It is clear that the last few days of regional leaders’ meetings have not produced anything by way of hard-hitting, dramatic substance, certainly not in relation to regional order. But in a quiet, unassuming way, the four nations of India, Japan, the US and Australia have agreed to adopt a common stance to deal with the security challenges of the immediate future. China has made its objections to this ‘quadrilateral dialogue’ clear, not least of which because it has not been invited to participate, but must know that its actions over the past year are to a large degree responsible for this dialogue being resurrected after a decade of lying dormant.
On the other hand, ASEAN has started to talk to China about an officially legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, 15 years after the proposal was first raised. This development is either positive or concerning depending on where one sits in the regional order. While China is a signatory to UNCLOS, it has categorically ignored its implications when conducting artificial island building in the South China Sea. Since no other state (bar the US, and its intermittent FONOPs) has risen to challenge China’s claims, the region now has a fait accompli whereby China can effectively dictate the norms of commercial traffic in its vicinity while also expanding its military capabilities just that much closer to Southeast Asian states and to Australia. ASEAN realizes this, which is why it has decided to return to negotiations on a legally binding document than spend more years in uncertainty about China’s intentions and questioning US commitment to the region.
Meanwhile Australia and Japan, over the course of these past two weeks, have been unified in the messages they have conveyed regarding the need for co-operation, closer ties, and consultation. In the bilateral meeting between PMs Turnbull and Abe on the side of the EAS, they essentially agreed on the same points they touched upon during their meeting in January – namely the strategic partnership, shared interests and values, freedom of the seas (which in this case was referred to as the “Indo-Pacific” - インド太平洋地域) , and an early resolution to finalization of the details of the TPP11 (of which so much was expected for this year’s summit season, only to have those hopes dashed by a rampant Canada and its concerns for a re-negotiated NAFTA and an FTA with China).
For the first time in 3 years, the leaders of the US, Japan, and Australia all met in the same room before the start of the ASEAN session on Monday, where the topic of conversation was, quite understandably, North Korea and how to contain its nuclear ambitions. This meeting itself was unusual because it was originally meant to be a bilateral between the US and Australia, and it was only at the last minute that an offer was put out (presumably by the US, as a meeting between PMs Turnbull and Abe was already scheduled to take place the same day) for Japan to join in discussions. The bilateral between Australia and the US was then re-scheduled as a dinner, which was then re-scheduled to a short official meeting. In all fairness, Turnbull had already informally spoken to President Trump at APEC in Da Nang, so neither leader really had anything else to add to their previous conversations.
So bar the fallout from the TPP (which is still alive, although it will undergo further revisions in the coming months), those messages that were espoused throughout the year have been aired once again, albeit in different venues. One should be happy with that result, as at the very least it confirms that everyone (which in this sense, means the liberal democratic order) is on the same page regarding regional security priorities (and less so economic ones). Yet the fact that so much time and effort was put into events that produced little of substance makes you wonder if everything couldn’t have been sorted out at the ministerial level, or by a really well thought out tele-conference.