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Signs of competition between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region have become more visible over the last few years. While official pronouncements in Beijing and Washington continue to emphasize the need for a cooperative relationship, in reality, both sides increasingly see each other as potential competitors.
From China’s side, one often hears voices describing the US as a declining power intent on containing China’s rise to primacy in the region. From the US’ side, China is believed to have the intention, and soon the capacity, to challenge American primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, there are reasons to believe that both powers would try their best to manage that emerging competition within the predominantly cooperative relationship between the two. In other words, while elements of competition are inevitable in the US-China relationship, both sides will also ensure that their bilateral relationship will be defined more by cooperation. Yet, if not managed carefully, that competition might also evolve into a strategic rivalry. Such a transformation in US-China relations, from competition to rivalry, would be devastating for everyone in the region.
For other powers in East Asia, China–US relations characterized by cooperative and competitive elements, and the uncertainty regarding which element will prevail in the coming years, clearly serve as cause for concern. The ongoing discussion on the nature of the geopolitical shift in the region, and how best to manage it, reflects the growing concerns among countries in the region on the future of China–US relations. This raises the question on the imperative of a regional order that would ensure that the China–US relationship would continue to serve as the backbone of East Asia’s stability and prosperity.
While the US–China relationship is crucial for any regional order in East Asia, one should not forget that the region is also populated by other major powers. In this context, any regional order should also be able to guarantee that relationships among all major powers — the US, China, Japan and India — would be primarily cooperative rather than competitive.
It should also prevent strategic rivalries among the four major powers from becoming the main feature of regional relations. In this regard, there is a view advocating that peace and stability in the region would be best guaranteed by the formation of a Concert of Powers, either in the form of co-leadership between the US and China (G-2) or among the four powers mentioned above.
The idea of a Concert of Powers among big players clearly underestimates, if not ignores, the role of other small and medium powers in the region. For these powers, especially those in Southeast Asia, the preferred regional order is one that would prevent the emergence of a Concert of Powers among the four powers at the expense of other lesser powers in the region. This is why ASEAN countries continue to insist on the imperative of ASEAN’s centrality in any emerging regional order.
The problem, however, is that ASEAN (and ASEAN-driven processes) has not yet provided any guarantee that it can maintain peace and stability in region. In fact, recent developments suggest that ASEAN itself, amid the growing competition among major powers, might be polarized. ASEAN should and does understand that “without unity, there is no centrality”.
Despite the challenges facing ASEAN in shaping the emerging regional order, the grouping does have an opportunity too important to be missed. That opportunity comes in the form of an inclusive East Asia Summit (EAS). As a relatively new process, the EAS has two important potentials. First, the EAS constitutes the first regional arrangement where all powers — big, medium and small — are represented.
Due to ASEAN’s central role in it, the EAS is also a forum where regional and extra-regional powers interact in a setting relatively devoid of hegemonic participants. In other words, every participant has a seat and a voice at the table.
Second, due to its inclusive membership, the EAS could also function as a platform for ASEAN to connect with the arrangements that make up the global order, especially the G20. ASEAN, which aspires to play a more active role in “a global community of nations”, would benefit greatly if it was able to transform the EAS into an institution that went beyond just a forum for “dialogue” among leaders. In other words, ASEAN needs to start thinking about what it wants to do with the EAS.
In order to realize these potentials, the EAS should function as a sort of steering committee for the Asia-Pacific region in two inter-related ways. First, it should be allowed to function as a steering committee for coordinating various regional institutions in the region such as the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), and the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Second, there is also the need for the EAS members of the G20 to form an informal caucus to coordinate their policies and interests at the global level.
Indeed, the future of East Asia is too important to be left to great power politics. Strengthening regional arrangements, while at the same time recognizing inherent weaknesses in such arrangements, remains the best option. That process should begin by discussing what role the EAS should play in the future. Transforming the EAS into an institution that functions as a steering committee for the region constitutes one such role.
The writer is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.