East Asia Summit is the right choice for Asean Plus

Updated: 2010-07-23 14

(Asia News Network)

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Asean has finally decided that its leaders' forum known as the East Asia Summit, or EAS, will be the most suitable of the existing forums to expand, in order to include other regional and strategic powers. The United States and Russia will both be invited to join the forum, which was created in 2005 to discuss global issues that also affect the region. But the details of the modalities have yet to be worked out by Asean senior officials.

Last week, Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, told Asean envoys in Washington that the US would indeed like to be a part of the EAS. The decision came right before the Asean foreign ministers began their week-long meeting in Ha Noi this week to decide on the future of the regional architecture. The US has long been ambivalent about the new architecture because there were many plans and ideas floating about, none of which had been decided upon. Washington wanted to make the right decision.

The departures of Australian former prime minister Kevin Rudd and Japanese former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama have accelerated the discussion. Time is now on Asean's side as the two previous separate plans for creating a new regional community also disappeared with them.

With only one viable option remaining, it was easier for Washington to make a decision. But up until the last minute, Singapore was confident that the proposed Asean+8 would sail through. The plan had been widely debated, as it would enable a US leader to attend a summit with Asean leaders every three years, based on the Apec calendar. Every country in the expanded EAS will now be a founding member.

For Russia, it is a no-fuss affair. After all, Russia has long decided that its future of engagement lies in membership of the EAS. For five long years, Russia has been waiting for a response. All this time, Moscow has never failed to mention its rich energy resources and technological know-how that will be of benefit to Asean. It was also an open secret that some Asean countries have condescending views toward Russia.

Using the EAS to engage with the two newcomers will be easier for Asean because it has already set the rules and time-keeping. So, there is no need to draft new rules or modifications. However, as every kind of summit has shown throughout the world, predictability and consensus is the most difficult outcome when so many leaders gather and lead the discussions.

It is pivotal that Asean, playing the leading role, should work harder in identifying new emerging trends, and consolidate common views and strategies in the region. That will be the only way to maintain the interest of EAS leaders. There is no guarantee that, given the busy schedules of US leaders, present and future presidents will be able to attend on an annual basis. However, if the EAS has a comprehensive agenda that all members share and can identify with, the US will certainly make it a priority to attend - hopefully without fail.

The challenge for Asean is clear: It must become more dynamic overall. The plan to identify issues and achieve common positions or joint programmes is a necessary first step to promoting cooperation among the grouping's members on both regional and global issues.

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