August 18, 2005
By Dana Robert Dillon
In 1990, when
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir proposed the "East Asian Economic
Caucus" -- his legendary caucus without Caucasians -- the U.S.,
working closely with Japan, Australia and other countries,
countered with a proposal for APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic
The forum, with its annual summit of regional leaders, has provided
a valuable platform for American foreign policy in Asia. It also
serves a decades-old American policy of pre-empting the formation
of any organizations in the region that attempt to exclude the
Now that concept is about to be put to the test again. With America
preoccupied by the war on terror and less attentive to Asian
security and economic interests, the notion of a China-centered
security, political and economic bloc has gained new credibility.
At the recent Asean ministerial meeting in Laos, Malaysian Foreign
Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar announced that the first East
Asian Summit (EAS) would be held in December and that invitations
would be extended to the Asean countries, as well as China, Japan,
South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- but not the
Members of the EAS envision it as a stepping stone to an East Asian
Community (EAC) modeled on the European Community. China envisions
a security element to the EAC and has proposed a blueprint for
security integration -- the nightmare scenario for every Sinophobe
in Washington. Nevertheless, with artful management of the process
by engaged American diplomats, the U.S. can either neutralize EAS
into another Asian talk-shop, like the Asean Regional Forum, or use
it to help harness China's economy while muzzling its
No matter what happens, a number of factors will ameliorate China's
influence and permit the U.S. to participate, albeit indirectly, in
the new body.
First, the Asean countries claim to have the lead at the EAS and
plan to retain it. The Malaysian foreign minister has said "Asean's
in the driver's seat" as far as EAS is concerned. Indonesian
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono calls Asean "the driving force
of this East Asia process," and wants the EAS to work for democracy
and human rights among member nations. Those sentiments don't go
over well in Beijing, but they make perfect sense to the eight
democracies -- Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Australia,
Philippines, New Zealand and Thailand -- that make up half of the
16 members of the new group.
China will be but one of many 800-pound gorillas at the EAS table.
Japan has the largest economy, India has the second-largest
population, and Indonesia ranks fourth in the world and third at
the EAS. Five of the eight democracies -- Australia, Japan, South
Korea, Thailand and the Philippines -- are formal treaty allies of
the U.S., while India and Singapore have significant defense
relationships with Washington. In the case of Australia, it has
firmly stated that it won't sign anything that disrupts its defense
relationship with the Americans.
Conversely, China has no formal allies in the group, unresolved
territorial disputes with several of the participants and a record
that includes armed conflict in the living memory of many of the
leaders of prospective EAS countries.
It's even more difficult to see the EAS as an economic monolith
when its members vary so widely in economic policy. Singapore, with
the second-most-open economy in the world, seems an unlikely
partner for Burma, whose economy exists largely on the black
market. Japan is trying to negotiate bilateral agreements with some
members of the group, but those efforts are timid at best. China is
working hard at regional economic integration, but its efforts are
designed to get cheaper access to Southeast Asia's raw materials
rather than to truly enhance trade. In international groupings,
Asian countries make decisions by consensus, and it's hard to see
consensus on anything substantive coming from so diverse a
In short, with or without the U.S. present, China won't get its way
on everything and Washington's influence will be palpable. The EAS
could even work to America's benefit, if it accelerates economic
integration and acts as a deterrent to military adventurism. Lower
trade barriers in Asia would promote global trade, provided the
region doesn't erect new barriers to those outside. Furthermore,
China may well figure it has to behave -- at least in terms of
refraining from military attacks, intimidation or defending its
interpretation of territorial claims -- while it tries to woo the
other EAS countries. For instance, an attack on Taiwan could see
the new body quickly unravel, as Asian nations are reminded of the
importance of U.S. security umbrella.
The U.S. should closely watch how the EAS progresses. That means
U.S. diplomats taking the initiative to consult with American
allies and fellow democracies before and during the EAS meeting in
December. The new body does pose a potential challenge for the U.S.
But it's unlikely the EAS means real trouble, particularly if
America makes its interests known and encourages its friends and
allies to harness the dragon.
Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian
Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal
In 1990, when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir proposed the "East Asian Economic Caucus" -- his legendary caucus without Caucasians -- the U.S., working closely with Japan, Australia and other countries, countered with a proposal for APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Dana Robert Dillon
Senior Policy Analyst
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