“APEC Centrality” by Malcolm Cook

2017/62, 25 October 2017

In three weeks, the region’s annual round of leaders’ summits kicks off with the APEC summit in Vietnam on November 11 and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines on November 14. Despite these summits being back-to-back and both in Southeast Asia, the major power make-up at APEC and EAS again will be markedly different.

Among the four major powers – The US, China, Japan, and Russia – that are member of both APEC and EAS, Danang, Vietnam will host the leaders of all four and Manila, Philippines only one. 2017 will exhibit the greatest major power participation disparity between APEC and EAS. In 2013, President Obama skipped both APEC and EAS. This year, President Trump, now, is only scheduled to skip EAS.

The Russian President has never attended EAS. From 2011 to 2017, the Russian president has only missed APEC 2015. The Chinese president has never missed APEC and has never attended EAS. The Japanese prime minister has never missed an APEC or EAS.

This repeated discrepancy is good for APEC and bad for ASEAN for at least two reasons. First, APEC and ASEAN’s ability to convene the leaders of the major powers of the Asia-Pacific along with the smaller states of the region is one of the great benefits of each organisation. This convening power is a core element of ASEAN’s claim to Centrality.

Second, particularly under the leadership of Presidents Trump, Xi and Putin, political power in the US, China and Russia has been centralized and personalized. The Russian practice of sending either the foreign minister or prime minister to the EAS and the Chinese one of sending the premier has never been satisfactory and now even less so.

These major powers, in act if not in word, treat APEC and EAS as partially substitutable when it comes to the participation of their political leaders. So far, APEC is the favoured choice. The fact that these major powers can host APEC but not EAS may not be immaterial to this repeated choice.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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