In November 2015, the tenth anniversary of the East Asian Summit (EAS) will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The last ten years of the EAS has been less than satisfactory in bringing together the 18 member countries on important issues of regional politics and economics. However, at the same time, it has provided a platform for the top leaders of the region to meet once a year. The survival of the EAS for these ten years could itself be cited as a success in the first phase of existence.
For a round-up of the first phase and to chart out the course of the next, in May 2015, a roundtable was organised in Seoul, South Korea. It was a part of a track-II process in which two representatives from each member country were invited. The platform was important as many high-level diplomats and academicians participated and the report of the roundtable was sent to the EAS for its consideration.
The deliberations at the roundtable were generally positive and underlined the fact that with all its limitations the EAS has been a constructive and productive grouping. Since the region lacks any other formal network, the EAS is a commendable initiative. The discussions also stressed that the Asia-Pacific has been getting increasingly tied up in the rivalries between China, the US and Japan. It is indeed pertinent that a neutral and innovative agenda be articulated by the EAS countries to address the growing tension between the big regional players.
The EAS process, it was agreed, has been an open, transparent and inclusive forum to discuss broad strategic, political and economic issues of common concern, and it aims to promote “peace, stability and economic prosperity in the East Asia.” There may be differences of opinion about the modalities but there cannot be differences on the broad goals that were envisaged by the EAS. Four issues constituted the core of the deliberations about the future of the EAS.
The first issue was whether the EAS would become an all-equal platform or remain primarily an ASEAN-led initiative. Until now the process has been largely dominated by the ASEAN and the EAS needs to decide how it would like to move forward. The centrality of ASEAN has both its pros and cons and it would not be easy to make a choice. Generally, the participants agreed that in the next phase ASEAN should play the key role, without which, great power dynamics may derail the process. The chief of the Indian delegation, Amb Skand R Tayal stressed that the “EAS should continue to be ASEAN-centric. However, all its 18 members should participate equally in its preparatory, organisational and implementation activities.” It was also underlined that as per the 2011 EAS declaration, the EAS would remain an integral part of the evolving regional architecture, which includes other mutually reinforcing processes such as ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+).
The second important issue pertained to regional trade. There were appeals to hasten efforts to arrive at the regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA), even though it may not happen in the near future. The discussion appreciated bilateral FTAs and CEPAs between the countries of the region and they were considered as launching pads for the CEPEA in the future. The general mood was that sub-regionalism must be promoted to arrive at a broader regional trade regime. There are lots of other areas as well where member countries could cooperate and benefit from such as energy, education, health, disaster management, and connectivity.
The third issue was about the construction of an East Asian community, on which some basic disagreements emerged. The delegates of the ASEAN countries in general thought that with the geographical expansion of the EAS, it is plausible to carve a community from the EAS. However, other participants argued that it is possible to have an East Asian community in the agenda of the EAS. For that, the notion of ‘community’ must be broadened to include people beyond its geographical proximities. As the notion of ‘region’ has transcended geographical distance, the notion of ‘community’ must also. By diluting or giving up the goal of an East Asian community, the EAS would not be able to move beyond political and economic imperatives, and this would not be able to deliver in the quest for peace, stability and prosperity across the region. An East Asian community would mean more people-to-people integration, which could become a driving force for the EAS in the future.
The discussion on the EAS and its future course was held back by the lack of institutionalisation of the EAS process. The leaders of the member countries meet for less than a day in a year and there have not been satisfactory follow-up mechanisms thereafter. There was almost a consensus that the EAS should consider reintroducing leaders’ retreats and organising leaders’ summits via the sherpa system. Unlike the present, a separate EAS administrative unit must be established within the ASEAN Secretariat and staff positions should be open to even non-ASEAN countries. The roundtable demanded that the sequence of meetings be reversed as to an EAS meeting, ASEAN+3 meeting, and then ASEAN+1 meeting. In this way, the EAS would be able to provide a comprehensive agenda in the beginning itself.
There were several other deliberations during the roundtable such as division of issues in the priority and non-priority areas, cap of the new membership, and more importantly, the establishment of track-II networks in the region. Furthermore, a chain of universities, which would be called East Asia Universities in the member countries, was also proposed by one of the participants.
Overall, the EAS must enter a new phase with a modified strategy to realise its alternate vision for the regional political and economic order. It has been able to sustain its existence amidst lots of problems and limitations in the first ten years. However, if it does not reconsider and re-chart its course in the next phase, it would not be easy to sustain its relevance. Any stagnation or decline in the EAS process would not only be detrimental to the efforts to establish a peaceful, stable and prosperous East Asia, but would also invite sharper great power politics in the region. The success or failure of the EAS would not be the success of failure of a process but of all the countries involved. Now, it is to see in which direction the leaders of these member countries are ready to move.