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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:09 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:09 | SYDNEY

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27 July 2010 12:15

Australia took some bruises and shed some skin in the argument over an Asia Pacific Community or community. So it's ironic but strangely appropriate that Australia's Foreign Minister wasn't even present in Hanoi when ASEAN and the United States unveiled the decisive deal.

The winner in the community stakes is the East Asia Summit.

ASEAN announced the deal. But the US ensured that it got the full loaf — the EAS — and not half a loaf in the guise of some form of an ASEAN-plus concoction. ASEAN has announced that the US and Russia will be invited to take part in the annual EAS leaders' summit.

With the US and Russia joining, the EAS club is now full. No new members need apply. This is an important moment of Asian institution building. And ASEAN doesn't think the institution needs to get any bigger.

On her fifth visit to Asia since become Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has proved that she is on top of one of the skills needed in Asia - she is 'fluent in ASEAN.' Clinton has good people who do careful spadework in Asia, she turns up to stroke the ASEANs, and she does not overplay the strong hand held by the US.

If Kevin Rudd ever gets to be Australia's Foreign Minister, Hillary could even offer some tips on speaking ASEAN when they resume their regular phone conversations. As an example, here is Clinton in Hanoi talking the ASEAN talk, while ticking every box from the US side.

Over the last 18 months we have signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, announced our intention to open a mission and name an ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta, and held the first U.S.-ASEAN summit. And we have pursued new sub-regional efforts like our new Mekong Delta partnership. To build on that progress I conveyed to my colleagues our interest in engaging with the East Asia Summit as it plays an increasing role in the challenges of our time. And I announced that President Obama had asked me to represent the United States in an appropriate capacity at this year's EAS in Hanoi to continue a process of consultations with a view toward full American participation at the presidential level in 2011. Through these consultations we will be working with EAS members to encourage its development into a foundational security and political institution for Asia in this century. The President also looks forward to hosting the second U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting in the United States this coming autumn.

The key Clinton phrase is her anointing of the EAS as a 'foundational security and political institution for Asia'. As part of the deal, evidently, she has promised that President Obama will attend the EAS summit in Indonesia next year. At last, Jakarta finds a way to get that Obama visit to actually happen.

Part of the deal the US has struck is a promise to embrace the EAS as an annual leaders' summit. The US president is going to have to come to Asia annually, not merely when APEC happens to be on the Asian side of the Pacific.

It's fascinating how the issue of presidential travel nearly derailed the obvious need for the EAS to embrace the US. Almost up to the last moment, Singapore and Malaysia were arguing that the US should be given a different prize — an ASEAN-plus-8 summit that would convene every three years. This would place less strain on US presidential travel plans and exclude the US from the EAS. Without the US complication, the EAS would be the natural basis for an Asian free trade zone. 

As I have previously noted, the Singapore approach 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 (the whole loaf). So, the EAS is expanding and the ASEAN-plus-eight fades as a concept that might never have existed.

Singapore's George Yeo says the possibility of a free trade agreement which binds the existing EAS members 'will be retained', even if the US can't touch the idea at the moment:

I think the Americans would be interested in the long term, but the trouble is, in the nearer term, Congress has no stomach for it. So we have got to play this: firstly, preserve what we have, but at the same time keep open the possibility of their joining us in the future.

Photo by Flickr user blurradial, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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