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ASEAN: Asia's Leadership Gap

Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group picture with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the opening of their 43rd annual meeting in Hanoi on July 20, 2010. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group picture with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the opening of their 43rd annual meeting in Hanoi on July 20, 2010. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

As Australian and Japanese initiatives fade, attention now turns to ASEAN, which has put in place norms for peace that all major powers affirm. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is a long-standing forum that brings together foreign ministers, and that is benefiting from renewed attention on the part of Clinton, who is making her second appearance – a perfect attendance record since coming into office, and a marked improvement on the record of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

But more may be needed. Asia’s major economies continue to grow and integrate, whereas the US economy remains soft, and its leaders’ attention is increasingly focused on its domestic challenges. A shift of relative strategic influence and strength is discernible, especially given the rise of India and China. But old and unresolved rivalries within Asia are finding new expression as political ambitions and military budgets expand.

A new forum will soon emerge. Building on the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, a formal dialogue between the defense ministers of eight key countries – China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and the US – will run in parallel with the ARF. There is also talk about establishing a new strategic dialogue among leaders. Asian leaders already hold such talks annually at the East Asia Summit, an important initiative that brings together India and China, with ASEAN as host. ASEAN is likely to host a still-wider grouping that includes Russia and the US, though the precise framework is still being debated.

Some favor a permanent expansion of the East Asian Summit. Others suggest that leaders follow an ASEAN+8 formula, similar to the defense ministers’ meeting. An ASEAN+8 meeting of leaders could then evolve its own modalities to suit the wider geographical group, and would not need to be held each year.

The US has shown interest in a multilateral path to engagement with Asia on strategic issues. But President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to decide which format it thinks best. There is a need for substantive engagement, so that a leaders’ meeting makes sense. After all, there is already APEC for economic issues, as well as the US-ASEAN Summit, inaugurated last year.

Moreover, the ongoing economic crisis and urgent domestic matters will command much of Obama’s attention. Indeed, he has scheduled and then postponed visits to Indonesia three times already. To be sure, each time there were extenuating circumstances – a jobs summit, the final vote on the US health-care bill, and the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But, taken together, these cancellations make clear that even a US administration that wants to engage more with Asia may still find itself preoccupied with domestic priorities, especially this year, as mid-term elections approach.

Two leaders who pushed for regionalism in Asia have departed because of domestic politics. Those who remain obviously would be well served not to overlook exigencies at home. But they also must acknowledge and attend to the post-crisis challenges facing the region as a whole.

Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Co-Chairman of the Asia Society Global Council. He is the author of "Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America."