Amid the gradually growing U.S.-China tensions, the Indo-Pacific region has become another arena for the two powers to defend their interests. The Southeast Asian countries, embroiled into this competition yet trying to refrain from choosing the sides, attempt to play a more decisive role in the region through the ASEAN dialogue mechanisms. They highlight the centrality of the ASEAN in conducting a constructive dialogue to find a common solution. Accordingly, the 14th East Asia Summit (EAS) that was held in Bangkok on November 4, 2019 was one of the platforms on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit that sought to reinforce mutual strategic trust and address common challenges, including through practical cooperation.
One of the issues that was among the most anticipated among the ASEAN members and regional states was the conclusion of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will open a free trade between the ASEAN countries and five of the region’s major trading partners – Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. The RCEP participating countries have concluded text-based negotiations on all 20 chapters and market access issues, and it is planned that the deal will be signed in 2020 [ASEAN, 2019]. At the time when signing a “phase one” trade deal between the United States and China is expected, the finalization of the RCEP talks signals that even in difficult times countries could find a common solution leading to mutually beneficial cooperation. However, India declines to sign the trade pact mainly due to its concern with a trade deficit with other RCEP participating states.
In addition to the RCEP negotiations and internal regional issues, including education, economic and security issues, the summit discussed the U.S.-China tensions and the South China Sea dispute, among other regional and global issues. The member states highlighted the matters related to the South China Sea, namely the progress made with the single draft negotiating text of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and practical measures that could reduce tensions between the states involved in the dispute. In addition, the EAS leaders addressed ways to achieve peace and stability in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and issues related to countering violent extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. Notably, the previous summit was centered around the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, counterterrorism, regional economic integration, maritime cooperation, and connectivity issues [Tyler and Arthur, 2019] .
Meanwhile, the absence of the U.S and Russian presidents and China’s representation by its premier during the latest summit call into question the very nature of the EAS leaders meeting’s purpose. Moreover, the downgrading of the U.S. participation to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross confirms doubts that most regional states have about the U.S. power and purpose in the region [East Asia Forum, 2019]. It is worth noting here that former U.S. President Barack Obama almost always represented his country in the EAS as part of his Pivot to Asia policy. The Trump administration acts within the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy launched in 2017 that aims to counterbalance Chinese activities in Asia, promote rules-based order and contribute to prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific region by focusing on economy, security and governance [Stromseth, 2019]. China, on the other hand, sees the EAS as a platform to further promote its Belt and Road Initiative, while positioning the ASEAN countries as a key target area for Chinese diplomacy. The prime ministers of Japan and India took an active part in the discussion, along with other regional players, also very supportive of the summit format. For Australia, the EAS is, as put by former Secretary of the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese, “one of two most important multilateral meetings” [Tyler and Arthur, 2019]. Thus, while major powers such as the United States and China regard the EAS as one of the platforms of their spheres of influence, other regional players strive for using this platform to resolve their common issues.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the importance of the EAS is in its “leaders-led” dialogue feature that intends to advance dialogue in all spheres to promote peace, stability, and prosperity. Although the EAS was launched in 2005, the idea was proposed in the early 1990s, when regional countries were negotiating on the formation of the East Asian Economic Caucus. Following the inclusion of Russia and the United States in 2011, the EAS partially institutionalized, having become a unit within the ASEAN Secretariat in 2015. At present, the EAS senior officials’ meeting, the EAS ambassadors’ meeting in Jakarta and the EAS unit at the ASEAN Secretariat work to ensure effective implementation of leaders’ decisions following the EAS summit meetings. Consequently, by bringing together ten ASEAN members and major and regional powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Russia, the EAS is seen as one of the ASEAN instruments to influence the wider Asian strategic environment [Bisley, 2017]. With the 18 participating countries that represent 54% of the world’s population and 58% of global GDP, the EAS definitely has a potential to address issues resulting from geopolitical games unfolding in the region [East Asia Forum, 2019].
Either way, even though the EAS has little institutional support, without its own secretariat and separate budget, it attempts to gather world and regional leaders to negotiate on the issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. The ASEAN states, being in the very center of regional geopolitics, intend to build a constructive dialogue based on their regional interests. Therefore, with or without world leaders, the participating countries still pin very positive hopes on the EAS to influence important regional issues through discussing them.
Bisley, Nick (2017). The East Asia Summit and ASEAN: Potential and Problems. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 39 (2), 265-272.
Stromseth Jonathan (2019). Don’t make us choose: Southeast Asia in the throes of US-China rivalry. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-make-us-choose-southeast-asia-in-the-throes-of-us-china-rivalry/. Accessed on 07.11.2019.
Tyler, Melissa Conley and Rhiannon Arthur (2019). What can we expect from this year’s East Asia Summit? Retrieved from https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/11/03/what-can-we-expect-from-this-years-east-asia-summit/. Accessed on 07.11.2019.
ASEAN (2019). Joint Leaders’ Statement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). 4 November 2019, Bangkok, Thailand. Retrieved from https://asean.org/storage/2019/11/FINAL-RCEP-Joint-Leaders-Statement-for-3rd-RCEP-Summit.pdf. Accessed on 07.11.2019.
East Asia Forum (2019). Straining to achieve potential at the East Asian Summit in Bangkok. Retrieved from https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/11/04/straining-to-achieve-potential-at-the-east-asian-summit-in-bangkok/. Accessed on 07.11.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th