Written by Jaehyon Lee.

The leaders of East Asia will meet in the Philippines this week for the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, ASEAN plus China, Korea and Japan (ASEAN+3) summit, and the East Asia Summit (EAS). There are a few interesting points to observe this year. Some are rather old topics, including the matter of regional economic integration, the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and North Korea’s threat to the region. Still, some others are rather new, including the attendance of a few new faces, including President Moon Jae-in of Korea, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and President Donald Trump of the United States. Among these, President Trump will stand out for many reasons.

The axis of the Indo-Pacific is quadrilateral strategic cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia, and India who, more than anything else, share a similar strategic perception towards the military rise of China. By effectively extending existing regional concepts such as the Asia-Pacific or East Asia further west, the Indo-Pacific serves as a countermeasure against Chinese continental economic-strategic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

Other than President Trump’s diplomatic style, rhetoric, use of social media and so on, attention will be on the new conceptualisation of the region that he is likely to promote at the summits: the Indo-Pacific. In recent months, the US government has begun to emphasise the Indo-Pacific region in its official discourse. For example, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned the concept numerous times in a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Either President Trump, or the Joint Statements, have mentioned the concept during his meetings with regional leaders, including Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe of Japan, Narendra Modi of India, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Najib Razak of Malaysia, and Prayut Chaocha of Thailand. It will be interesting to observe how emphatically he will put forward this concept at the upcoming summits. It will have a substantial impact on the future of regional multilateral cooperation in East Asia through meetings such as the ASEAN+3 and EAS.

The Indo-Pacific as a concept is not new. It has been around for several years, at least since the beginning of the US pivot to Asia during the Barack Obama administration. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the first to adopt this concept.  While the pivot was widely recognised in the region, the concept of the Indo-Pacific was not. It has was not particularly identified with the US. It was Australia that promoted the concept in the region. However, the Trump administration, which initially seemed less interested in the region, has increasingly found merit in engaging with Asian countries through the concept of the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific encompasses a wide region ranging from the US to India and the Indian Ocean. It is a useful regional concept, effectively expanding the US strategic regional concept to embrace India. The axis of the Indo-Pacific is quadrilateral strategic cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia, and India who, more than anything else, share a similar strategic perception towards the military rise of China. By effectively extending existing regional concepts such as the Asia-Pacific or East Asia further west, the Indo-Pacific serves as a countermeasure against Chinese continental economic-strategic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that are also pushing regional boundaries westward.

It is likely that there will be a big gap between what the Indo-Pacific means to the Trump administration compared to what it meant to the Obama administration. The latter sought to reinforce the existing multilateral schemes of the region such as the EAS while pursuing rebalancing and a new strategic approach. Meanwhile, the Trump administration prefers a bilateral approach. An Indo-Pacific concept of the region combined with bilateralism is likely to result in a ‘modified’ hub-and-spokes system in the region. Japan, India and Australia are semi-hubs (or semi-spokes) under the main hub, the US. Other regional countries are either linked to the semi-hub, connected to main hub, or both.

This region was identified as the Asia-Pacific in the 1980s and 1990s, although the concept is still widely used today. For example, established in 1989, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was the premier multilateral institutional platform for the Asia-Pacific concept. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis brought regional countries, both directly and indirectly affected, together to form the ASEAN+3. The concept of East Asia, which had been slowly gaining momentum since the early 1990s, eventually became the dominant concept of the region with the ASEAN+3 and EAS as its main multilateral vehicles. It dominated the region for a decade or so, despite the conspicuous omission of the US from both platforms.

The concept of East Asia has been in decline since the late 2000s. Its multilateral instruments began to lose steam. East Asian regional multilateral cooperation was no longer able to find leadership. Since the mid-2000s, there was no country championing the cause of regional multilateral cooperation. Overlapping institutions – multiple competing institutions for economic integration and other areas are found in the region, for example – brought about institutional fatigue for some regional developing countries which could barely keep up with the sprawling number of institutions. Balancing acts between China and Japan, and between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, held back the advancement of regional cooperation. The participation of the US in the EAS from 2010 made the EAS a venue for superpower rivalry. Strategic competition over the South China Sea and between the US and China, rather than cooperation, have dominated the EAS.

If the US pushes this new concept of the Indo-Pacific at this year’s regional summits and thereafter, and if regional countries jump on the wagon, it will be a decisive blow for the concept of East Asia that is already seriously weakened. Regional countries will be torn by the alternative perspectives of the region promoted by the two superpowers, China and the US – BRI and the Indo-Pacific. If the Indo-Pacific and BRI sideline the concept of East Asia, the multilateral institutions associated with the East Asia concept, ASEAN+3 and EAS, will hardly be able to recover, let alone make progress.

Dr Jaehyon Lee is Director of the Centre for ASEAN and Oceania Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Korea. He writes extensively on international relations in Southeast Asia, ASEAN, and regional cooperation in East Asia. Image credit: CC by U.S Naval Forces Central Command/Flickr.

 

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