The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism
Image Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism


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.

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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.

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.

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