Features | Diplomacy

The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism

Those who would call for U.S.-led multilateral institutions in Asia need to consider the potential pitfalls.

By John H.S. Åberg and Nathan W. Novak for
The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism
Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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 leaders, government 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 would ipso 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.

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The key factor upholding the hub-and-spokes system of military and economic bilateralism in East Asia is the American brokerage position. When the hub-and-spokes system was established, it was underpinned by the marked power asymmetries that emerged after the Second World War and was designed to function as a bulwark against communism as well as to exert control over rogue allies. This network model of geopolitical engagement has a number of benefits. It equips the most centrally positioned actor with unique strategic flexibility, leverage, and capacity to act and to mobilize through exclusive ties with the members of the network. Of course, this says nothing about how this central position is used, whether we are dealing with a benign or a belligerent and dominant broker.

This capacity to act and to mobilize is facilitated by three particular conditions: it must be supported by an ideational dimension that is culturally harmonious and resonates among significant audiences; it depends on the degree centrality of the broker (the denser the ties, the greater the likelihood of mobilization); and, it is also enabled by its between-ness centrality (a network position that enjoys exclusive ties, contrary to a network structure with multiple brokers equipped with mobilizing capacity). The U.S. military alliance system in Asia fulfills all of these requirements and gives U.S. military a unique capacity to act. In particular, this was demonstrated by the U.S. pivot (or rebalance) to Asia.

The dissemination of the idea of an increasingly “assertive” China resonated well in the region, and the American security ties are dense and built on exclusivity, which stands in stark contrast to the multilateral security structure of NATO in Europe. Although the pivot has been interpreted by China as a containment strategy, with symbolic acts pointing towards the direction of a new cold war, constructing a multilateral security structure would signal even greater hostility and lead to new self-fulfilling prophesies of growing U.S.-China antagonism. This is because collective security institutions “are usually geared to deterring and punishing aggression (‘security against’ an adversary).” The development of a multilateral security institution in Asia that excludes China would thus come to resemble NATO’s exclusion of Russia. Maintaining the hub-and-spokes system on the military front would therefore avoid outright hostility and preserve strategic flexibility and maneuverability (Indeed, here we begin to see the justification for the development of situational/ad hoc multilateral constructs that function as extensions of bilateral relations across issue areas). Of course, while the U.S. intention is to maintain, and even enhance, its international primacy, one can question how long U.S. military centrality can be sustained when the very viability of a military insurance policy is challenged by budgetary constraints that reduce the coverage of the insurance.

On the economic front the situation is different. Initially, the hub-and-spokes system of economic bilateralism directed countries in the region toward the American market and allowed the U.S. to gain leverage through the imposition of strongly biased and unequal trade policies, such as anti-dumping measures, voluntary export restraints, and section 301 sanctions. However, it was this manifest asymmetry that pushed Asian states to start exploring alternative regional pathways at the end of the 1980s and that impelled the birth of economic multilateralism in the shadow of American centrality and dominance. Moreover, as the distribution of power incrementally changes, the very centrality that sustained the viability of the hub-and-spokes gradually erodes: the United States is no longer the economic hub. In light of this reality and the hampered WTO process, the formation of a more multilateral kind of economic structure, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), might thus seem attractive. According to U.S. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa:

The greatest threat the United States faces is the fact that we have for so long for lack of a better description viewed ourselves as the hub, and we’ve negotiated and we’ve had our diplomatic relationships determined in a hub and spoke manner. We’ve seen ourselves as the center and we’ve had bilateral agreements, one country at a time. That is going to be a method that we cannot continue in the Asia-Pacific so the great opportunity is the ability for us to be the leader in a truly multinational kind of negotiation, in bringing all of the different countries together.

Trying to tie the region to an American-led multilateral order involves the use of a particular type of power: institutional power. The idea is that if the leading state can institutionalize its power and put checks on its discretion, then other states would be more willing to cooperate and the leading state can “lock in” the policy behavior of the other regional states. The liberal argument is basically that it is rational for a dominant state expecting future relative decline to push for a multilateral solution that would safeguard and freeze its power advantages. Mildly put, this is easier said than done.

Although the sluggish process of the TPP is often seen as a product of domestic politics and the unwillingness of Congress to grant President Barack Obama Trade Promotion Authority, the capacity of the U.S. to rally the region behind the TPP stands in stark contrast to its ability to maneuver militarily. The normative foundations of the “Asian way” of economic regionalism make American ideas of economic regulation less harmonious in Asia; the de facto American exclusion from many of the multiple discriminatory FTA’s in the region decreases the density of its economic ties; and, economically the U.S. obviously does not enjoy exclusive ties with anyone. There is thus nothing that guarantees that other states would buy into the system in a normative way, particularly so when the institutional initiative comes at a time when the leading state is already in relative decline. After all, if the leading state’s material position and structural power are weakened there will be fewer incentives to accept its untrammeled leadership. Even though the intention of the TPP is to push for across-the-border regulations and regulatory coherence across the region (which, if successful, would surely be a sign of American power and leadership), the U.S. probably has to accept various watered down bilateral agreements in order to accommodate regional interests that no longer are as easy to suppress.

Although John Ikenberry asserts that “in this brave new world, the United States will find itself needing to share power,” incorporating this with an “updated and rearticulated” American “vision of internationalism” might prove easier said than done. The liberal world order is in crisis precisely because there is no easily perceivable middle-ground solution between a liberalism of imposition and a liberalism of restraint. While the hubs-and-spokes system is still feasible in the military realm where it serves to maintain U.S. primacy, the underlying conditions that sustained its viability in the economic realm have changed, and it remains to be seen if security considerations will continue to trump economic considerations in the future. Yet as China’s military modernization and buildup proceed apace, the U.S. will incrementally be faced with a situation where it cannot ignore the fundamental implications of the Chinese presence in the maritime commons the U.S. claims to command. China’s disapproval of a sole American leadership role in the Asia-Pacific forces Washington to consider a daunting question: preserve and clash, or share and accommodate?

Perhaps even more important than the potential pitfalls of the institutionalization process for those already sold on the multilateral approach are the complications that can arise after institutionalization occurs. If Victor Cha’s perspective is turned on its head, military multilateralization can very easily become a form of entrapment for the U.S. if its Asian partners act collectively to pursue exclusively Asian interests at America’s expense. This would not be as problematic for Washington when the issue is merely a bilateral one. If the Philippines, say, emboldened by its bilateral alliance with the U.S., were to more assertively towards China or other South China Sea disputant states, and the U.S. elected to abandon its commitments to the Philippines, the U.S. would risk losing only one ally, albeit an important one. In a multilateral arrangement, U.S. abandonment of Asian allies would be far riskier in that abandoning commitments to the group may very well lead to de facto U.S. abandonment of East Asia or, potentially, a de facto end to Asian engagement of the United States.

Moreover, and probably more realistically, this same logic can be applied to situations that are not as extreme as outright abandonment. Simply put, there is no reason to assume that multilateral agreements in the Asia-Pacific will serve American interests. Indeed, in at least some cases they ought not. But ethical arguments aside, Cha’s perspective suggests that multilateral arrangements will ultimately complicate America’s pursuit of its goals and national interests in East Asia. The power asymmetries between the U.S. and many of its individual partners and allies in the region remain vast. However, a large multilateral establishment, short of aggregating capabilities, at least poses the prospect of giving those allies and partners greater bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the United States on any range of issues. Certainly, the United States could apply wedge-driving and divide-and-conquer tactics in forcing its agenda through, but one would then reasonably question the long-term viability of the organization itself.

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This article should not be read as a defense of bilateralism at the expense of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific. Instead, it aims simply to point out some of the potential pitfalls of creating and managing such an institution in a diverse region without a history of deep multilateral cooperation. The fact that many prospective members of a multilateral arrangement share stronger ties with the United States than they do among each other may benefit Washington, at least in the short to medium term; however, some research suggests that this favorable U.S. position may depend on how equally it treats members. Equal treatment may be a tall order for American leaders given the different strategic values they tend to attach to different bilateral relationships. With Asia’s violent history and persistent memories, equal treatment among members may be necessary, even if difficult. The U.S. must be sensitive to the perceptions of members and careful not to give the appearance of slighting any one or group of members. This would a tall order, but is possible if U.S. leaders pay attention to the needs and concerns of member states, are willing to defer to member states on issues of major interest to them, and are willing in a broader sense to share responsibilities and decision-making authority with allies. The U.S. record in these three categories with bilateral allies has been mixed at best; more often than not Washington has been more willing to push responsibilities onto its Asia-Pacific allies while reserving the bulk of decision-making authority for itself. This must change if any future Asia-Pacific multilateral arrangement that includes the United States is to survive in the long run.

John H.S. Åberg is pursuing his doctoral studies in International Relations at Lingnan University under the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme. Follow him on Twitter at @JHSaberg.

Nathan W. Novak is an eight-year resident of southern Taiwan and a Master’s student at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies and the Center for Japanese Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Follow him on Twitter @nwnovaklhs.