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How the East Asia Summit can achieve its potential

How the East Asia Summit can achieve its potential

Asia's summit season kicks off this week with the 20th APEC 'economic leaders' meeting in Beijing. The region's political jamborees have become very cluttered of late and leaders from all of Asia's key powers may become a little tired with one another's company. After APEC they will jet to Naypyidaw to take part in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and then fly on to Brisbane for the G20. There will be plenty of opportunity for political elites to get to know one another.

Group photo of the 4th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, 2014.

But the pit stop in Myanmar has many scratching their heads. Why does the region need two almost identical leaders' meetings back to back? What value does the EAS add? And given the limited diary time of political leaders, can interest at the highest level be sustained?

The EAS was created in 2005 and originally had 16 members: the 10 members of ASEAN, the ASEAN 'plus three' (China, Japan and South Korea) as well as Australia, India and New Zealand. In 2011, Russia and the US joined as part of their respective efforts to signal greater political engagement in the region. It was created to provide a leaders' level meeting that had a broad policy remit. In contrast to APEC, which has a narrow focus on economic matters, the EAS mandate is for the full spectrum of government activity. Also, it is anchored in ASEAN and thus has the necessary 'ASEAN centrality' to ensure buy-in from the Southeast Asian grouping. 

In spite of its potential, in its near decade of existence the Summit has failed to carve out a distinctive identity and it has had little purchase on regional cooperation. Indeed, it is at risk of marginalisation in the increasingly overcrowded Asian regional architecture.

Yet the EAS is worth saving.

It has the right membership, it has political weight and it can play a key role in helping to stabilise a region that is becoming ever more fractious. As Malcolm Cook and I detail in a recent ISEAS paper, the 10th anniversary of the Summit in 2015 is an ideal time to institute a series of reforms to help it achieve its potential as the premier regional forum.  [fold]

First, the EAS needs to have a clear purpose and a division of labour between itself and other regional mechanisms. This means embracing the underlying assumption of a leaders' level summit. It should provide strategic guidance on priorities and direction for ASEAN-centred functional bodies such as the ASEAN-Plus Defence Ministers' Meeting.

Second, the EAS should develop a set of priority issue areas on which it can bring its strengths to bear. The two most pressing are energy and maritime security (in a broader sense than just humanitarian and disaster-relief matters). This could support broader efforts to establish a more cooperative foundation to the regional security order as well as achieve mutually beneficial policy collaboration in areas like counter-piracy.

Third, the EAS needs institutional support to help develop new policy initiatives and to manage the complex politics of policy leadership in a difficult regional setting. The summit process could benefit greatly from the establishment of a dedicated track two network to advance policy work in these areas. The Summit should also consider establishing a permanent committee of representatives to undergird the leaders' meetings and provide diplomatic momentum between gatherings. This idea was first floated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Shangri-La dialogue in June 2014. 

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the Summit needs to adopt a mode of operation which recognises that eight of the grouping are not ASEAN members and that these states include some of the most important players in global politics. The working practice of ASEAN centrality needs to be creatively reinterpreted to generate a more dynamic policy setting.

The East Asia Summit in Napyidaw is likely to be little more than a photo opportunity. Indeed, who attends will be a good barometer of the Summit's prospects (so far the Russian President has not yet attended and China's premier attends, not the president). For the EAS to make good on its potential and to deliver public goods that the region badly needs, it must act. If it does not, it is likely to become one of international politics' zombie organizations.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

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