from Asia Unbound

America is Being Left Behind in Asia ... East Asia Summit Edition

July 22, 2010

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Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Na Son-Nguyen/Pool

So the U.S. is going to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) … and you can hear the cheers all the way to Hanoi.

But why exactly are they cheering?

Here are a few of the arguments:

(1) The US has been “missing in action” in Asian institution-building; so joining EAS “puts the U.S. firmly into the picture.”

(2) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the convener of EAS; so joining EAS “signals U.S. support for ASEAN.”

(3) U.S. membership can help counterbalance pan-Asian groups that exclude Washington, such as ASEAN Plus Three.

And (4) U.S. membership in EAS “could help bring Presidential attention to individual Southeast Asian countries that are downplayed in US policy.” It would enable President Obama to “become the first serving President of the United States to visit Cambodia.” And in 2013 we would have “the first-ever visit of a U.S. President to Laos.”

Deep sigh.

Look, I’m not surprised the U.S. is joining EAS; American officials have been signaling as much for a year.

But does joining EAS do anything at all to remedy the most important challenges to American interests in Asia?

I’ve argued repeatedly over the last year (for example, here, here, here, and here) that America’s problem in Asia is not that the U.S. is absent from every regional institution. Rather, America’s problem in Asia is that the institutions that are most meaningful to U.S. interests are precisely those that have defined the United States out. Put differently: joining EAS gets the U.S. into yet another room. But the rooms Washington isn’t in, isn’t being invited to enter, and will probably never be invited to enter are the ones that actually matter. At the end of the day, EAS simply may not matter much at all.

The fact is, most pan-Asian institutions will move forward regardless of American views and preferences. So the groups that merit vigilance from Washington are those that pursue functional agendas detrimental to American economic or security interests, such as preferential trade agreements. Some pan-Asian formations are inevitable. And so, while joining a group like EAS allows the U.S. to barrel its way into yet another room, it does little to solve America’s central problem in Asia—namely, that Asians (including some of Washington’s closest allies) are groping for their own solutions to regional problems, especially economic and financial challenges.

The U.S. continues to have a very static view of a region that is changing rapidly. Linked by a growing web of economic and financial connections, a diverse Asia is searching for a common identity—and for ways to turn economic success into greater global clout. And Asians are increasingly doing this on a pan-Asian basis, without the United States.

It is widely acknowledged by diplomats and intellectuals in the region (if mainly in private conversations, and usually over a couple of cold beers) that the proliferation of Asian fora hasn’t done much to address functional problems. Some of my closest friends, even in Southeast Asia, readily admit that these fora are long on rhetoric and long overdue for a stock-taking:

What works, and what doesn’t?

How could multilateral efforts be more effective?

Would Asia really be less secure if the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) did not exist?

Who does Asia call when there is a tsunami or a cyclone in Burma?

What’s needed isn’t a headlong American rush into groups like EAS but a hardheaded assessment of what tables Washington actually needs to sit at, and when and where it can afford to just step aside.

The dominant trend in the region is that Asians are making pan-Asian groups, not trans-Pacific ones, their defining regional institutions. And the United States still isn’t adjusting to these. It’s too focused on getting into whatever rooms it can, and merely for the sake of it.

The challenge I see for the U.S. is how to redefine the American role—how to link trans-Pacific groupings, such as APEC and ARF, to the pan-Asian groups. Several key U.S. partners (Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea, for starters) badly want the U.S. involved. They know the current architecture is flawed, and either have ideas for how to fix it or are open to such ideas.

What to do?

I’ve written about how the U.S. could adjust in a CFR Special Report. But my punchline is this: At the end of the day, the problem of Asian architecture is a functional one—too much redundancy, and too much architecture that does nothing much at all.

The problem for the United States, then, is that the groups that do actually do something—usually on economic and financial issues, not least trade, investment, and standards—are pan-Asian clubs.

Skillful American diplomacy would use the U.S. entry into EAS as leverage, seeking to redefine the group as more than just another leaders’ group-grope of no consequence.

Ultimately, joining EAS solves what my friend, Bob Manning, likes to call America’s “Woody Allen problem.” As Woody put it, “90 percent of life is just showing up.”

So, it’s nice that America is showing up. But joining EAS does nothing—nothing at all—to resolve the fundamental challenge to U.S. interests.

To the contrary, it is ASEAN Plus Three, not EAS, that is already the most functional body at the core of a new pan-Asian regionalism. And ASEAN Plus Three is likely to focus on an economic agenda that challenges traditional American approaches and ultimately disadvantages U.S. firms.

For example, if Japanese and Korean firms enjoy tariff-free treatment of the manufactures they sell in China while U.S. firms face the current average most-favored nation rate of 9 percent, American firms will lose substantial sales in an import market worth well over one trillion dollars. The same will be true if Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo use their “Plus Three” dialogue to agree on telecommunications or other standards for emerging technologies that create impediments for U.S. firms in a very large Asian market. (By the way, U.S. firms will lose substantial sales in Korea and Japan too, as ASEAN Plus Three moves toward further tariff reduction and becomes the locus of Asian trade liberalization).

Since the U.S. has been defined out of ASEAN Plus Three, a more vigorous trade policy would do far more for American interests than will pounding down the door of another large, unwieldy, mostly purposeless group. Not every architectural problem requires an architectural solution.

Let’s at least hope the U.S. parlays its membership in EAS into an attempt to rationalize pan-Asian and trans-Pacific groupings. That would be useful.