The future of the Asia-Pacific will return to center stage when leaders meet at a series of summits starting the week of November 16. Leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific economies will first meet in the Philippines as part of APEC, the Asia-Pacific region’s leading multilateral forum on economic cooperation. Then the leaders of ASEAN and its eight regional partners will meet at the East Asia Summit in Malaysia.

In this Q&A, Vikram Nehru explains how competing visions of a regional order are vying for the heart and soul of Southeast Asia. While agreements reached at these multilateral forums are not binding, they offer a valuable opportunity for leaders to consult and engage on a range of difficult issues.

What will be discussed at the APEC and EAS meetings?

Vikram Nehru
Nehru was a nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
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The theme of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila will be “building inclusive economies, building a better world.” The meeting’s agenda includes enhancing regional integration, supporting small and medium enterprise development, investing in human capital, and building sustainable communities.

The real action, however, will take place outside the formal agenda. The summit will provide an opportunity for regional leaders to meet face-to-face for the first time with Malcolm Turnbull and Justin Trudeau, the new prime ministers of Australia and Canada, respectively. Members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will also use the occasion to meet and celebrate the recent successful conclusion of negotiations on the trade agreement and to discuss progress toward ratification. In addition, the region’s leaders will meet with representatives of the APEC Business Advisory Council (composed of business representatives of member economies) where climate change will be a prominent topic for discussion.

This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the East Asia Summit, and the Kuala Lumpur meeting will use this milestone to consider a strategic course for the future, focusing on economic and security issues confronting the region. The summit will inevitably turn to growing maritime tensions in the South and East China Seas, with leaders seeking to agree on a code of conduct, and to discuss regional maritime cooperation, preservation of navigational freedom, and mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes. That discussion is likely to be contentious.

Who will be the main actors at these meetings?

U.S. President Barack Obama will be a towering presence at both summits—literally and figuratively. He will attend a third meeting as well—the annual U.S.-ASEAN summit that will also be held in Kuala Lumpur. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will attend both the APEC and EAS meetings.

China’s President Xi Jinping will attend APEC and Prime Minister Li Keqiang will attend the EAS where he can expect a tough discussion on China’s posture in the South China Sea. President Vladimir Putin will skip both meetings, and Russia will be represented by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia will miss APEC in order to oversee his administration’s ongoing efforts to deal with a forest fire crisis, but he still plans to make it to the EAS.

The lame-duck president of Myanmar will also be one to watch. Thein Sein’s party just lost a general election by a landslide to the main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and EAS leaders will probably applaud him for conducting a relatively free election and for his stated intention to ensure a smooth transfer of power to the new government.

The other main actors will be the hosts of the two summits—President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines who will chair the APEC summit, and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia who will chair the EAS.

What might President Obama achieve from his trip to the region?

The time Obama will spend in the company of other regional leaders will provide opportunities to once again underscore U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific and its willingness to strengthen respect for international norms and principles as a foundation of the region’s peaceful development.

The president will arrive with some wind in his sails. Not only is the U.S. economy recovering, Obama can also point to the successful conclusion of a rules-based TPP as evidence of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. That so many Asian countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand) now want to join the arrangement vindicates U.S. leadership in setting norms and rules to underpin a new regional economic order. Of course, the focus will now need to shift to ratification of the TPP and the assistance that some member countries may need for this purpose.

Obama can also expect that his participation in these summits will serve to further reemphasize the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas in accordance with international law, its support for the code of conduct in the South China Sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and America’s continued security presence in the region.

Finally, President Obama hopes to use these summits to build support for the global climate negotiations (COP21) in Paris in December.

What is the significance of the summits for China?

China will enter the summits with three objectives.

China will want to confirm support for its various regional initiatives—the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New (BRICS) Development Bank, the Silk Road fund, and the One Belt, One Road initiative. Together, these amount to an ambitious plan to finance infrastructure corridors connecting China to its neighbors, with the total cost potentially reaching trillions of dollars.

It will also seek to revitalize progress in negotiations of China-led regional trade agreements. The successful conclusion of the TPP (of which China is not a member) stands in stark contrast to the lack of meaningful progress in the negotiations on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Furthermore, China’s call for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific hasn’t acquired any traction at all.

Finally, China will make efforts to ensure that discussions on maritime security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea do not impinge on what it sees as its strategic interests in the area. China’s foreign minister sought, and received, assurances from President Aquino that this issue would not be raised at the APEC summit, but it is likely to be the focus of discussions at the EAS.

Will the discussions have any impact on tensions in the South China Sea?

It is unlikely that the discussions will achieve any progress on the South China Sea issue. At the EAS, China is unlikely to clarify what maritime jurisdiction it is claiming with its nine-dash line. Moreover, the United States has stated its intention to continue ship patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, even though China has reacted strongly to such actions. At the same time, China has said that it will not interfere with freedom of navigation or overflights in the South China Sea, while it has also repeatedly stated that the islands in the South China Sea “have been China’s territory since ancient times.” More recently, at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus in early November, China fiercely opposed the inclusion of the phrase “freedom of navigation” for the South China Sea in a joint statement, and as a result the statement was never issued.

Tensions would decline if China were to agree to the ASEAN code of conduct in the South China Sea, but this is also not likely to happen. There have been ten  Senior Officials’ Meetings on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, but with precious little to show for it. China has consistently dragged its heels on agreeing to a code of conduct and, in the meantime, has been changing the status quo on the ground and at sea.

How significant are the summits for the host nations?

The arrival of so many world leaders will put both the Philippines and Malaysia firmly under the gaze of the world’s media.

The Philippines will hope to use the media glare as a way to promote itself as a competitive business and tourist destination, and has spent $212 million on preparations. Given its ongoing dispute with China about overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, one person President Aquino will want to impress is President Obama given the importance of U.S. support for the modernization of the Philippine armed forces through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Unfortunately for Aquino, the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which was expected to announce its decision on November 16 about the constitutionality of the agreement, postponed its judgment to mid-December.

That won’t stop the two leaders from examining the state of the alliance between their countries, America’s support for Philippine maritime security, and U.S. funding for Philippine economic growth and development. Obama will also board the U.S.-made BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the Philippine Navy’s flagship, to showcase U.S. maritime cooperation with the country.

Malaysia, which has had its share of bad press over the past year given the ongoing scandal involving its 1MDB state investment fund, will try to extract some good publicity from hosting the East Asia Summit. But the allegations of corruption swirling around Prime Minister Najib will hang over the proceedings like a dark cloud.

One of Najib’s more important bilateral meetings will be with Obama, who is likely to express his concern over Anwar Ibrahim, Najib’s charismatic political opponent who has been jailed on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. But the two leaders will spend most of their meeting discussing the overlapping strategic interests of Malaysia and the United States, especially with regard to the South China Sea, where Malaysia also has territorial claims that overlap with those of China.

Will the summits lead to any concrete deliverables? 

The short answer is no. However, while the summits themselves are unlikely to lead to concrete outcomes, there are means by which ideas and agreements generated at these meetings can be carried forward. APEC has in the past successfully translated summit agreements into programs and technical assistance for countries in the region on issues as varied as the reduction of nontariff barriers, trade facilitation, the reduction of tariffs on environmental goods, trade and travel facilitation, energy efficiency, and social inclusion.

In the case of the EAS, summit agreements have been carried forward by other regional organizations, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, and of course, the ASEAN Secretariat. This year alone, the ASEAN Regional Forum—an annual gathering of 27 foreign ministers and representatives from the Asia-Pacific and the European Union—agreed to pursue joint activities covering preventive diplomacy, disaster response, counterterrorism, transnational crime, and nuclear nonproliferation. Similarly, the grouping of defense ministers representing EAS countries has focused on defense cooperation, maritime security, antipiracy operations, and protocols on unplanned encounters at sea.

How significant are these summits?

Some observers may question the value of Asian summitry when the world is reeling from the recent terrorist carnage in Paris, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and the conflagration in the Middle East. That would be a mistake.

Asia is already the engine of global growth, and will soon account for half of global GDP. What happens in Asia matters for the world. The region’s evolving economic and security architecture will shape the future regional order, and arguably the global order, and is of critical importance to the strategic interests of key global and regional powers, especially the United States and China and to a lesser extent Japan and India.

These powers recognize that they cannot impose this order and that they must win the support and willing cooperation of the countries in the region to achieve their aims. Competing visions for a regional order are vying for the heart and soul of Southeast Asia.

The APEC summit and the East Asia Summit are where this great geopolitical game is being played. The outcome will have global repercussions for the rest of this century and beyond.

Patrick Farrell, a junior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contributed to this article.

Correction: This piece was updated on November 17, 2015 to reflect the nature of Chinese attendance at APEC and the EAS.