Multilateralism: the East Asian way

THE ASIA Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) promoted by Thailand last month is yet another significant step in the direction of the multilateralism that is gaining ground among the countries to the east of the Indian subcontinent. The ACD, in keeping with the spirit of the times, proposes primarily to deal with matters of economic importance though security related aspects will also be on the table. Poverty alleviation, human resource development, infrastructure development, bridging the digital divide, science and technology, promotion of Asian culture and tourism, energy security, transportation, non-traditional security issues, and an enhanced role for the business and academic sectors are part of the agenda.

The ACD faces the challenge of becoming compatible with existing bilateral and multilateral security frameworks that seek to maintain stability in the region. During the Cold War, regional security arrangements were dominated by bilateral alliances between the United States and individual countries in East and South East Asia. The ACD is reflective of the decade following the end of the Cold War when the scope of activities involved in the emerging network of multilateral initiatives has widened dramatically. This is reflective of the general consensus in the region of the need for cooperative frameworks that go beyond traditional bilateral relations in addressing concerns not exclusively related to security alone. Traditionally, bilateral alliances have dealt with conventional military affairs and conflicts, in tandem with intra-alliance coordination, while multilateral mechanisms addressed unconventional threats and the growing strategic uncertainty in the region.

A prime reason for the emergence of an array of cooperative and complementary frameworks is the need for security pluralism. In the Asia-Pacific region, there exist many such initiatives, the most visible amongst them being: the Association for South East Asian Cooperation (ASEAN); the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); the Asian-European Meetings (ASEM); the ASEAN Plus Three including Japan, China and the Republic of Korea; the North East Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD); the Shanghai Cooperation Mechanism, also known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which also includes Central Asian republics; the Council for Regional Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP); the Pacific Trade and Development Conference (PAFTAD); the Pacific Economic Conference (PECC) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

These have the overriding objective of developing informal security frameworks while promoting understanding and mutual confidence and facilitating bilateral ties. Two corollaries that mark out multilateralism are that they entail an indivisibility among the members of a collectivity with respect to behaviour, and, in practice, multilateralism appears to generate among the members diffuse reciprocity. Countries that subscribe to multilateralism do so in a spirit of flexibility, foregoing short-term gains to ensure long-term benefits.

On security issues, the dominant theme in the Asian strategic debate is one of comprehensive security. The term comprehensive encompasses elements not directly related to traditional military power and the use of force. Relatively new and unconventional threats to international security bypass military forces entirely to directly endanger the basic political, economic and social fabric upon which the stability and prosperity, and therefore the security, of a nation are based. Such unconventional threats — terrorism, environmental degradation, drug and human trafficking — are better addressed through multilateral forums.

The propensity of involving in multilateral frameworks apart, ad hoc cooperation on specific disputes and areas of potential conflict, such as the North Korean nuclear weapons development programme, are dealt through intra-alliance cooperation in such institutional frameworks as the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO). Furthermore, comprehensive security, in common with cooperative security, emphasises non-military approaches to protect core values and vital interests. Regional security dialogues as a norm acknowledge and advocate the necessity of military capabilities to be defensive in posture and non-threatening.

With regard to East Asia, the most visible examples of such an endeavour are the establishment of the ARF and the CSCAP, which have facilitated consensus building and the formulation of strategies to manage security. In the eight years since its first meeting in July 1994, the ARF has made substantial progress in promoting cooperative security. Three distinct areas of progress demonstrate this point. First, the greater role for defence officials in the ARF proceedings stole the limelight away from the Foreign Ministries of the member-states, who it was felt had fast reduced the mechanism to a talking shop. Second, the ARF has been progressive in terms of cooperative action with senior officials collaborating efforts with mid-level officials from a wide range of Ministries. Last, and perhaps most important, the ARF has succeeded in encouraging the active participation of China. It is no secret that the ARF was established in part as a means of engaging China on security issues and integrating it into the region. Within three years, the Chinese delegation has gone from being hostile to Confidence Building Measures to voluntarily co-chairing the Working Group, to actively proposing CBMs of their own! In addition, attempts to cultivate security cooperation between South East Asia and North East Asia through the ARF in a gradual and incremental manner had led to North Korea breaking out of its self-imposed isolation, until the axis of evil speech by George W. Bush. North Korean membership and participation in the ARF represent a triumph for confidence building and security cooperation in the region.The CSCAP, while being a non-governmental organisation, actively involves Government officials, albeit in their private capacities. This was in part due to the fact that official involvement was deemed necessary in order to attract Government resources and to secure official appreciation for the value and utility of NGOs in promoting multilateralism. .

Multilateral security organisations such as the ARF and CSCAP, along with other multilateral frameworks, by their mere existence, are confidence-building measures, in that they promote greater trust and understanding in the region. The plethora of multilateral frameworks existing and emergent, if properly developed will substantially contribute to long-term regional stability.

(The writer is a Doctoral Research Scholar, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU.)

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