The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism [Coauthored with John H.S. Aberg]

There is little doubt that U.S. alliances in Asia are in a state of flux. The decades of Washington poking and prodding allies to contribute more to regional peace and the maintenance of regional order appear, at least in recent years, to finally be paying off. Japan, considered by many pundits a free-riding pariah for decades, in particular seems to be taking what many in U.S. defense and security circles consider the right course: boosting military spending and seeking substantive and substantial capabilities improvements.

U.S. relations with a host of other East Asian nations have been improving as well. Ties with Vietnam have improved markedly over the past decade. South Korea remains a staunch U.S. ally in the face of North Korean provocations (despite recent signs of a North-South thaw) and the stir caused by China’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last November that overlaps with South Korea’s (and Japan’s) own ADIZs. The U.S. and the Philippines recently reached an Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation, which would grant the U.S. military joint use of certain military facilities. U.S. troops for the last several years have been deployed on a rotational basis in Australia, both symbolically and substantively reinforcing the U.S. commitment to that ally’s security. The U.S.-Singapore relationship remains a strong force in the center of Southeast Asia. The list goes on and on.

In this context, a growing number of leadersgovernment officials, and experts have supported the continued and enhanced development of multilateral institutions in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, both inclusive and exclusive of the United States. American supporters of such initiatives of course tend to outline the necessary role the United States plays in maintaining not only the security and stability of the region but also American economic involvement. Indeed, American promoters of the institutionalization of multilateral security and economic cooperation are inclined to stress the necessity of preserving and even enhancing America’s centrality to regional well being. Such organizations would further advance U.S. interests in the region and ensure broader support for the U.S.-led order, guaranteeing Washington’s leadership far into the future. These institutions would work collectively to, in the best-case scenario, engage and moderate potential threats to the U.S.-led order or, in the worst-case scenario, function to collectively deter aggressors or, if necessary, defend the U.S.-led order were hostilities to break out. The main assumption tends to be that such a construct would be American-led and serve essentially American ends because the U.S.-led order in Asia has benefited most states in the region for the better part of the past seven decades. Alternatively, because regional security has for a long period of time depended on U.S. military predominance, a leading U.S. role is necessary to assure regional peace and security well into the future.

These advocates of the formation of U.S.-led multilateral institutions in Asia as well as those who seek an exclusively Asian Asia tend to blame the strictly bilateral and asymmetrical “hub-and-spokes” system of alliances created in Asia at the end of World War II for stunting the development of regional multilateral institutions as well as greater Asian regionalism. Although some are quick to note that the political, economic, cultural, and religious diversity in the region also serves as obstacles to greater regionalization, most of the responsibility for this failure has been placed on U.S. postwar bilateralism.

The charges are not unfounded. However, the purpose here is not to condemn or condone U.S. bilateralism, the creation of broad U.S.-led multilateral institutions in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, or the formation of exclusively Asian multilateral frameworks. Rather, it is worth explaining why U.S. sponsors of multilateral organizations in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific should think twice before assuming that such constructs wouldipso facto serve American interests and preserve and even enhance an American-led regional order. Policymakers need to avoid basing policy on unrealistic expectations that may, in the long run, lead to frustrations and perhaps even institutional breakdowns if unrealistic expectations are not met. . . .

My article, coauthored with John H.S. Aberg and published today in The Diplomat, continues here.