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  • The East Asia summit and ASEAN:Potential and Problems
  • Nick Bisley (bio)

For the past five decades, ASEAN has been the sole regional institution of substance in East Asia. During most of its existence, it was largely focused inward and on Southeast Asia. However, in the late 1990s that situation began to change. Asian states began to experiment with new regional mechanisms and processes, and ASEAN began to take a more expansive vision of its regional role.1 These were at times complementary processes. The creation of ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in the 1990s were the first elements of external engagement. The organization realized that in an increasingly interconnected East Asian region, the interests of its Southeast Asian members were going to be shaped more by events occurring outside the neighbourhood, and in particular by a rising China, than they were by intramural affairs. Moreover, it was these impulses—to devise useful institutional structures for a changing region and to engage the Great Powers in ways that retained ASEAN's self-styled "centrality"—that led to the formation of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005.

Although the sixteen-member grouping has considerable potential to play a leading role in the region, this has not yet been realized. Part of the reason is that the regional setting is now much more fluid and contested. But it also has to do with the fundamental tensions at play when ASEAN tries to shape the agenda in a grouping where [End Page 265] it is outweighed by non-ASEAN members. This article explores these issues and argues that the ability of the EAS to realize the ambitions many have for it to be the peak body for regional collaboration is likely to be frustrated by Asia's increasingly contested regional order.

The EAS: Origins and Evolution

The EAS has a number of attributes that mark it out from other regional initiatives.2 First, it has a "whole of government" remit. Unlike the ADMM-Plus—which is tasked with defence cooperation—or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process—which has an exclusively economic remit—the EAS is intended to advance dialogue and cooperation in all spheres with the lofty objective of "promoting peace, stability and prosperity in East Asia".3 Second, it is a "leaders-led" process. While it is developing an embryonic institutional infrastructure, the EAS remains centred around a meeting of government leaders. This is in part about signalling the ambitions for the Summit to be the lead in the region, but also reflects the reality that, in statecraft, there are some things that only leaders can do. Third, its membership includes all the key countries central to East Asia's international affairs. APEC has been hindered by a too-rapid expansion whose overly diverse membership lacks sufficiently shared interests. The Pacific Rim conception of Asian regionalism of the 1990s now appears misguided.4

ASEAN, of course, is at the centre of the EAS. Indeed this remains an important attribute, even if it is the source of some internal tension. As we saw with Kevin Rudd's stillborn "Asia-Pacific Community" in 2008–9, efforts to advance regional multilateralism continue to require ASEAN support.5 Whatever one may think of ASEAN's organizational efficacy, it has shown great tenacity in protecting its self-appointed place at the centre of an emerging regional architecture.

It is this mix of policy remit, the level at which it meets, its membership profile and its relationship to ASEAN which gives the grouping considerable potential.6

Although established in 2005, the ideas animating the EAS have a longer history. Since the early 1990s, ASEAN leaders have been thinking about ways to better link the economies and societies of Southeast and Northeast Asia and create a broader sense of [End Page 266] community.7 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had called for an East Asian Economic Caucus in 1996. APT gave these ideas an institutional home. The new "plus three" process launched several initiatives to devise a programme to realize that ambition which culminated in the creation of EAS.8

While there was consensus within ASEAN and many of its partner...


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