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Asia’s Month of Milestones

CANBERRA – For grand strategy buffs, this has been quite a month, with several events looking like the kind of turning points that will consume future historians. Capturing the most media attention has been Europe’s eroding credibility, with its paralyzed institutional response to the ongoing financial crisis making ever more fanciful the notion of a “G-3” world, in which the European Union could compete as a political and economic equal with the United States and China.

But the most interesting new chapters in the story – in economic, political, and security terms – have been written in Asia and the Pacific. With the subtext in most cases being recurring nervousness about China’s rise, recent weeks have witnessed some very significant institutional and policy changes, as well as fundamental strategic repositioning, by the region’s major players.

First, at mid-November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, hosted by US President Barack Obama in Hawaii, Japan announced its intention to join the US and eight other countries, including Australia, Chile, and Singapore, in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would create a free-trade area 40% larger than the European Union – and much bigger still if it ultimately embraces all APEC members, further consolidating Asia’s global economic primacy. (While some have been attracted to the idea of confining a new trade partnership to America’s closer friends and allies, thereby excluding China, it is difficult to see how this would serve any constructive purpose.)

Second, the leaders of every major country in the region – including for the first time the US and Russia – met later in November at the East Asia Summit, hosted by Indonesia in Bali, to discuss security and economic issues. This reportedly resulted in some lively exchanges on the issue of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. With India also a key member, this newly consolidated grouping – the only meeting that brings together the region’s most senior government officials with an open-ended agenda – is set to become by far the most effective of the alphabet soup of Asia’s regional and sub-regional organizations.