Region: A Significant Step towards an East Asian Community


Deborah Johnson

In Kuala Lumpur on 14 December 2005 the leaders of nations within East Asia took what has been hailed as a significant step towards the forging of an East Asian Community. This was signified with the signing of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the East Asia Summit (EAS), which outlined 'its principles and purposes, areas of cooperation and primary modalities'. Signatories included the ten ASEAN Member Countries plus the six other EAS partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. Russia was present at the invitation of the Malaysian government and may also gain admission in the future.

It was fitting that Malaysia - the current chair of ASEAN - should serve as the chair of the inaugural EAS. It was Malaysia's former Prime Minister, (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who in 1990 first raised idea of an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG). Vaguely reminiscent of wartime Japan's Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, it was seen as a more viable Asian forum (exclusive of the US) than the unwieldy 21-member APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum. Initially envisaged as a loose, informal consultative forum for discussion of issues of common concern in the region and to promote greater co-operation, it initially met with a less than enthusiastic response. This was in part due to the negative reaction of the USA, which feared it would undermine APEC, and of Japan, which did not wish to alienate the US. In part, however, this was also due to the manner in which the idea was first announced without the requisite consultation and consensus building within ASEAN itself. Indonesia's President Suharto - an influential figure within ASEAN at the time - initially downplayed the idea on this basis.

However, today's East Asia is quite different to that in 1990. Long-serving Asian leaders have since been replaced. Indonesia has undergone a democratic transition. After the heady days of the Asian Miracle in the early 1990s, the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis struck to undermine local economies and to reinforce the necessity for regional economic cooperation - even perhaps for some kind of 'EU-like' economic union in the longer term. This post-cold war period has also seen the gradual reduction of US presence in the region, a resistance to US unilateralism and a rethinking of US foreign policy, underscoring the need for solutions for regional security issues to come from within the region itself. Repeated dry season haze problems in Southeast Asia; threats to maritime security through piracy; illegal worker flows; the threat posed by avian influenza and a SARS virus outbreak; devastating natural disasters such as the tsunami (26.12.2004) and the Pakistan/Kashmir earthquake (8.10.05); and, of course, the post-Sept 11 'war on terror' environment have pressed home the need for regional cooperation as never before. Furthermore, with deepening globalization and with the 'rise' of China and India coupled with Japan as currently the world's second largest economy, this grouping begins to take on significant proportions demographically and economically - as a market covering half of the global population, as a driver of the global economy and as a balance for the USA (and NAFTA) and the EU.

The EAS has evolved gradually. The initial EAEG concept gained official ASEAN support at the fourth ASEAN Summit in Singapore in 1992. It was repackaged as the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC). The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, begun in 1994), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM, begun in 1996) and informal meetings since 1996 between ASEAN and its China, Japan and Korea dialogue partners (which came to be known as the ASEAN+3 process) have gradually brought regional players into closer working relationship. Agreement to set up the EAS was forged at the ASEAN summit in Vientiane in early December 2004. Also in Vientiane, Asean+3 nations signed some 35 bilateral or multilateral agreements - seen as the building blocks for an eventual East Asian Free Trade Area. After some previous reluctance, Australia acceded to Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (ASEAN's non-aggression pact) on 10 December 2005, paving the way for it to also join the EAS.

What exactly did this first meeting achieve? - a 'productive exchange of views' by leaders in a retreat setting without senior advisers, focusing on energy cooperation, the response to avian flu, counter terrorism, maritime security, challenges to socio-economic development, the removal of obstacles to trade and investment, community building and the setting up of a framework for multilateral cooperation. The East Asia Summit Declaration on Avian Influenza Prevention, Control and Response was adopted; ASEAN's role as the driving force behind the EAS was asserted with the ASEAN Secretariat to serve in practical coordination and implementation; and, it was agreed to meet annually.

However, the EAS has it challenges and critics. Relations in North-East Asia are in a 'state of disrepair'. Myanmar's repression of democratic movements has been a challenge to ASEAN's principles of non-interference and consensus building. Asymmetries within ASEAN such as wide economic disparities and levels of development as well as extra-ASEAN bilateral trade pacts tend to pull the region apart. Furthermore, the EAS has to stay manageable with ASEAN truly in the 'driver's seat'. It has to have real 'teeth' so as to not be just a talkfest - a criticism of APEC. Furthermore it will, at least in the near term, not replace the ASEAN+3 process, adding to possible overlapping with the plethora of regional organisations spanning East Asia and beyond.

Prominent amongst its critics is no less than Tun Dr Mahathir, who maintains that India is not an East Asian country and nor are New Zealand and Australia - the attendance of the latter possibly serving to project 'United States views' into the summit. He suggests it should have been called an East Asian Australasian Summit, thus indicating his continued support of the original EAEG/EAEC or ASEAN+3 approach.

WATCHPOINT: Will the EAS as against the ASEAN+3 process prove to be viable in the longer term?


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