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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 13:49 | SYDNEY

Scoop: ASEAN's divide on US

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COMMENTS

16 August 2010 10:53

In the journalist universe, confidential papers used to be passed over in plain envelopes or 'fall off the back of trucks'. These days, they just drop into the digital inbox. Less colourful, but just as interesting. So it is that we can share with you in some detail the internal ASEAN debate about how the US got a seat at Asia's new top table, the East Asia Summit.

The document exposes the divide running through ASEAN: four countries supported the expansion of the East Asia Summit to include the US, four members backed the ASEAN-plus-8 option, and two countries sat on the fence.

The argument reached beyond symbolism to substance. The ASEAN-plus notion would have created two top tables — the ASEAN-plus-8 (with the US in) while maintaining the present EAS (with the US out). The US decided it wanted one top table, and got it. Now, with the help of an ASEAN document on 'regional architecture', we can follow some of the internal machinations that led to the decision, announced by ASEAN Foreign Ministers in July, to invite the US and Russia to join the East Asia Summit. 

In the lead-up to that announcement, ASEAN senior officials met in Vietnam in May to debate three approaches to admitting the US and Russia: expansion of the EAS, ASEAN-plus-8, or EAS-plus-2. EAS-plus-2 was just too much of a committee-designed camel, even for ASEAN. Nobody liked it so it slipped quickly into oblivion. The fight was between the expanded EAS or the ASEAN-plus formula.

Those in favour of an expanded EAS were Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. Those in favour of an ASEAN-plus-8: Singapore, Cambodia, Burma, and the Philippines. The two with no clear positions were Brunei and Thailand (sitting on the fence is Brunei's normal position. Bangkok's unusual inability to make up its mind reflects the domestic agony tearing at Thailand's polity).

This list leads me to a correction/mea culpa. In previous posts, I'd listed Malaysia as lining up with Singapore in pushing the ASEAN-plus idea. It's always a dangerous presumption to predict that Kuala Lumpur will support anything coming out of Singapore, and clearly I was misinformed. Below, a rundown of the ASEAN debate before the Foreign Minister's decision, as described in the document.

Undecided:

  • Brunei: Each modality has its own strengths and risks. ASEAN should conduct a careful study on the three modalities.
  • Thailand: Still in listening mode and need to further study the modalities.

The four in favour of the expanded East Asia Summit:

  • Indonesia: The US and Russia have fulfilled the three criteria of participation in the EAS. Expansion of the EAS would not create additional structure. Afraid that under the ASEAN-plus-8 mechanism, the Plus 8 countries will play the leading role in the regional process.
  • Laos: Expansion of the EAS would not create any new framework. ASEAN can impose flexible moratorium to manage further expansion of the EAS after the inclusion of the US and Russia.
  • Malaysia: ASEAN centrality is maintained. Both the US and Russia have fulfilled the criteria of participation in the EAS. The inclusion of the US and Russia will provide a balance of power in the regional architecture, which is currently deemed too dominated by China in both ASEAN-plus-3 and EAS. Expanding the EAS would not create a new framework, thus no additional burden to member states and no duplication of work and functions by the various regional mechanisms. ASEAN-plus-8 could potentially overshadow the more established ASEAN-plus-3 and EAS mechanism and Plus 8 countries will play the leading role in future.
  • Vietnam: Will not add a new mechanism and will preserve ASEAN centrality.

The four in favour of ASEAN-plus-8:

  • Cambodia: ASEAN-plus-8 would best maintain ASEAN centrality and give flexibility for ASEAN to manoeuvre. If the US and Russia is included in the EAS, ASEAN would have to accommodate similar request by the European Union.
  • Burma: While the expansion of the EAS and ASEAN-plus-8 have its own advantages and disadvantages, it is more inclined to support the ASEAN-plus-8.
  • The Philippines: No clear position, although it had earlier indicated its preference for the ASEAN-plus-8 during the 16th ASEAN-China Senior Officials' Meeting in Hue in April, 2010.
  • Singapore: Strongly supports ASEAN-plus-8.

Singapore highlighted the downsides of the expansion of the EAS with these points:

  • EAS is lagging behind ASEAN-plus- 3 (Plus 3: China, Japan South Korea).
  • There is no guarantee that the expansion of the EAS will strengthen the forum. It may also slow down the forum.
  • Inclusion of the US and Russia may complicate the efforts towards a region-wide Free Trade Agreement.
  • Raises the question of the commitment of the US leaders in attending the forum.

And Singapore expressed the advantages of the ASEAN-plus-8:

  • ASEAN centrality is maintained.
  • The US and Russia's leaders are not obliged to attend the meeting annually.
  • ASEAN-plus-8 will give more focus on political and strategic issues.

The record shows that Singapore forcefully articulated the ASEAN-plus idea that it had developed, but could get only lukewarm support even from those backing the position. By contrast, some strong players – Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam — lined up behind the EAS. With a little push from the US, that decided the argument.

Photo by Flickr user michaels photo album, used under a Creative Commons license.