East Asian Multilateralism: Prospects for Regional Stability

East Asian Multilateralism

Editors:      Kent E. Calder and Francis Fukuyama 

ISBN:           978-0-8018-8849-6

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press,

Year:           2008

Price:         $27.00


Reviewed by Alfred Gerstl, Lecturer, Macquarie University, Sydney

Since the early 1990s, a variety of multilateral economic and security mechanisms has been established in East Asia. Yet, most of them are still in their early stages and untested by crises. Consequently, Kent E. Calder and Francis Fukuyama, the editors of “East Asian Multilateralism”, speak of an “organization gap” in the region. The aim of their book is twofold: to examine the changing regional security and economic order in East Asia and to analyze how Washington’s national interests can best be served in this crucial region, while at the same time easing a new multilateral regional order. In sum, the contributions to this book examine the evolution of bi- and multilateralism, highlight current trends and give prognoses for the development of regionalism in East Asia. The authors concur that, due to the historic dominance of bilateral relationships, multilateralism is still underdeveloped. Though, to resolve the major regional strategic challenges – China’s rise, Japan’s normalization, South Korea’s transition, India’s growing influence – they agree on the necessity of multilateral regimes. Thereby the editors and the majority of the eight other contributors (the book consists of twelve chapters) clearly write from a neoliberal institutionalist point of view.

As Calder and Fukuyama point out in their introduction, one the one hand, the lack of multilateral structures is positive for Washington as the East Asian nations struggle “to convert their rising economic influence into geopolitical power” (p. 1). On the other side, they view the “organization gap” as a major obstacle for closer cooperation to resolve common security or economic problems that cross national borders – inter alia, energy security, transport and communication infrastructure, nuclear proliferation, piracy, drug smuggling or the lack of regional (capital) markets. Calder, Fukuyama and John G. Ikenberry recommend Washington should promote a “new soft multilateralism” that would serve America´s national interests better than the traditional hubs-and-spokes approach.

In his stand-alone contribution on critical junctures in Northeast Asian regionalism, Kent E. Calder analyzes the origins of US bilateralism in East Asia in the post-WW II world. Not gaining enough support in Asia for its attempt to create a multilateral Pacific Pact to contain China and due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Washington increasingly turned to bilateralism. The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), modeled after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also failed, because it was correctly regarded as Western rather than Asian institution. Since the normalization with Tokyo, the US – Japanese relations are the main anchor for stable international relations in East Asia, Fukuyama, Ikenberry and Kazuhiko Togo believe. Not at least because the other East Asian nations view this pact as a positive restriction of Japan.

Another other critical juncture that both triggered a stimulus for change and for a collective response was the Asia Financial Crisis (AFC) in 1997. Already in the 1980s, economic globalization and interdependence among the East Asian economies have led to an open, loose network style of economic regionalism. The AFC, however, acted as a catalyst that “produced momentum for intraregional organization to make Asia more independent of Washington” (p. 25, italics in original), Calder writes. In addition, a new development was that China rather than Tokyo was driving regional collaboration, mainly through the newly established ASEAN plus three mechanism: “Before the crisis, China had tended to pursue a narrow, mercantilist definition of economic interest that was destabilizing to the broader region (…). This tendency evolved, in the heat of the financial crisis, into a broader and more mature sense of responsibility – not only for China’s own growth, but for regional stability as a whole“ (p. 31). Aware of the political and institutional limits of the financial collaboration after the AFC, Calder emphasizes the role of ASEAN+3 as a forum for trust building and strengthening personal networks. Trust, he concludes, is a conditio sine qua non in a region that is likely to face turbulent events in the future.

John Ravenhill, one of Australia’s leading experts on regionalism in the Asia-Pacific, analyzes a new trend in East Asian economic regionalism: from multilateralism towards bilateralism. According to him, the future of multilateralism in East Asia is open. Bilateralism could prove as an obstacle – as well as a foundation for a multilateral economic order. Definitely positive is that, as Ravenhill argues, the East Asian governments seem to have “no desire to create exclusive East Asian institutions” (p. 93). The proof is that the East Asian nations do still conclude (or at least negotiate) trade agreements with outside countries. In addition, economic agreements are sometimes driven by political logics, e.g. China’s strategic competition with Japan. For instance, Beijing’s plan for a Free Trade Area with ASEAN was “a brilliant diplomatic coup that placed Tokyo on the defensive” (p. 81).

What drives China’s new multilateral foreign policy approach: tactical external rationales or domestic political necessities? This is the question Cheng-Chwee Kuik raises in his excellent contribution. Beijing’s multilateralism is a recent phenomenon – the author dates it back to the end of the 1990s –, and only a few years ago, the Chinese diplomats in the regional institutions were cautious and watchful. The main reason for Beijing’s embracement of multilateralism was, as Cheng-Chwee Kuik claims, the desire of the Communist Party for regime stability and preservation. Isolated after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Beijing launched its “good neighbor” policy.So, overall, its “multilateral journey in the Asia-Pacific began more by default than by design” (p. 118). Crucial was China’s perception that the main regional forums – they are all led by ASEAN – are basically built on ASEAN’s key principles of sovereignty, non-interference, consensus and voluntarism.

Yet these external factors did only ease China’s embracement of multilateralism, it did not cause it. As the legitimacy of the Communist leadership is based on its socioeconomic output performance, it needs to maintain growth and distribute wealth among its citizens. To achieve this, Cheng-Chwee Kuik points out, due to its import and export needs, China relies on a stable, cooperative economic and political order in East Asia. The author is optimistic that due to positive external driving forces and domestic logics, Beijing will remain committed to multilateral policies. Yet, he also stresses correctly that multilateralism is a means in China’s foreign policy. Thus the crucial question whether multilateralism has an intrinsic value for the Communist regime remains unanswered.

Bruce Cummings still regards Washington as “the key enabler of either multilateralism or unilateralism in East Asia” (p. 55). In his critical assessment of the US’ East Asia politics, he claims that the Bush Administration has revoked the US unilateralism from the early 1950s. This approach, though, he criticizes, proved unable to resolve the two most dangerous crises in the region: the dispute on the Korean peninsula and the China – Taiwan conflict.

Based on a sound analysis of the existing multilateral economic and financial structures, Daniel Rosen claims that Washington still has much more influence in the existing structures than Beijing. Even though China’s rise will change the power relations in East Asia, “(…) for the next several decades, Asia will rely on the United States, and on U.S.-dominated institutions, to ensure economic prosperity and regional stability” (p. 164).

In his analysis of Japan’s role in the multilateral security institutions in East Asia, Kazuhiko Togo argues in favor of an even stronger Japanese engagement: 60 years after the end of the Second World War, Japan has still not fully reentered East Asia as a “normal” Asian power. Togo stresses that Tokyo’s future security policies will strongly depend on its relations with China and Beijing’s political development. In other words: Whether, due to increasing nationalism and unilateralism, it will be necessary to counter balance Beijing or if China opts for a peaceful, cooperative approach in East Asia. Because of the strained bilateral relations, strong regional collaboration that includes Beijing is even more desirable for China. Though, in order to play a strong role in East Asia and remain a credible security partner for Washington, Togo argues that Japan needs to harmonize its national with its Asian identity. The existing multilateral forums can act as a catalyst – as long as they are built on functional cooperation. The evolution of ASEAN plus three into a comprehensive political mechanism has triggered a negative response from Washington, he claims. Tokyo was therefore caught between its partnership with the US and its obligations to China.

In his insightful contribution, John G. Ikenberry regards East Asia as a region in transition. Till the end of the Cold War, due to the mixture of “hard” bilateralism and “soft” multilateralism, it has been surprisingly stable. However, because of China’s rise, the author predicts a power rivalry between the US, China and Japan – and in the near future India and Russia – that will lead to instability in the geographically increasingly broader defined Asia. According to him, a new multilateral order in East Asia has to accommodate the rising China, while supporting Japan’s normalization. Furthermore, the new order must function as a complimentary layer build on the existing bilateral alliances, in particular the anchor of the US-Japanese partnership.

Ikenberry’s key argument is that both Beijing and Tokyo will benefit from increased reciprocal regional commitments, and so will Asia as a whole. Japan, still in transition, cannot provide the necessary leadership for building this new regional order. Thus, Washington remains indispensable, Ikenberry and other contributors claim. There seems to be a consensus among the authors that US’ policies towards East Asia have long been too passive and reactive. In addition, as Ikenberry criticizes, the US war on terror has “created new uncertainties and controversies in the region about Washington’s long-term security ties and commitments to the region” (p. 218).

Examining the security architecture and US Foreign policy in East Asia, Francis Fukuyama describes the US hubs-and-spokes system as appropriate element in a broader containment strategy to cope with traditional threats posed by nations such as the Soviet Union, China or North Vietnam. Nowadays, however, he regards containment as inappropriate to deal with the emerging China. Unlike John Mearsheimer who views China’s rise due to his purely structural reading of international relations as the next regional hegemon in East Asia and as a logical future geostrategic peer competitor of the US, Fukuyama is more optimistic in regard to the possibility of providing Beijing with incentives to engage in peaceful, multilateral policies. Multilateralism can therefore be regarded as a stabilizer in East Asia. However, like Ikenberry, he stresses that regional approaches should be seen as complements rather than substitutes for bilateralism. Existing organizations that could act as building blocks for the new institutions are the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Six Party Talks.

To sum up, based on an interdisciplinary approach that combines an economic and security perspective, “East Asian Multilateralism” provides a comprehensive analysis of the major challenges for the establishment of a multilateral regional order. In particular interesting is the additional focus on policy recommendations (for the US diplomacy). In the reviewer’s opinion, there are only two shortcomings: Firstly, the book does not deal in an own contribution with ASEAN, even though it is one of the key players not only in Southeast but also (North-)East Asian regionalism. Secondly, how Southeast and Northeast Asian regionalism are interlinked would also have been a question that would have deserved a deeper analysis.