The Sixth East Asia Summit and Third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Bali, Indonesia
November 17, 2011
President Barack Obama and the leaders of 17 other countries will meet this weekend, November 19–20, at the sixth East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia. In addition, President Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet for the third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting. The meetings take place on the final two and a half days of a nine-day Asia-Pacific trip that started with the president hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii, then visiting Australia to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Australia–New Zealand–U.S. (ANZUS) treaty alliance. The purpose of this Critical Questions is to say what the EAS and U.S.-ASEAN meetings are and why they are important.
The EAS and U.S.-ASEAN meetings should be understood in the context of a major effort by President Obama and his national security team to convince the Asia Pacific that the United States has refocused its energy on the region. Asia has indicated it will be convinced when President Obama makes the case that engagement in Asia is fundamental to U.S. economic growth and security. That is exactly what he is trying to do, building on notable efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and successive defense secretaries, first Robert Gates and now Leon Panetta.
The United States is also going to great lengths to make clear that the emphasis on Asia is not designed to oppose China, but rather to set up enduring regional structures that allow China to grow, be secure, and prosper based on rules it makes collectively with other countries.
The EAS was established in 2005 as an ASEAN-based annual multilateral leaders forum. The original members included ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. The United States and Russia will participate for the first time as official members this week.
Q1: Why is the EAS important for the United States?
A1: Joining the EAS gives the United States a seat at the table as the rules governing security and economic policy in the Asia Pacific are made for the twenty-first century. If the United States were absent, it would send dangerous signals to countries who might interpret it as a vacuum forming in the region and move to fill that vacuum. Nearly all countries involved agree that the U.S. security presence in the region since World War II has been the fundamental platform on which remarkable economic growth has taken place throughout the Asia Pacific. That intrinsic link between security and economic growth is foundational for future U.S. economic growth, job creation, and recovery, as well as ensuring the safety and security of Americans and our treaty allies and partners around the Asia Pacific.
Q2: Does a renewed U.S. security focus in Asia mean the start of a new “cold war” dynamic with China?
A2: The renewed U.S. security focus on the Asia Pacific does not set up a new polarity or “cold war” dynamic in Asia. This was underlined by the announcement by President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia that U.S. marines will share constant and permanent access to bases in northern and western Australia and by the expanding U.S. strategic relationships with other treaty allies and partners around the region. In fact, these moves and U.S. engagement in the EAS are steps to prevent that dynamic by reassuring China and the rest of Asia that the United States has been and will continue to be a Pacific security power and that it is willing, ready, and able to engage in developing new architecture to create a common set of rules and norms made by all parties to ensure peace and prosperity.
Q3: What are the key issues that will be addressed at the EAS?
A3: The end goal is to build trust and find areas of common interest among the members. The EAS recognizes that in order to be relevant, it must also address the most compelling and important issues facing the region, even if they are politically sensitive to members. During this year’s summit, three overarching issues are expected to be addressed: (1) humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR); (2) ASEAN connectivity, meaning regional development, infrastructure (both on land and maritime linkages), and expansion of trade and investment ties; and (3) maritime security, which will encompass discussions of the South China Sea and related issues.
During the summit, Indonesia and Australia will share papers on how to enhance cooperation and facilitate disaster management and humanitarian relief in the region. This comes in the context of not only the severe flooding that has inundated many Southeast Asian countries, but also the crippling New Zealand earthquakes and tragic Japanese March tsunami and earthquake. Joint efforts to provide assistance are of high impact and value to people in need around the region. They are also the low-hanging fruit of security cooperation because such assistance is clearly a public good and cooperation drives expanded communication, builds trust, and eventually creates interoperability. That is important because the end goal is to have the region’s militaries working together on common and compelling missions, understanding one another, and in so doing mitigating opportunities for misunderstandings or conflict.
The second major theme is ASEAN connectivity, which seeks to bundle development, economic integration, and regional infrastructure into a common vision and set of goals. Asian partners want the United States to recognize explicitly the link between economic development and security. The United States has sent bureaucratic signals that it may want the EAS to focus on security and political issues and have APEC focus on trade and economic issues. That division of labor among U.S. officials is likely to erode now that the United States has handed over its APEC chairmanship duties to Russia. ASEAN’s connectivity plans are not only important for the ASEAN states and its regional partners, but for the United States as well. Success would see EAS members coordinating aid and capacity building around the region with an initial focus on ASEAN and its less-developed members. The United States recognizes that as Congress cuts spending, aid budgets will be lean and leveraging partnerships will become increasingly important. As President Obama noted in his address to the Australian Parliament yesterday, “As the world’s fastest-growing region—and home to more than half the global economy—the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority and that is creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.”
The third, and potentially most divisive, issue is maritime security and cooperation. The issue is highly sensitive, especially to China, which has indicated that it does not want South China Sea disputes discussed in regional forums. However, many Southeast Asian and other countries believe the issue needs to be addressed because it is central to regional peace and security. The goal of regional architecture is to convince participating countries, including China, that they can be assured of existentially important concerns such as food, energy, and water security, and access to sea-lanes of navigation, by participating in collective rule making and enforcement, but not by pursing unilateral definitions of sovereignty. President Obama reasserted this approach in his Australian speech, saying, “We seek security, which is the foundation of peace and prosperity…Where commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded. Where emerging powers contribute to regional security, and where disagreements are resolved peacefully.” President Obama’s rhetoric has been reinforced by Secretary Clinton’s trip to and support for the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute this week.
Q4: What may be the headlines coming out of Bali this week?
A4: First and foremost will be media efforts to determine whether the EAS is promoting common interests or setting up a new polarity between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. Journalists and analysts will need a deep understanding of these issues to debunk sensationalist efforts to play up the “new cold war” narrative being pushed by those who may prefer to derail comprehensive regional security architecture.
Second, expect Myanmar to steal the headlines. As one of the hardest issues for ASEAN to cope with over the last 15 years since it was admitted as a member, expert assessments are that real change may be underway in this heretofore cloistered country. The proof of real political change has been defined as releasing substantial numbers of political prisoners and allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party the National League for Democracy to run in December 2012 by-elections and eventually in national elections.
We expect that Myanmar may make some major announcements on prisoner releases just ahead of the EAS meetings. This would back up ASEAN’s plan to support Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. This would be Myanmar’s first chairmanship of ASEAN because it forfeited its previous chance in 2005 in response to pressures from the international community, which threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings if Myanmar had assumed the chair.
President Obama, in his speech to the Australian Parliament, recognized the developments in Myanmar but said more progress is needed. “Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest. Some political prisoners have been released and the government has begun a dialogue. Still, violations of human rights persist. So we will continue to speak clearly about the steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States.”
Q5: What should we expect from the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting?
A5: This is the third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting. It is a summit that was enabled by President Obama’s decision to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and deepen engagement in Southeast Asia as a critical step toward strengthening its ties with ASEAN as the foundation for new regional security and trade architecture.
The leaders will announce a major education initiative that will vastly expand the teaching of the English language around the region. The initiative will be funded by a generous grant of nearly $80 million by Brunei Darussalam, underlining the new cooperation and coordination of aid in an era of leaner budgets and scarce resources. The leaders will also announce a U.S.-ASEAN Eminent Persons Group that will include three leading Americans and one from each of the 10 ASEAN countries.
A range of additional cooperative initiatives in areas such as capacity building for trade, health care, security cooperation, and high-level efforts to promote new trade and investment will be included.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Blake Berger is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.