The East Asia Summit, Cebu, 2007: issues and prospects

Current Issues

The East Asia Summit, Cebu, 2007: issues and prospects

E-Brief: Online Only issued 1 December 2006, updated 20 December 2006

Dr Frank Frost , Analysis and Policy
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Section
Ann Rann , Information and E-links
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Section


The second meeting of the East Asia Summit is expected to be convened in Cebu, the Philippines, in January 2007. The participating countries will be the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The East Asia Summit will take place during the 12th ASEAN Summit. The ASEAN Summit involves a series of meetings among the ten ASEAN members and dialogues with major partners (including the ASEAN Plus Three grouping of the 'ASEAN ten' along with Japan, South Korea and China). The East Asia Summit will be held as part of these overall ASEAN meetings.

The second East Asia Summit was initially scheduled for 13 December 2006. However, just before the ASEAN and East Asia Summits were to convene, the Philippines government announced a postponement, because of an impending typhoon (several other governments, including Australia's, had also issued warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the area of Cebu). At the time of writing (20 December), it was expected that the ASEAN Summit would be reconvened in Cebu from 10 to 15 January 2007, with a meeting of the foreign ministers of East Asia Summit members on 12 January and the second East Asia Summit itself being held on 15 January.

The advent of the East Asia Summit has been a notable development. However it has also been the focus for some differing opinions in the region on how regional cooperation should best be pursued and on which countries should be principally involved in these efforts. The evolution of the Summit will be significant for the region and for Australia. The 15 other countries taking part in the East Asia Summit together receive over 60 per cent of Australia s merchandise exports and Australia is a direct participant from the outset in what may become an important focus for both political and economic cooperation.

This electronic brief provides a short introduction to the background to and initial outcomes from the Summit, and links to major official and analytical sources.

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ASEAN since 1967

The East Asia Summit has arisen particularly from the discussions and cooperation pursued by ASEAN and by the ASEAN Plus Three process and it is useful to consider the Summit against this background.

ASEAN has been a key factor in regional cooperation since the mid 1970s. After a tentative beginning in August 1967, ASEAN was stimulated into more concerted action by the end of the wars in Indochina in 1975. At its Bali conference in 1976, ASEAN upgraded its cooperation efforts towards regional stability and also pursued some initial efforts towards economic cooperation. ASEAN s most important single contribution has been to contain conflict and create confidence among its own members and thus to improve greatly the basis for peace and security in Southeast Asia. ASEAN s credibility on this issue was underscored by the eagerness of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to join it, after the end of the Cambodia conflict in 1991-93, which made this possible.

Since the early 1990s, ASEAN has increased its efforts to deepen cooperation among its own members. A primary focus for ASEAN has been development of the ASEAN Free Trade Area. ASEAN, in 2003, adopted the goal of achieving an ASEAN Economic Community by 2020 which is intended to achieve a single market and production base among the ten members.

ASEAN has, in addition, sponsored efforts to improve dialogue on regional security issues, particularly by establishing the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994. The ARF now has 26 members and is pursuing a gradual three-stage evolution from confidence building, to preventive diplomacy and, in the longer term, approaches towards a conflict resolution capability.

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Wider East Asia cooperation and the ASEAN Plus Three process

ASEAN members have also been interested in developing wider dialogues on cooperation in East Asia. There was some support within East Asia for an Asia-focused form of cooperation at least from the early 1990s when Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed an 'East Asian Economic Group' which would have an exclusively Asian membership. At this time, however, attention on regional cooperation was focused on the development of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping of Asia-Pacific economies. APEC now has a membership of 21 economies and continues as a major focus for cooperation across the Asia-Pacific region.

However a series of factors from the mid-1990s increased support for an East Asian grouping. These included:

  • The inauguration of the Asia-Europe Meetings (ASEM) in 1996, which explicitly involved dialogue between Europe and an 'Asian side' (similar in composition to Dr Mahathir's proposed 'East Asian Economic Group');
  • The traumatic impact on many regional economies of the Asian financial crisis from mid 1997, which prompted many regional states to consider the desirability of greater cooperation to forestall any future crisis and to add greater 'weight' for Asia in relations with international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund;
  • APEC s inability to maintain the momentum towards trade liberalisation it had in the mid 1990s;
  • A continuing sense that the ongoing development of regional groupings in Europe (the EU) and the Americas (the North American Free Trade Agreement) should be accompanied by greater East Asian cooperation; and
  • China s dynamic economic growth which stimulated a rise in the importance of trade among the countries of East Asia.

All these developments contributed to the opening up of 'political space' for an East Asian grouping (Richard Stubbs, ASEAN Plus Three: Emerging East Asian Regionalism? , Asian Survey, v. 42 no. 3, May - June 2002, pp. 440 455).

ASEAN s first major step towards wider cooperation in East Asia was the inauguration of the ASEAN Plus Three process, which stemmed from a meeting of the ASEAN members and China, Japan and South Korea in Kuala Lumpur in 1997. ASEAN Plus Three is not a formalised organisation but is a loose cooperative framework based on conferences and dialogue. The ASEAN Plus Three members have pursued dialogues at several different levels simultaneously: among all thirteen members, among the ASEAN 'ten' and one other member (which has enabled China and Japan, in particular, to maintain and develop their own specific relationships with ASEAN), and among the three Northeast Asian members (China, Japan and South Korea) who held their first trilateral meeting in 1999.

The ASEAN Plus Three process has involved annual meetings of the members' leaders, and many meetings of ministers and senior officials in areas including politics and security, trade, labour, agriculture and forestry, tourism, energy and environment. A significant element in ASEAN Plus Three activities has been endorsement and support for the development of regional financial cooperation, which has included the inauguration of Asian Bond Funds (to mobilise capital for investment in the region) and a series of currency swap arrangements designed to help avoid any repetition of the financial crisis which affected much of the region in 1997. The ASEAN Plus Three leaders have also commissioned studies and reports to explore bases for further East Asian cooperation which encouraged development of proposals for an 'East Asia Summit'.

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Origins of the East Asia Summit

The idea for an East Asia Summit arose from discussions within ASEAN and ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and was raised in a study which that grouping commissioned (from the East Asia Study Group) in 2002. At ASEAN s annual summit in Vientiane in December 2004, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia (as the host of the next ASEAN summit, to be held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005) announced that an East Asia Summit would be convened during those 2005 meetings. On the issue of possible participation, ASEAN, as the convenor of the first Summit, made it clear that Summit participants must be signatories of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (or be prepared to sign it), needed to be full ASEAN Dialogue Partners, and had to have substantial relations with ASEAN.

The political sensitivities involved in East Asia cooperation soon became evident, particularly because of the competing interests of China and Japan. Mohan Malik (Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies) has written that:

The EAS began with a backdrop of intense diplomatic maneuverings and shadow boxing, and ended with the power game being played out in the open. China and Japan were locked in a bitter struggle for supremacy, with Beijing attempting to gain the leadership position in the planned EAC [ie East Asian Community], and Tokyo trying to rein in its rival with the help of other China wary nations in the Asia-Pacific.

China was initially enthusiastic about the Summit proposal and argued that it should most appropriately be based on the membership countries of ASEAN Plus Three. However it was evident that some other states were reserved about the prospect of a Summit based solely on the APT membership, since this could be seen to be open to a high level of influence from China. Japan, with the backing of a number of the members of ASEAN, supported the concept that other relevant countries, in particular India and Australia, should be invited to join the new forum. China continued to argue against this proposal into the early months of 2005, but many ASEAN members supported the Japanese position. It was ultimately resolved that India, Australia and New Zealand would be invited as inaugural members of the Summit.

After the issue of the participation in the first Summit was agreed, Mohan Malik has argued, disputation continued about the character and possible role of the Summit. China argued that the APT membership should be considered to be a core group in subsequent efforts to develop an ultimate East Asia Community and is understood to have gained some support for this approach from countries including South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. China s notion of a two tiered EAS, with the ASEAN Plus Three grouping as the centre for concerted cooperation efforts, was resisted by Japan with support from Singapore and Indonesia.

At the end of November 2005, as the Summit approached, there were indications of continuing sensitivities among the Northeast Asian participants. A senior Chinese official (Cui Tiankai, head of the PRC Foreign Ministry s Asian Affairs Department) said on 30 November that it would be impossible for Premier Wen Jiabao to hold a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the Summit because of ongoing Chinese opposition to the Prime Minister s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (where 14 figures classified by the World War Two Allies as war criminals are among those enshrined). South Korea s Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon stated on the same day that South Korea was not considering holding a bilateral meeting between Mr Koizumi and President Roh Moo-hyun during the Summit.

In the lead up to the 2007 Summit there has been some improvement in dialogue among the three Northeast Asian EAS members, particularly since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders in October 2006. It is expected that in 2007 there will be the customary three-way meeting of the Northeast Asian participants during the ASEAN meetings in Cebu. It remains evident, however, that clear central leadership of the East Asia Summit is likely to be difficult if relations among key Northeast Asian participants were to remain politically distant (especially between China and Japan).

The First Summit, 14 December 2005: initial outcomes

The 16 participants in the first East Asia Summit met on 14 December 2005. The meeting was relatively short (at three hours) and few specific decisions were made: the emphasis was on developing communication among the members.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the chair for the meeting, in his Chairman's Statement described the Summit as a 'leaders-led' gathering that initiated confidence-building among the members as a first step towards more substantial collaboration. The main issues discussed during the Summit included the need for de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, terrorism, avian flu, sustainable development, the need for progress in the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations and the role which the EAS should play as a complement to existing cooperation dialogues (including ASEAN Plus Three) in the process of community building in the region.

The leaders' statement issued by the Summit (the 'Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the East Asia Summit') indicated that it will be a 'forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern, and with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia'. It affirmed that the EAS is intended to be an 'open, inclusive, transparent and outward-looking forum, in which we strive to strengthen global norms and universally recognised values, with ASEAN as the driving force working in partnership with other participants of the East Asia Summit'. The Summit would be 'convened regularly', would be hosted and chaired by an ASEAN member and would be held 'back to back with the annual ASEAN Summit'.

The Summit participants issued a specific declaration on avian flu, with a commitment to report all outbreaks rapidly and transparently, and to take steps to ensure that the disease does not develop into a form which could be transmitted directly between humans.

Initial reactions to the Summit from observers and analysts were varied. Sceptical analysts have emphasised the wide differences in character and policy among the members and the very cautions nature of the first meeting.

Other observers argue that the EAS should be viewed as an important further step toward dialogue in a region which does have strong motivations for cooperation, but which will not necessarily follow the type of institution building models pursued by other regions (particularly Europe). Yiyi Lu (Chatham House, London ) and Chris Hughes (University of Warwick) have argued that,

once again, the sceptics have failed to appreciate that the development of regionalism in East Asia is taking a different route from elsewhere. The existence of multiple fora, some of which may even compete with each other, is not necessarily an obstacle and may well turn out to be a positive factor in regional integration.

In a comment after the first Summit, Singapore 's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance which East Asian countries place on the process of dialogue. He said that,

You don't always get spectacular fireworks, big decisions and major changes in policy. But step by step, each time you meet, you are cultivating ground, keeping it fertile, maintaining relationships and dealing with problems before they arise, before they become serious.

Regional cooperation: continuing debate

Discussion and debate on how best to pursue East Asian cooperation has been continuing in the aftermath of the first EAS. China had offered to host the second meeting of the Summit in Beijing. However, it was decided that ASEAN would assume the role of convening the Summit alongside the ASEAN Summits, and therefore in Southeast Asian states only.

Discussion has continued about membership. The first Summit had attracted interest from some major countries not invited to participate. Russia made an attempt to gain representation. While its request was not agreed to, Russia did attend the first Summit as an observer and may be invited to join as a full member in the future.

The European Union, which like Russia is a dialogue partner of ASEAN, has expressed interest in gaining observer status in the EAS. East Timor has expressed interest in joining ASEAN, having had observer status since 2002: if it does so, it would accordingly also gain representation in the EAS.

For the immediate future, the EAS membership will remain at the current 16. In May 2006 ASEAN’s Secretary General Ong Keng Yong announced after a meeting of ASEAN senior officials that the EAS membership would be ‘frozen’ for the next two years.

The United States has also viewed the Summit with interest. Ever since the formation of APEC in 1989, US policymakers have favoured modes of regional cooperation in East Asia in which the US can participate and have been wary about institutional arrangements which might divide the region from the US. Some American observers have expressed concern that the East Asia Summit will be a venue where major East Asia states including China and Japan will be represented but the US will not.The Summit could be another avenue for China to sponsor dialogues and discussions which define East Asia discussions and cooperation as not needing to include the US (althought some in the US have been sceptical about the Summit's prospects for achieving substantive cooperation). The question of how the US reacts to, and is able to interact with, the East Asia Summit will be one of the most significant issues in the early phases of the new grouping s activities.

The issue of the relationship between the new EAS and the ASEAN Plus Three grouping also remains under debate. Some countries continue to consider that the APT should remain at the centre of substantive cooperation and community building . For example, Malaysia s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi (in comments during the APEC meetings in Hanoi in November 2006) stated that ASEAN Plus Three was the primary vehicle for community building in the region, while the EAS could complement it as a useful forum for dialogue on strategic issues involving additional participants in support of community building in East Asia. He said that, It is critical that we preserve the integrity of the respective processes. An official Chinese commentary in July 2006 affirmed that China supports the ASEAN Plus Three grouping as ‘… the main channel for building the East Asia Community, to be completed by the East Asia Summit and other mechanisms’.

Japan, by contrast, has advanced (in August 2006) the concept of a Comprehensive Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) to contribute to economic integration across East Asia. The coverage of this effort would be the membership of the EAS, and would therefore include India, Australia and New Zealand. In discussing this concept, Japan has suggested that it should be a broad ranging effort to achieve cooperation in areas including trade, investment, intellectual property, services, and common rules of origin. The CEPEA proposal was raised in late August 2006 and has yet to be considered in detail. It indicates nonetheless that Japan continues to wish to argue for a concept of regional cooperation which extends beyond the ASEAN Plus Three membership to include all the EAS members.

In the near future, the EAS is likely to co-exist with the ASEAN Plus Three process, while debate and contest continue about what role the new forum can develop and pursue. At their meeting in Kuala Lumpur in July 2006, the foreign ministers of the APT members gave a cautiously-worded endorsement to the Summit when they said:

The Ministers welcomed the convening of the East Asia Summit as a forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia. In this respect, they recognized that the East Asia Summit could make a significant contribution to the achievement of the long-term goal of establishing an East Asian community.

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The EAS: future prospects

The East Asia Summit is at an early stage and its character and potential role are still to become clear. For the immediate future, attention will focus on the second summit, in Cebu. The meeting of EAS Foreign Ministers in Kuala Lumpur on 26 July 2006 identified energy, finance, education, avian flu and natural disaster mitigation as major priority issues for the next Summit. The Philippines, the host for the next EAS, has suggested that the problems of the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations should also be discussed.

In the longer term several major issues are likely to be important in the evolution of the Summit these include:

  • What decisions are made on membership. An expansion of the membership to include Russia and possibly other states might make the Summit more inclusive but might broaden its focus to the extent that it became less obviously East Asian in focus (a development which might be congenial for countries favouring retaining ASEAN Plus Three as the principal focus for East Asian 'community building');
  • Whether ASEAN can continue to provide effective leadership as the driving force for the Summit given that it includes three states (China, India and Japan) whose economic size and weight exceed those of any ASEAN member. Some observers, such as Endy M. Bayuni (chief editor of the Jakarta Post) argue that this may pose ASEAN with some major challenges.
  • Whether the character and climate of Japan-China relations will facilitate or limit progress towards cooperation in East Asia; and
  • Whether the Summit will develop a distinctive and useful role alongside other existing regional associations and dialogues especially the ASEAN Plus Three process and APEC.

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Australia s interests

Australia s participation in the East Asia Summit marks another important element in the process of engagement with Asia.

Australia has a longstanding interest in regional cooperation in Asia and is involved in a number of cooperation dialogues simultaneously.

The invitation for Australia to participate in the first East Asia Summit followed a period of consolidation in Australia-ASEAN relations. Australia and New Zealand were invited to attend a special summit meeting with ASEAN in Vientiane in November 2004 to celebrate thirty years of the Australia-ASEAN multilateral relationship. That meeting decided to proceed with negotiations for a multilateral free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the ASEAN ten. Australia in 2005 also decided to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a step which ASEAN requested all countries interested in participation in the East Asia Summit to take.

In a speech on 1 December 2005, Australia s Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer suggested that the character and direction of the East Asia Summit may take some time to become apparent but welcomed the fact that Australia would be an inaugural participant. Mr Downer stated that:

This is just the first meeting and nothing is set in stone. And if there is to be an emergence of an East Asian community, it will not, in my view, be built around one institution or meeting. An East Asian community will emerge for practical reasons, not for ideological reasons. APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN plus three, and the East Asia Summit will all contribute to an open but increasingly integrated region

Prime Minister John Howard, in comments in Kuala Lumpur on 14 December 2005, just before the Summit, stated that the Australian government at this time continued to see APEC as the single most important avenue for regional dialogue. He commented that APEC is the 'premier body' which has the 'great advantage...that it does bring the United States to this region...'

Speaking just after the Summit had taken place, Mr Howard expressed his satisfaction with its first meeting. While the leaders had talked necessarily in general terms about various issues, Mr Howard said of the Summit that, 'I regard it as a great success...I would say that the meeting in some respects exceeded my expectations'.

In looking towards the second meeting of the EAS, Foreign Minister Downer (after the EAS Foreign Ministers' meeting in Kuala Lumpur in July 2006) commented positively about Australia s relations with ASEAN, which he said have gone through a golden period since Australia acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. On the issue of possible expansion of membership of the EAS, Mr Downer said that it would be desirable to consolidate the grouping for the time being . Australia, he said, saw several issues as important for the second EAS, including energy and energy security, regional financial institutional development, and education. Mr Downer also indicated that the government expects the character of the EAS will need to evolve over a considerable period of time: he said that, We will be able to answer questions about it in ten years time, not ten days time .

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Key links and resources

The official website for the 12th ASEAN Summit.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade site for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

For a detailed overview of issues in relation to the East Asia Summit see Ralph Cossa, Simon Tay and Lee Chung-min, 'The Emerging East Asian Community: Should Washington be Concerned?', Issues and Insights, vol. 5, no. 9, Honolulu, Pacific Forum CSIS, August 2005.

A useful discussion of possible issues which could be taken up by the East Asia Summit agenda is provided by See Seng Tan and Ralf Emmers, (eds), An Agenda for the East Asia Summit: Thirty Recommendations for Regional Cooperation in East Asia, Singapore, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, November 2005.

For a perspective from India on the East Asia Summit see Nagesh Kumar, Towards a Broader East Asian Community: Agenda for the East Asia Summit', Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi, November 2005.

A valuable analysis of the evolution of Australia-Southeast Asia relations in the lead up to the Summit is provided by Michael Richardson, 'Australia-Southeast Asia relations and the East Asian Summit', Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 59, no. 3, September 2005, pp. 351-365.

For assessments of the first East Asia Summit see:

Yiyi Lu and Chris Hughes, 'The East Asia model towards creating a regional community', Straits Times, 24 December 2005.

'EAS is first step on long road towards regional integration', Oxford Analytica, 19 December 2005.

Barry Desker, 'Why the East Asia Summit matters', PacNet, No. 55B, Pacific Forum/CSIS, Honolulu, Hawaii, 19 December 2005.

Ron Huisken, 'The First East Asia Summit', PacNet, No. 55A, Pacific Forum/CSIS, Honolulu, Hawaii, 19 December 2005.

' The First East Asia Summit: Towards a community – or a cul-de-sac?', IISS Strategic Comments, London, International Institute for Strategic Studies, vol. 11, issue 10, December 2005.

Mohan Malik, ‘China and the East Asian Summit: More discord than accord’, Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii, February 2006

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