The East Asia Summit: Building our Regional Architecture for the 21st Century

Articles and op-ed

Bob Carr

Published in: Strategic Review, The Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs

July 2012

The 6th East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali in November 2011 — with the United States and Russia in attendance for the first time — was a triumph for Indonesia and for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The expansion of the EAS — whose foreign ministers will meet in Cambodia in July — brought to fruition a vision cherished by many in the region. It creates an institution with the membership and mandate to help manage an increasingly crowded strategic landscape, ensure outward-looking regionalism continues as the bedrock of Asia-Pacific integration and foster habits of cooperation.

Fittingly, this achievement comes on the cusp of profound change in the Asia Pacific region. With the shift of economic and strategic weight to Asia, we are all challenged to adapt to a new emerging global order — one in which our mutual security and prosperity increasingly relies on our ability to work together in the common interest.

No-one can deny that Asia is rapidly assuming its place as the driver of the world economy for the 21st century. In January, the Economist reported that within five years, China would have a larger economy in purchasing power parity than the United States.1 Based on reasonable projections at relative real growth rates and the relative values of the US dollar and the yuan, China will also have the larger GDP as measured by market exchange rates within the next seven years.

At the same time, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy, while economies like India, Korea, Indonesia and Australia — all G20 members — are growing rapidly. Indonesia, under the policy direction of President Yudhoyono and his economic team, is likely to emerge as one of the top six economies in the world by 2030.

This rapid economic growth brings with it changing power dynamics. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed, the Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics.2

For the foreseeable future, the United States will remain the single most powerful global and regional state through a unique combination of military, economic and soft power — the only nation capable of projecting power globally. Moreover, President Obama has made a deliberate and strategic decision that, as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, directing his national security team to make the United States’ presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific a top priority. 3 This commitment is reflected in the US defence priorities document issued in January 2012, which makes it clear that cuts to the US defence budget will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.

But it is also the case that the absolute margin of United States pre-eminence will continue to narrow as more economic and strategic weight moves to Asia.

While the United States remains the world's biggest military spender and will remain so for decades to come, the acceleration of military spending has been much higher in Asia than it has been in the United States. China's spending is up by 335 per cent for the decade to 2010, Russia’s by 368 per cent, and India’s by 183 per cent.4 This increased investment means regional militaries are gaining longer reach, with greater buying power for new technology, faster deployment of updated equipment and improved cyber and other non-conventional capabilities. All this potentially means greater capacity to deny access to strategically or economically important parts of Asia.

It is not just the rising strategic and economic weight of the Asia-Pacific that makes its regional arrangements important. It is in this region where many of the interests of the United States and China will need to be managed.

US pre-eminence has been the bedrock of Asia-Pacific stability for the past six decades. It has provided the strategic breathing space which has enabled the East Asian miracle. Both the markets and the military of the United States have been crucial to the growth of Japan, China, the Republic of Korea and the countries of ASEAN.

China has emerged from successive financial crises — regional and global — as a driver of Asian economic growth. Its remarkable economic development and growth over the past three to four decades is a product of considered statecraft in pursuit of its historical place as a respected great power. How China puts this power to use, and how Asia responds to China’s rise, will continue to shape our collective pursuit of peace and prosperity within the region.

A policy of containing China is neither desirable nor feasible. What we should continue to strive for is a China that fundamentally accepts, and sees it as being in its own interests to support, the global and regional rules-based order — to seek to influence it, but not to defy it. A China that is constructively engaged in the global and regional community and committed to the peaceful resolution of differences will be a positive force for the region and the world.

It is fundamentally in all of our interests that China and the United States are now together in the EAS along with the rest of the expanded EAS membership.

One of the key advantages of the EAS is that it offers a venue for transparency and collaboration that, over time, can build confidence and trust, drawing on the spirit of cooperation that is already well-established in other ASEAN-centred forums.

The concept of common security is as much a habit as it is a concrete doctrine guiding specific actions. The habits of regular leaders-level dialogue on an agenda that includes security policy is itself inherently normalising.

The future of Asia is not, of course, some Sino-American duopoly, as fundamental as the Beijing-Washington relationship may be. Regional countries face a range of challenges not directly or even remotely related to US-China relations.

Apart from changing great-power relationships, these include: unresolved territorial disputes, rapidly expanding military budgets, nuclear proliferation, the growing impact of transnational crime, natural disasters, human pandemics, energy and food security, maximising economic growth and the stability of regional financial institutions.

Such concerns cannot be resolved by national action alone; they require properly coordinated regional responses driven by regional institutions which themselves encourage the culture, habits and practices of cooperation.

The countries of our region are acutely aware that both continental and archipelagic Asia is still beset by unresolved territorial disputes, each capable of undermining the prosperity we have seen so far. These include the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea and Kashmir.

There is a strong interest across Asia in how we collectively chart our course — and build a capacity to generate platforms for dialogue on problems that may seem intractable. . There is also a common desire to build the institutions and the habits of cooperation, enabling us to deal with individual security challenges as they arise, and over time to incubate a culture of common security.

The shift in economic and strategic weight to Asia, the confluence of interests of major powers in the region and the expanding range of transnational challenges demanded a change to existing regional structures.

We have in our region examples of highly successful regional institutions, none more so than ASEAN which has played a vital role in building a stable strategic foundation for South East Asia. Before ASEAN’s creation, this was far from certain. The Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) grouping has also played a central role supporting trade liberalisation and economic reform.

The view commonly held, however, by Australia and others is that no matter how successful these institutions have been, they are not equipped to develop the sense of community necessary to address collectively the range of emerging challenges across East Asia.

In April 2010, ASEAN leaders gave the strongest push yet to the idea that reform was necessary when, at the 16th ASEAN summit in Hanoi, they encouraged the United States and Russia to deepen their engagement in an evolving regional architecture — an invitation that led ultimately to President Obama’s and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s participation in the EAS in Bali in November 2011.

The significance of the expanded EAS as a regional institution is clear. Based on 2010 figures, EAS countries represent 3.8 billion people, or 55.1 per cent of the world’s population and 54.9 per cent of world GDP. Eight EAS members are in the G20 and three EAS members are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The region is also home to the world’s five largest armed forces, four of which belong to members of the EAS — China, the United States, India, Russia — and the other belonging to the DPRK, whose military capacity is also of great strategic interest to the region.

The strategic rationale for the expanded EAS remains as it was when the idea of such an Asia Pacific community was first promoted by the Australian Government. No national responses — no matter how well crafted — will be enough to resolve the range of challenges confronting us, and until the Bali summit meeting there had not been a single institution with a wide enough membership and mandate convening at leaders’ level.

Last year’s Bali summit represented an historic opportunity to begin crafting a common vision for Asia’s future, and it yielded concrete results. It was particularly significant that leaders were able to speak directly about security issues, including the South China Sea, in a constructive and non-confrontational atmosphere.

Further, agreement was reached on a joint Indonesia-Australia proposal to strengthen regional responses to national disasters, working with other regional groupings. This is a major priority for our region, as well as an important area of potential soft security cooperation between the emergency services and the armed forces of the region.

Leaders also tasked EAS finance ministers to meet again in 2012 in recognition of the urgent need to craft a practical agenda for financial collaboration for the future. The Eurozone crisis demonstrates the need for systematic engagement between our respective financial systems and regulators, given the global financial volatility that continues to prevail and the capacity of a financial crisis rapidly to precipitate a broader economic crisis.

Finally, further steps were taken in social and environmental policy collaboration, with agreement on regular ministerial meetings on education and collaborative work on climate change and sustainable cities.

None of us are naïve about the capacity of the EAS to deal with all the challenges confronting its members. Yet, while there will be many testing times ahead, it is clear that we have made a solid start on the broader regional agenda.

The task ahead of us at the 7th EAS meeting in Cambodia this year and beyond is to strengthen and entrench the EAS leaders’ level dialogue and advance practical proposals for cooperation on the broad range of economic, political and security challenges confronting our region. Australia will continue to work with others to this end, as well as seek better to link the work of the EAS with other ASEAN-centred regional groupings such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).

The expanded EAS should aim to keep the reform process moving forward, nurture a culture of dialogue and collaboration on security, and provide a vehicle for discussion and cooperation across a range of challenges.

The founding members of ASEAN in 1967 and those of APEC in 1989 were realists as well as long-range strategists. Realists because they dealt with the world as they saw it; strategic thinkers because they understood that, in an increasingly interdependent world, growth and prosperity must be underpinned by new forms of regional cooperation. They saw that regional institutions were important in addressing those collective challenges that no one country could address alone.

More than four decades after the founding of ASEAN and two decades after APEC, regional leaders have decided that further changes to the region’s architecture, with a higher level of ambition, are needed. The purpose of this reformed architecture — the newly-expanded EAS — is clear: to serve the common interests of Asia Pacific countries in a more broad-ranging format that intimately links our prosperity with our security.

Strong bilateral relations and national interests will remain of fundamental importance, but in the words of the 1967 ASEAN Declaration “peace, freedom, social justice and economic well-being are best attained by fostering … meaningful cooperation among the countries of the region”.

It matters now for the world’s future how Asia manages its own future — and whether the future of the Asia Pacific is pacific both in its name and in the norms it embraces in dealing with the challenges of the new century.

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