By Ivy Ngo, BASC Research Assistant
This past weekend marked the fourth East Asian Summit, which followed on the heels of the 14th ASEAN Summit, in Hua Hin, Thailand. The key difference between the two summits is the more inclusive discourse of the East Asian Summit: participants include not only ASEAN but also China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand—a set of countries sometimes collectively referred to as “ASEAN +6.” Main issues discussed at the summit included ratification of the long postponed Cha-am Hua Hin Statement on EAS Disaster Management, mobilization against the H1N1 Influenza virus, discussion of free elections in Myanmar, restoration of diplomacy with North Korea, and a continued direction towards economic liberalization.
The East Asian Summit began in 2005 under then-Prime Minister Mohammed Mohathir of Malaysia. This year’s summit suffered a particularly difficult series of setbacks. Originally scheduled to be held last December in Thailand, the meeting was postponed due to political unrest in its would-be host country. An attempt to hold the summit in April of this year was also thwarted. The summit only took place after the location was moved to Hua Hin (a two-hour drive from Bangkok) and a “No Man’s Land” was enforced around the sleepy beach resort, manned by 18,000 police officers and members of the armed forces.
In addition to its logistical problems, the East Asian Summit has been continually plagued by an existential crisis of sorts, unclear on its purpose and direction. Although the grouping seeks to strengthen ties within the Asian region, the question of who exactly should be included in such a regional community is fraught with tension. Two competing conceptions of an Asian regional community were discussed at the summit by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Australian Prime Minister Paul Rudd. A pointed difference between the two proposals is that Hatoyama’s is obliquely mum on the role of the US, while Rudd’s openly welcomes the accession of the US, whose historically powerful influence in Asia has been waning of late. Conversely, the rise of China and Japan has awakened fears of dominance: some have even decried Japan’s encouragement of regional cooperation as a neo-Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, evoking the banner under which Japan invaded Manchuria and Southeast Asia during World War II.
These heated accusations have revealed that Asian regional unity is still a long way off, co-opted as it is by pluralistic and contentious politics. Drama has plagued the East Asian Summit since its first meeting, when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. This past summit continued the trend. First, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he was reserving a cabinet position for ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, recently jailed over corruption charges and a key player in Thailand’s current political instability. Other sources of tension included India’s welcoming of the Dalai Lama at China’s obvious displeasure, the stalled talks with North Korea, the jealous culture war between Malaysia and Indonesia, and Myanmar’s continued draconian human rights abuses. The bigger issue is that ASEAN+6 comprises countries with vastly different systems of political rule, from the red capitalism of China to the parliamentary democracy of India, begging the question of whether any regional community platform can accommodate such variance.
But perhaps the focus should not lie on ASEAN+6’s shortcomings, but on its success, and more importantly, its potential. At the very least, the East Asian Summit and ASEAN serve as broad platforms for engaged dialogue and discussion, crucial elements in the future regional integration of a very large and diverse bloc. This is especially important in light of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s comments that Asia needs to find a new economic model that is no longer dependent on Western markets, signaling a shift toward the idea that Asia is no longer just a producer of consumer goods. An East Asian community as imagined by Prime Minister Hatoyama or Prime Minister Rudd is far from being realized but some shifts in this direction are already at place within public attitudes towards an regional Asian identity.