EAS sets stage for more rivalry in Indo-Pacific : The Tribune India

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EAS sets stage for more rivalry in Indo-Pacific

The East Asia Summit discussed key issues — the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea, UNCLOS, terrorism. By emphasising on UNCLOS and rule of law, India and other Quad countries bolstered ASEAN’s position on including UNCLOS on their Code of Conduct in the SCS negotiations with China. ASEAN’s efforts to resolve the problems in Myanmar were supported. On terrorism and Korea, the earlier positions were maintained.

EAS sets stage for more rivalry in Indo-Pacific

Vocal: Japan raised the problems in the East and South China Seas and Taiwan Straits. AP

Gurjit Singh

Former Ambassador to ASEAN

The 16th East Asia Summit (EAS) was held on October 27 virtually due to the pandemic. This is a premier summit in the Indo-Pacific region and attracts the most attention. Prime Minister Modi addressed the summit for the seventh time.

India has been a charter member of the EAS since its inception in 2005. Originally, it had 10 countries comprising the ASEAN countries and its six dialogue partners, viz India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The US and Russia were added in 2011, making it a high-powered leaders’event.

The members look forward to the EAS for the importance it brings to ASEAN centrality. Indian PMs have rarely missed participating in the summit. The US, under President Trump, had started to ignore the EAS. This year was the first time since 2017 that a US President took part in the summit. It was the debut of Japanese Prime Minister Kishida, who took over recently. For ASEAN, it is the first occasion for its leaders to meet with President Biden.

The EAS this time sought to exhibit placid calm in a region roiled by extensive power rivalries. It is no more only a rivalry between concepts of the Indo-Pacific. China derides the concept while ASEAN has its own Indo-Pacific Outlook (AOIP) and the Quad members have their own and coordinated outlooks. All Quad members are also members of the EAS. The AUKUS alliance has elicited diverse reactions in a normally unified ASEAN. It is to ASEAN’s credit that it has maintained order among such contention in the Indo-Pacific region.

The EAS is chaired by the ASEAN chairman for the year, which is Brunei. Thus, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam chaired the session which ran over two hours. It was Vietnam in 2020 and will be Cambodia in 2022. This was the first time that ASEAN excluded one of its own members, Myanmar, for not following ASEAN principles.

At the summit, Modi emphasised the importance of EAS as a premier leaders-led forum in the Indo-Pacific. It gathers countries to discuss important strategic issues. Modi highlighted Indian efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic through the supply of vaccines and medical equipment. He also spoke about ensuring resilient global value chains for post-pandemic recovery. Emphasis on balanced and sustainable economy, ecology and climate issues was placed. He drew parallels with the AOIP and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). This has moved beyond the SAGAR initiative as it seeks partnerships with the EAS countries to achieve its goals which are akin to the EAS objectives.

Japan too supported the AOIP and saw congruence between it and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), promoted by Japan. Japan valued the AOIP, which upholds the values of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and the rule of law. Japan and ASEAN are engaged in concrete cooperation, based on the ASEAN-Japan Joint Statement of the AOIP Cooperation, which is contributing to 73 projects.

The EAS discussed important regional and international issues, including the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea, UNCLOS, terrorism, and situations in the Korean peninsula and Myanmar. By emphasising on UNCLOS and the rule of law to keep the region stable and secure, India and the Quad countries bolstered ASEAN’s position on including UNCLOS on their Code of Conduct in the SCS negotiations with China. ASEAN’s efforts to resolve the problems in Myanmar were supported. On terrorism and Korea, the earlier positions were maintained. The Quad countries had taken clear positions on these issues in their September summit and each of them reiterated those.

Japan was most vocal on these issues. While India did not directly raise specific issues with China, Kishida mentioned the problems in the East and South China Seas (SCS) and the Taiwan Straits. He stated that the Code of Conduct on the SCS should be in accordance with UNCLOS and respect the legitimate rights and interests of all stakeholders using the SCS. Japan and the US also spoke about Hong Kong and the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This was raising the heat on China. The Japanese readout mentions these clearly, but that of the White House does not mention these direct references to China.

Biden’s participation at the EAS showed a continuity in the US’ policy towards ASEAN. After a slow start by his administration in August, there were visits by the Secretary of Defence and the Vice-President to some ASEAN countries. Secretary of State Blinken had participated in the ARF and the EAS ministers’ meeting. Biden’s participation was welcomed by ASEAN since it came after a long hiatus. Biden laid emphasis on the centrality of ASEAN and his commitment to continuing to engage with them during his administration.

He termed the partnership with ASEAN as critical to maintaining an FOIP, which has been the foundation of the concept of shared security and prosperity for the US and ASEAN. Like other Quad members, Biden’s emphasis on principles, rule of law, UNCLOS, etc made it clear where the problems lay.

Biden announced a $102-million fund to expand the US partnership with ASEAN by improving cooperation on health, climate issues, education and economic programmes. He sought to reassure ASEAN that the US participation in the Quad and AUKUS was not intended to diminish ASEAN centrality.

He made it clear that challenges to the international rule-based order would be met. The US would stand with partners in support of democracy, human rights and freedom of the seas. While these are principles of the ASEAN charter, they are often interpreted as challenging China’s view of the world which China aggressively promotes in the ASEAN countries.

The EAS leaders adopted three statements on mental health, economic recovery through tourism and sustainable recovery, which were co-sponsored by India. These manifest the concerns on post-pandemic recovery. They focus on the emotional impact on people due to the pandemic; they seek remedy for tourism-based recovery since several ASEAN countries are dependent on tourism revenues; and sustainability is the flavour of the season as the COP26 to deal with climate issues is scheduled for next month. The EAS tries to deal with more functional issues. Post pandemic, this is more necessary.

However, the contention of power and value systems in the region means that the Quad-led democracies are now challenging Chinese hegemony and aggression vocally. This brings ASEAN more attention, but it also has to face a more contentious rivalry. The EAS reiterates ASEAN centrality, buts it’s up to ASEAN to accept greater responsibilities in the evolving region.

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