Could East Asia’s Weak Institutions Be a Blessing in Disguise?

East Asia’s multilateral institutions — from ASEAN to APEC — are generally weak. This might be a good thing.

Could East Asia’s Weak Institutions Be a Blessing in Disguise?
Credit: Asia via Shutterstock.com

East Asia is well known for its weak-to-non-existent institutions of multilateral governance. In Europe, the economic, social, and security concerns of most states play out in one or another institutional setting, usually in organizations created shortly after World War II. In Asia, the success of multilateral institutions has been far spottier, and those organizations that have endured generally have not impinged deeply upon national sovereignty.

Is there an upside? International institutions can outlive the basic causal factors that give them life, which is to say that they can shape and adapt to changes in geopolitical reality. But as we may be seeing in Europe, institutional momentum can be dangerous; efforts to preserve institutions that have outlived their usefulness can prove destructive.

The post-war geopolitical balance in East Asia may simply have been too much in flux to admit the existence of long-term, successful international regimes. Uncertainty characterized much of the environment; China’s power and attitude toward its neighbors changed several times, the willingness of the United States and the Soviet Union to commit to the region varied, and the long-term rehabilitation/reintegration of Japan remained an open question.

The Great Powers had tried institutionalizing the politics of East Asia before. The agreements concluded at the Washington Naval Conference (the Four Power, Five Power, and Nine Power Treaties) tried to manage politics in the Asia-Pacific by freezing the power relations and political interests of the major players. Weapons and military installations were restricted, territorial changes were limited, and a specific set of economic and political relations with China were imposed.

This system was not very flexible; shifts in the strength and interests of the major parties brought the system into crisis in 1936 (just 14 years after the Conference), and the institutions shattered.

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By contrast, the system of institutions that has survived into the post-Cold War era is characterized by a great deal of flexibility. We can fairly criticize both ASEAN and APEC for lacking the ability to constrain the behavior of their members in any notable way, but both have at least served as fora for bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. More firmly constructed regimes might have cracked under the tectonic pressure of geopolitical change.

We haven’t left geopolitical uncertainty behind. Even if we grant the inevitability of the military and economic rise of China, the attitudes of Russia, Japan, India, and the United States toward the region matter a great deal for its institutional architecture.

There can be no doubt that the region requires some degree of institutionalization. The Asian Financial Crisis, the Boxing Day tsunami, and the ongoing conflict over the East and South China Seas all resulted or continue to result in problems that cross borders. The solutions, to the extent the problems were solved, have come as a result of ad hoc intervention by extra-regional parties, rather than through the effective action of multilateral organizations. But the construction of a flexible, effective institutional architecture remains exceedingly complex. And it has become increasingly clear that Europe serves as much as a cautionary tale with respect to institutionalization as it does a model.