Admitting the US and Russia to the regional architecture

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA are the two important global powers missing in the discussion of a new regional architecture. Both countries, through their existing economic and political ties, have approached the regional community-building effort differently - in ways that suit their perceived roles.

But they do share a common objective - to become parts of the ongoing dynamism in the region - whether it be East Asia, Asia or Asia-Pacific.

Proposals by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatomaya to establish a new regional institute have generated heated debates over the shape of things to come. Rudd's framework on the Asia Pacific community is more specific and widely discussed than Hatoyama's East Asia community, which up until now has not provided any details or modalities. However, both ideas support the ongoing regional institutions within Asean and would not dismiss the grouping as a foundation for future cooperation. Additional features, mandates, functions and members could be refined and added later on.

Numerous ideas have been proposed and discussed, concentrating on |mandates and membership that will cope with 21st century challenges. Participation of the US and Russia has repeatedly been mentioned as pivotal to any new set-up, particularly future membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS). For the US, the one-year-old Obama Administration's new attitude towards Asia and the ascension of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) has created an overall favourable atmosphere to expand and intensify its engagement within the region -commensurate with Obama's pronouncement as a Pacific power.

Akin to the US, Russia is also a member of regional organisations such as the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec). Both the US and Russia have fulfilled the three requirements set forth by Asean for admission to EAS�a dialogue partner and a signatory of TAC that has substantial relations with Asean. However, Moscow has been more assertive on this front. As far as Russia-Asean relations are concerned, Moscow has been pushing for closer economic and security cooperation but with little success. The Asean Centre at the Moscow State University of International Relations will soon be established.

In the early 1980s, Moscow tabled several proposals to establish a new regional security forum in anticipating post-Cold War strategic imperatives. Unfortunately, they fell on deaf ears. Moscow continues to view itself as a Europe-Asia power. One major impediment was the grouping's hostile attitude towards Moscow's support of proxy wars in the region. Once the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Soviet empire disintegrated, its pragmatic approaches and policies have propelled better cooperation and friendship with Asean and individual members.

In Kuala Lumpur, December 2005, Russia came close to becoming a foundation member of EAS or Asean plus six. Only last minute forceful intervention by certain Asean members stopped such an ambition after former US State Secretary Condoleeza Rice expressed serious concern over the planned admission. To save Moscow's political embarrassment, Malaysia, the host, quickly invited Russia as a guest to the inaugural EAS. Since then, Russia has continued to push for early EAS membership. Last year, it failed to convince Thailand, as the Asean chair, to push for its EAS membership and the second Asean-Russia summit.

Political turmoil inside the country and uncertainty surrounding a series of summits rendered twin initiatives impossible. At the next EAS in Hanoi in October, the second Asean-Russia summit has been scheduled. It is an open secret that Vietnam wants the second Asean-US leaders' meeting to be held also in the country. Obama offered to host the follow-up leaders' meeting with his Asean colleagues in his country this year when he met them last November.

The central question Asean has to tackle is whether the US should be invited to join EAS along with Russia, either in Hanoi this year or later on. In her speech last month at the Hawaii-based, East West Center, US State Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear that Washington is interested in EAS and is studying how her country can associate with the five-year-old summit. She said the US proposed to begin consultations with Asian countries on how the US might play a role in the EAS and the summit would fit into the broader institutional landscape. That much was clear. At this juncture, Asean has yet to reach a consensus on the EAS enlargement even though there is no official moratorium policy. Several Asean dialogue partners who have fulfilled the three criteria also want to join EAS.

EAS could serve as a new overarching structure where concerned countries in the region can discuss pertinent transnational issues and subsequently deliver results.

Expansion of EAS will be less problematic because the membership is still small. Both ARF and Apec have big members straddling Asia, as well as North and South America. ARF has 27 members and Apec 21, but the latter includes Taiwan and Hongkong while India, the region's rising power, has been left out. After the September 11 tragedy, the Bush administration tried with some success to intensify anti-terrorism cooperation among the trade-focused members.

One way of sustaining Asean centrality within the common call for a new architecture is to admit the US and Russia together to EAS. Then, the so-called Asean plus six (Asean 10, India, Australia, New Zealand) will be transformed into Asean plus eight, leaving Asean plus three (APT) unchallenged--to be the only institution that represents real East Asian regional building. China, the APT prime mover would not object to such an arrangement as it would continue to be the APT driving force. Japan and South Korea have already utilised the APT as a platform to strengthen their ties with Asean and China.

The larger EAS has begun tackling broader issues including nuclear proliferation, climate change and food security - and would answer in part Rudd's proposal and Tokyo's insistence on having the US participate in a new regional architecture.

Finally, Asean would also need creative ideas to sequence a series of summits with dialogue partners to allow their leaders with super-tight schedules to attend them. Obviously, one cannot expect a US president to join Asean-initiated summits and leaders' meetings twice or thrice a year.

Source: The Nation

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