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Foreign Policy

Developing a New Regional Architecture

Oct 18 , 2013

The leaders of the Asia Pacific have returned from the 2013 APEC Summit in Bali, Indonesia and the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS) in Brunei. Like at previous summits, leaders issued a separate declaration and statement with outcomes from APEC and EAS, including on APEC connectivity and a proposal for a framework of principles on strengthening security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region by Russia, China and Brunei Darussalam at EAS.

The biggest surprise for the region was that President Obama did not show up, mainly because of a budget deal at home, which led to a partial government shutdown. APEC has been a big family in the Asia Pacific, and the American President’s absence was duly noticed. The budget issue has certainly developed into a threat for the global economy, and is possibly a more urgent issue for Obama than a trip to Southeast Asia, but this failure to appear disappointed not only American allies, but China as well. Both President Xi and President Obama should have had an opportunity to further develop a new model of great country relations between China and U.S. following their meeting at Sunnylands. The two presidents have thus missed a chance for exchanging their views on developing a new regional architecture within the APEC and EAS frameworks.

APEC is the most important intergovernmental institution straddling the Pacific Ocean, although it is a soft regional organization. This year’s APEC theme was on regional dynamics and their pivotal role for the global economy. With that, the summit stressed the Bogor Goals initiated by the 1994 APEC summit in Indonesia. The year 2020 will be the target for all members to liberalize trade and investment, and this time the leaders reached an agreement to improve a connectivity program for that goal, an idea and action plan to develop infrastructure throughout the developing region.  Leaders also agreed to maintain sustainable and equitable growth in order to avoid overlooking the environment and balancing development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed a commitment to regional connectivity by proposing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance development projects in the Asia-Pacific. This initiative echoes the calls from APEC members, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and others. On October 13, Premier Li Keqiang announced an Infrastructure Working Group with Vietnam that should be a part of this bankable project. Among the efforts to promote sustainable and equitable growth, the U.S. made contributions to the region, particularly the ASEAN region. Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat in Obama’s seat at the APEC and EAS summits, trying to improve America’s economic relationships with Southeast Asian countries, based on the “U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement” (E3) initiative – a framework for economic cooperation designed to expand trade and investment ties between the United States and ASEAN. As a matter of fact, China and the U.S. have a common interest in expanding their economic relations with ASEAN members for raising the volume of trade and creating jobs.

The two countries can work together to push regional economic integration within the APEC framework. Recent years saw many FTAs emerge through the Asia Pacific region. APEC should play a central role in building an integrated or a regional economic institute across the Pacific region.

China is a strong supporter of countries in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an agreement between ASEAN and six EAS countries. The US regretfully has not been involved. Although some regarded the RCEP as a low quality and less comprehensive trade agreement than the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the RCEP seems welcomed by and easier for some APEC members and ASEAN countries, which are not ready for a high-level liberalizing FTA such as the TPP. The RCEP initiative was launched last year, and its negotiations began last May in an effort to coordinate different FTAs within East and Southeast Asia, but its aim is to ambitiously fulfill it in 2015. China supports ASEAN in playing a central role in the RCEP, but it has an increasing influence in this negotiation process. Some regard China as a leading and stimulating actor, and seemingly it is now playing a special role in the East Asia track.

At the APEC meeting in Bali, TPP negotiating partners got together without President Obama in Bali and expressed mixed views. Many observers have not been optimistic on the scheduled target to conclude the negotiations and sign the final TPP agreement by the end of this year. When he returned home, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib said he was doubtful that negotiations will be completed by the end of the year and even his country might withdraw its TPP representative from the negotiation process if the Malaysian people wanted him to do.

Although the U.S.-led TPP track seems grim, the American influence should not be disregarded. The two tracks are for the same target to complete a crossing Pacific FTA, an almost similar goal of the APEC Bogor Goals. The two leaders of China and the U.S. should find a way out for that goal within the APEC framework, as that will be a test for both countries to build a new model of great country relationship in the 21st century.

EAS development has attracted regional observers. The 2011 incorporation of the US into the EAS was regarded by some as imperative for the construction of a regional security architecture. President Obama once encouraged the EAS to be a security institute, but his absence this year signals a lack of American commitment. On the contrary, Russia and China proposed a security cooperation framework for EAS, and the host country Brunei supported it. I believe many people discussed that APEC has the benefit of being a genuinely pan-regional organization, but the U.S. changed its position in 2006 from its security-oriented stance to an economic focused APEC. No one has ever appealed for regional security through APEC.

Recently, security issues have been a hot topic for the EAS. During the summit, Japan and the Philippines talked a lot about China’s assertive actions and wished to rally countries in the region to use so-called Japanese rules to confront China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe encouraged some ASEAN nations to present a united front to meet China, fanning the fire of the South China Sea issue.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, repeated China’s position to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, and that disputes with some individual countries should not get in the way of ASEAN-China economic relations. In Vietnam, Li Keqiang announced a breakthrough on a joint development program with Vietnam.

We are looking forward to a security cooperative institute emerging in the Asia Pacific, and we need to admit the fact that building a new security institution will be  hard to realize in such a short time. EAS firstly needs a process to discuss a common norm for the regional security order. China has now proposed a new idea of Asia Pacific Community of Destiny, and at this stage China and the U.S. could have a good time negotiating the prospects for EAS as a possible security architecture in the future.

Cai Penghong is a Senior Fellow from Center of Americas Studies, SIIS.

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