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.
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 U.S.
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 U.S.
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 military.
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 group.
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.
Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal