Asia’s New Multilateralism: Cooperation, Competition, And the Search for Community

Asia’s New Multilateralism

Author(s): Michael J. Green and Bates Gill (eds.)

ISBN: 978-0-231-14443-8

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Year: 2009

Price: $32,50

Reviewed by Hang Ryeol Na, Ph.D. Candidate at State University of New York, College of Environmental Science & Forestry, USA

Why, in the midst of heaps of new issues from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hawaii in November 2011, did it hit the headlines that China was not invited to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?  What drove the countries participating in the TPP to keep their distance with China?  In the same month, what made many commentators give various interpretations on the fact that the US President Obama was the first US president to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS)?  What was the newly common interest of both the US and the EAS?  These questions are all about geo-political conditions enmeshed in Asia’s multilateralism, and this book ‘Asia’s New Multilateralism’ (edited by Michael J. Green and Bates Gill) provides us with some clues to finding out the answers.

The purpose of this book is to illuminate the delusions and actualities of multilateral endeavours or ‘community building’ in Asia (p.3) and it is well served by thirteen chapters of the book.  For analyzing the emerging Asian regional architecture, the book, although the individual chapters are largely written in theoretical frameworks of international relations, employs an intriguingly novel approach called a matrix approach.  That is, the first part of it (chapters 2 to 8) forms the x axis that shows national perspectives on Asian multilateralism from slightly different angles.  Most of the notable Asia Pacific countries are covered, which are the US, China, Korea, Japan, India, Australia and Southeast Asia or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  These chapters describe and explain each country’s strategic approach to regional integration along with its domestic debates around the issue, and finish with a futuristic discussion on the types of regional institutions and their architectural plans that are suitable for regional security and prosperity.

In addition to the concise and chronological description of the rise of Asian regionalism and multilateralism in the first chapter (pp.5-12), it is interesting to read what each of the individual countries from the x axis has to say about its history of Asian regionalism.  For example, chapter 6 offers a fascinating trajectory of India’s history in Asian regionalism.  The chapter explains why India became so proactive in the Nonaligned Movement, even though its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had talked about ‘Eastern federation’ involving many Asian nations and it had taken the lead in organizing the Asian Relations Conference in 1947.  Likewise, it is well presented how India then shifted from the Nonaligned Movement to a regional player in the Asia Pacific.  Also, chapter 7 helps us to understand why Australia is so proud of APEC.

The y axis of the matrix in the second half of the book addresses the major transnational issues in the Asia Pacific region that can entail innovative multilateral responses.  The list could be lengthier, but the authors’ choices are trade and finance, governance and democracy, defense and security, both traditional and non-traditional.  While the chapters attempt to reveal whether or not Asian countries have been successful in the process of regional integration and institution building, there are several distinctive common threads running through them such as inclusivity vs. exclusivity in terms of geographic scope, ASEAN+3 (APT) vs. EAS as a desirable institutional architecture for future, traditional bilateral alliances vs. newly emerging multilateral mechanisms for the US involvement in security issues, etc.  As it turned out in the book, these issues are closely interrelated with one another.

For example, concerning the issue as to whether the APT or the EAS is more appropriate for a major venue in building a future East Asian community, a line is clear-cut between the US, Japan and Australia on the one hand opting for the EAS, and on the other hand, China and Malaysia among others, which prefer the APT.  One of the most critical and repeatedly cited reasons for this discrepancy is that the countries hold different views on whether non-East Asian countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and India should be encompassed (as in the EAS) or not (as in the APT) by such a desired institution for the building of an East Asian community.  This is generally explained by the US preference for trans-Pacific arrangements such as APEC or by the intention of some Asian countries such as India and Japan to harness Chinese influence, but the chapters also take a closer look at domestic politics of individual countries.  In the case of Japanese government, for instance, the Ministry of Finance supports APT rather than the EAS because of its experience with it through the New Miyazawa Initiative (a Japanese government’s rescue package worth US$30 billion in response to the Asian financial crisis in 1997) and the Chiang Mai Initiative.  On the other hand, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) promote the EAS because they believe it is a more balanced venue for regionalism (p.113).  However, given the fact that the EAS is still a growing forum that stemmed from the APT, the book doesn’t provide much clarity about the relationship between the APT and the EAS, although it might be simply because the reality is the vagueness of the issue.

The conclusions of the book, which are based on the empirical findings of the chapters, can be summarized as follows.  First, both competition and cooperation are intensified in the region’s multilateral processes.  In other words, “both Hobbes and Kant are alive and well in Asia’s multilateral process” (p.13).  Second, as nations steer for positions of comparative advantage, proliferation of new institutions has not been necessarily productive sometimes. Thus, at times the institution-building process is repetitious and increasingly fluctuating.  Finally, the US involvement, together with its allies in the region, will remain essential for stability and prosperity in Asia.

The book also contains a few lines that can be greatly controversial, as many other books do as well.  For example, the fact that the ‘Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere’ is considered one of Asia’s historical efforts for regional integration on p.5 and p.103 can prompt readers to ask whether the militant imperialism to expand one country’s territory to the entire region should be equally treated with multilateral political cooperation in the context of regionalism.  It leaves no room for questions that the ‘Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere’ was just another form of oppressive imperialism that made many native people of the Asian countries die from forced labor, torture, and execution (e.g. Gordon 2000), which resembles the German New Order in that the whole occupied zone became subordinated to Japanese war needs (Duara 2010).  Would it be justifiable if Hitler’s New Order was somehow deemed as part of the historical development of European regional integration?  But this should not necessarily be interpreted as saying that this book lost balance about the issues of Japanese imperialism.  For example, chapter 4 explains why the Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women are still a stumbling block in Asia’s multilateralism well.

Many events have already occurred since this book was published in 2009.  Some of them happened strikingly as the book anticipated.  As it was expected on page 25 that Asian leaders would ‘pursue a more insulated, bloc-based approach in the region’ in response to the financial crisis emanating from the US in late 2008, the Chiang Mai Initiative, launched in March 2010, has been making substantial progress, of which the situation until 2009 is adeptly illustrated in chapter 7.  On the contrary, even though the chapter 2 mentions that the US is reluctant to desire a seat at the EAS (p.37; p.46), the US acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in July 2009, which is a prerequisite for participation in the EAS.  The US President Obama joined the 6th EAS and 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2011, which was foreseen by the author of the same chapter, though, as “one way in which a new US administration (in 2009), regardless of party, can distinguish itself from its predecessor” (p.49).  Overall, ‘Asia’s New Multilateralism’ is definitely a worthy addition into any institutional or personal library on Asian integration, especially for those who are interested in the recent trends since the latter half of the twentieth century.

 * References

Duara, Prasenjit (2010). Asia Redux: Conceptualizing a Region for Our Times. The Journal of Asian Studies, 69 , pp 963-983

Gordon, Bill. (2000). Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Available online at