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Should the U.S. ‘Lead from Behind’ at East Asia Summit?

November 16, 2011

On November 19, leaders of the 18 nations that comprise the East Asia Summit (EAS) will meet in Bali, Indonesia, to discuss a broad array of political, security, and economic issues. For the first time, the United States will participate as a full-fledged member. For much of the post-Cold War period, the U.S. approach to institution-building in Asia has been episodic at best and distant throughout. However, since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, his administration has sought to develop a more comprehensive and integrated approach toward the Asia-Pacific, and the United States joining the EAS represents a “forward-deployed diplomacy” where it can increase its involvement in, and influence over, traditional and non-traditional security issues of common concern where all member countries pursue rules-based, pragmatic solutions to these challenges – from maritime security, nuclear non-proliferation, disaster management, and humanitarian relief to energy and food security, environmental protection, infectious diseases, and trafficking-in-persons.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her recent article in Foreign Policy: “Just as Asia is critical to America’s future, an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future.” So in what framework will the United States be operating in at the EAS? The Obama administration made a clear decision that it wanted to be involved in regional architecture where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) served as the “fulcrum,” to borrow Secretary Clinton’s word. This served ASEAN’s purpose of wanting to engage all extra-regional powers (including the United States) peacefully within the framework where the association is at the core of Asian regional architecture.  Moreover, U.S. participation in EAS serves as an opportunity to balance an increasingly perceived Chinese assertiveness in regional affairs. As some astute Southeast Asian observers have commented to me: “We want the U.S. to lead from behind as it did in Libya and is currently doing in Myanmar.” Some Americans may take exception to the idea of the U.S. “leading from behind,” but one should think that the United States is being discreet, not desultory.

The United States’ desire to be more involved in Asian multilateral institutions comes at a time when it has been strengthening treaty alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, as well as expanding and deepening its bilateral relations with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia. By engaging Asian nations both multilaterally and bilaterally, the United States has helped dissipate, but not completely dispel, a widespread belief in the region that it does not have an enduring commitment to the region.

But, over time, ASEAN’s centrality to Asian regional architecture will need to translate into results. A key challenge in the coming years will be for ASEAN to manage increasing demands from the United States, China, and others. The United States wants the EAS to focus exclusively on political/security issues and let APEC address economic and trade issues. However, China wants the EAS to deal with both economic cooperation and security questions, and insists that all discussion be handled according to principles of mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. How will ASEAN, as the “fulcrum of regional architecture” in Asia, form a common position on important issues facing the EAS, APEC, and other regional architecture that may or may not include the United States?

Answers to these questions will not be resolved on November 19. But, hopefully, the summit in Bali will begin a process for fostering cooperation on issues that constructively address significant regional needs throughout the Asia-Pacific.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of the Regional Cooperation Program in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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