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East Asia Summit: An exhibit of Asian institutionalism

The EAS displays few concrete results and this is a problem that is symptomatic of most multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific region. 

By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

The 11th East Asian Summit (EAS) concluded last week after adopting declarations related to infrastructure development, migratory flows and non proliferation. The Summit which brought together 18 Heads of State made headlines more for the bilateral meetings held rather than the outcomes of the summit itself. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also attended the 14th ASEAN-India Summit and held meetings with Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama, Li Keqiang, Dmitry Mendvedev, Aung Sun Suu Ki, Park Geun-hye, Thongloun Sisoulith amongst others. India brought up issues of terrorism financing, the RCEP and India’s membership into APEC as well as India’s position on the South China Sea. However, there were few other takeaways.

The evolution the EAS has been coloured by ineffectual meetings and bland rhetoric. The East Asian Summit has its roots in the regional institutionalism pioneered by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the 1990s. At the end of the Cold War, ASEAN attempted to spearhead new security architecture for Asia. The basis for this was the ASEAN+ X format. In 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was formed. In the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, the ASEAN+3 included Japan, China and South Korea to catalyse the processes of regionalism. This expanded into the ASEAN+6 as it was widened to include Australia, New Zealand and India. Eventually, it admitted Russia and the United States and this grouping came to be known as the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS was to serve as the precursor for a larger East Asian Community built along the same lines as a European Community.

One of the main contentions about the EAS during its formation was its membership. China was keen to limit membership to East Asian countries alone and was hesitant to allow India and Australia into the group for fears of dilution. However, membership continued to increase and the EAS is one of the avenues where leaders are brought to discuss issues of regional scope having wide ranging impact.

Institutionalism in Asia has been weak and built with the explicit to keep it that way. Unlike the formal, majority decisionmaking structures illustrated by the European Union and other regional institutions elsewhere in the world, institutions in Asia prefer an informal, consensus based approach. The best example of this is the ASEAN whose style of negotiations have been described as ‘The ASEAN Way’. Supporters laud ASEAN’s processes while realists discard it as an effectual talkshop. While ASEAN’s merits and demerits as an organisation have been espoused and contested, it remains one of the few, functioning regional institutions in Asia.

Multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region has not been successful either in the economic or the security spheres. One reason is the lack of desire of states, who are generally suspicious of regimes that would take away their strategic autonomy. However, the excessive focus on inclusivity and soft regionalism, dialogue and consensus mean that the EAS currently agrees on very little. Characterised by geopolitics and rising contentions in the Asia-Pacific, the loopholes of institutions in fostering cooperation is becoming more apparent than ever. Meanwhile, multilateral institutions allow for corridor diplomacy and declarations of commitment. How far this will go in socialising countries into regional or global norms is yet to be seen.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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