Summit season in Asia came early in 2016. Normally, the concentration of ASEAN ministerial, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the APEC leaders’ meeting occurs in November. As the EAS is tacked on to the ASEAN summit, APEC being hosted by Peru, and with the G20 meeting in Hangzhou in September the Southeast Asian nation’s club brought the jamboree forward two months. So what did this year’s early harvest of Asian multilateralism yield?
Perhaps the most obvious and commented-on element of the summits was the shadow cast by the South China Sea dispute. The fault lines among ASEAN members and of course between China and America’s allies were vividly on display. But there are at least three other important elements of the summits that have been less recognized than China’s continued capacity to work ASEAN processes to its advantage.
First, the East Asia Summit continues to have the power to attract, and is developing a growing functional agenda. The heads of government and/or state of all 16 members attended, doubtless aided by the close proximity of Vientiane to Hangzhou, which itself is no small feat. Even though the summit continues to lack visibility measured by the time devoted by world leaders, it is plainly valued. More importantly, the EAS is beginning to build on the institutional infrastructure laid out in the 10th Anniversary Kuala Lumpur declaration. The dedicated unit within the ASEAN secretariat is in place. The committee of permanent representatives and EAS ambassadors to ASEAN has convened twice since April 2016, giving the grouping both some institutional capacity and the facility to generate and maintain diplomatic momentum. And the chair’s statement is the longest and most comprehensive of the 11 summits held to date. Plainly the EAS has a way to go to realize its potential, and the regional circumstances for this have become harder, but it shouldn’t be written off just yet.
Second, even though the summits and many of their associated lead-up events were being hosted by one of East Asia’s poorest and least developed countries, ASEAN processes continued to function. Of course the Southeast Asian club took the unusual step of compressing its normally twice-yearly summits into a single meeting to reduce the burden on Laos. Technically two summits were held simultaneously, with the statement emanating from the meeting noting it reflected the 28th and 29th ASEAN summits. Even though less affluent ASEAN members have held the chair before, there was real trepidation given the serious capacity constraints faced by such a small and poor society. This was exacerbated by the growth of the grouping and the increasing geopolitical competition being played out in its meeting halls. It can now safely be assumed that any of ASEAN’s members can take on the chair and the grouping’s processes will be sustained.
Finally, notwithstanding the usual snide commentary, Vientiane showed that ASEAN continues to develop a wide ranging and ambitious agenda that covers the full spectrum of policy initiatives. At no point since its expansion in the late 1990s have many felt so pessimistic about its prospects, particularly given the pressures imposed by the politics of contested Asia. ASEAN has not only prided itself by its centrality (understood as being at the centre of regional multilateralism as well as being at the centre of its members’ respective international engagement); that fact has been crucial to its success. With divisions among members over issues like the South China Sea as well as waning attention from key countries (particularly Indonesia and the Philippines whose leaders’ instrumental populism sees a lower value in ASEAN processes than in the past), some have sensed a rocky future for the group. At Laos and beyond we have seen that ASEAN is never so active and entrepreneurial as when it feels threatened.
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