohere into a rules based organisation with a sense of regional identity, it has been “business as usual’ in ASEAN.

It is a sad reality that the ASEAN Community remains an elitist project, conceived by officials and hardly touching the lives of ordinary citizens. With the bulk of its citizenry unaware of the activities of the regional grouping and how it represents them, the ASEAN leadership is unable to claim moral authority to articulate a collective stance on behalf of the region or the architecture that it purports to represent.

The grouping’s weakness would most likely be more pronounced in the next few years if it fails to act robustly particularly as ASEAN would be chaired by the newer members namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. This could encourage the non-ASEAN members of the EAS to clamour for a more direct role in shaping the regional architecture by demanding a share in the management of the EAS. Indeed the demands by the non-ASEAN members for equal status at the preparatory meeting for the Bali EAS recently, may be a foretaste of the pressure that will build on ASEAN.

Therefore the clock is ticking for ASEAN. Unless it is able to project a regional identity by achieving the kind of integration that the ordinary ASEAN citizen can relate to, sooner or later ASEAN may be forced to abdicate control of the EAS and take a back seat in an emergent IAP architecture.