True Meritocracy

The Emergence of East-Asian Regional Multilateralism


Post-war regional multilateral institutions where long absent in east-Asia, and it’s of interest to answer why they suddenly began to flourish when the cold-war iron curtain was lifted. Neo-realists and neo-liberals differ in their view on the value and nature of multilateralism, with statism being a central feature of neo-realism. Success of institution building depends on how it’s built and what’s motivating cooperation; focus on absolute or relative gains. I find that east-Asian multilateralism grows on top of bilateral alternatives, that China is more like a panda than a dragon, and that regional tension prevented multilateralism.

KEYWORDS: regional multilateralism, east-Asia, cold war, neo-realism, neo-liberalism


A common feature of our modernized world is the ever growing interconnectedness of states. In order to solve commercial, trade, financial, security and environmental issues states require a normative, if not juridical, common ground. Multilateral institutions are to be found on both the international and regional level, and the nature and value of multilateral institutions are hotly debated within and between different IP schools. Multilateralism differs from bilateralism in there being more than two in a mutually equal partnership. Regional multilateralism differs from its international variant in there being preferential agreements within a certain region; east-Asia in this case.

While neo-realists think the military differences between states and the possibility of relative material gains determine the real nature of IP, neo-liberals argue in favor of absolute gains and that regional multilateral institutions are greater than the sum of their parts. A new challenge within IP is the recent development in east-Asia, and this poses a challenge for our current theoretical framework. It`s when we compare post-war Europe and east-Asia that we see a very clear difference, i.e. the long absence of multilateral institutions in the east. This has however changed after the end of the cold war, but why?  

            I will begin with posing the research question and laying out the theoretical framework of neo-realism and neo-liberalism, which will make it easier to see the problem through their lenses. This is followed by my first case, and that is to which extent the bipolar balancing act of Soviet and U.S. explains the concomitant existence of both bilateral and multilateral institutions in the region; i.e. why multilateral regional institutions has not replaced bilateral? It further looks at how the following shift of U.S. geopolitical focus impacted the growth of multilateralism. My second case concerns the current format of both official and unofficial multilateral regional dialogues, and on what explain the development and shape of them. My final case is a more in-depth study of one regional multilateral forum, i.e. the Six Party Talks (SPT) and the role that China has played in their shape and form. SPT is a very interesting case when comparing neo-liberal and neo-realists assumptions since China appears to be a gentle giant desiring to rise peacefully to world power. I will by the conclusion determine whether the neo-realist or neo-liberal explanatory framework is most applicable to the east-Asian situation.    



Why has East Asia, which had previously been almost entirely lacking in regional multilateral institutions, experienced a rapid growth in such institutions since the end of the Cold War?

I am interested in this puzzle since there are issues with multilateral institutions in Europe, and I want to look at what motivates the development of the east-Asian counterparts.  


The various schools within IP (realists, liberalists, marxists and constructivists) have their own theories on what might cause multilateral institutions to develop; I will limit the debate to neo-realism and neo-liberal institutionalism in this paper. What is the role of institutions in international politics? Neo-realists and neo-liberalists differ greatly here due to ontological differences; realists view human as self-seeking (Hobbesian) hedonists while liberalists have a much more idealistic perspective with more faith in human’s ability to cooperate. Neo-realists statism makes them more concerned with national security issues in IP than neo-liberalists who focus on political economy. Another difference is that neo-realists, when analyzing states, focus on capabilities and less on intentions and perceptions.  

Both neo-liberalist and neo-realists think of IP as essentially anarchic, as contrasted with the hierarchical nature of national politics, but they differ in how skeptical they are when it comes to the idea that multilateral institutions will bring regional stability. Their shared assumption that IP is in a state of anarchy is open to some reflective criticism. It’s very unlikely that tiny Lichtenstein will declare war on U.S.. U.S. has been a global hegemon since the end of the cold war, and it could be argued that it actually is a kind of Hobbesian Leviathan considering that it has much bigger fangs than any of its rivals. China is however not only a growing competitor over influence in the Asia-Pacific, but also on the world stage.

Neo-realists think multilateral institutions are merely epiphenomenal, and that realpolitik constitutes the real foundation of IP; national interest comes before international interests (He 2008, p. 490). By arguing that states only cooperate with states they trust in the first place, and that codependency never develops between rival states, neo-realists do not share the idealism of their liberalistic counterparts. ASEAN was greeted with much optimism by neo-liberals, while neo-realists thought it was a categorical mistake to think ASEAN would have anything but a marginal effect (He 2008, p.490). One could argue that there are important features of human psychology that neo-realist’s neglect, i.e. that thinking international regimes are epiphenomenal might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.     

The Balance of Power theory is central to neo-realists. Striving towards a balance of state powers is the only way to achieve stability in an anarchic world, i.e. not through multilateral institutions based on equality, and any imbalance can lead to war in a competitive environment. This balancing act does not have to happen on an individual basis, forming alliances with other states is of great strategic interest. The possibility of attack is always present in neo-realism, and states hence need to build up adequate defensive capabilities. Such defensive weaponry can however also be used offensively, and this creates the security dilemma when rival states build up their defensive capabilities to match the offensive ability of the other state. This can lead to an arms race, which we saw during the cold war, and this can escalate into full scale war. East-Asian regional multilateralism blossomed after the cold war, and it makes sense from a realist’s perspective that multilateralism cannot thrive when certain powerful states compete for purely relative gains.

            Neo-liberalists in IP are very optimistic of international interaction and interconnection; this is especially true of the institutionalist variant. Regional multilateralism is good since transnational organizations establish norms, reduce transaction costs, facilitate negotiations and monitor compliance. The threat of war is reduced when states become codependent since the cost of war is increased when the wellbeing of the state is dependent on the stability of neighboring states. Multilateralism gives states non-violent means to deal with issues. Neo-liberalist peace argumentation is however dependent on the democratic peace theory, i.e. that democratic states do not go to war against each other, so it can be questioned how applicable it is to East-Asia considering that some of the states in the region are authoritarian and even totalitarian. Democracy, even of the western type, is not necessarily infinitely robust and inviolable; it can implode under too much pressure. From the theories above I derive two competing hypotheses relating to the research question; one arguing that the rapid growth of east-Asian multilateral institutions is the result of liberalistic complex dependency, while the other argues it is the consequence of neo-realist realpolitik. The optimism of H1 is reflective of neo-liberalism, while the more somber tone of H2 is reflective of neo-realism in which the re-rise of China is bound to result in power struggle if not worse (Lyne 2004, pp.78-79).



H1 (neo-liberalism; emphasis on absolute gains): If tension recedes within a given geopolitical region, then multilateral institutions will develop to foster and reap the benefits of intergovernmental interaction and codependency.
H2 (neo-realism; emphasis on relative gains): If there is a risk of future conflict in a given geopolitical region, and conflict is not in the interests of the regionally most powerful state(s), then multilateral institutions will be allowed to develop.

From Bilateral to Multilateral Institutions

By the end of WWII U.S. started to develop and shape a network of bilateral security arrangements with its various Asian partners; Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and certain southern countries. This became known as the “hub-and-spoke” system, and its purpose was and still is to ensure regional stability. It grew out of the failed war alliance with an expansionistic Soviet that, in addition to other territories, wanted to expand its communist network into Asia. U.S. did with dismay see that China became a communist country in 1949, and hence another one of the “policemen” became non-democratic. Any further spread of communism was not in U.S. interests, and it was seeking new partners to balance Soviet. The cold war between U.S. and Soviet is mentioned by realists as an example of successful balance of power that prevented world war. U.S. and Soviet competed over who should constitute the new world order, and that competition took a drastic turn by 1989 when Soviet collapsed and U.S. was launched upon the world stage as a modern superpower and hegemon.(Ikenberry 2004, pp.353-356)  

EAI Fellow Andre Yao´s meta-analysis of the development of multilateralism in East-Asia identifies certain factors that explain why U.S. favored bilateral systems. Post-war Japan was under U.S. control, and Korea and China where struggling to recover from the shock of war. Realists propose that the asymmetry between U.S. and Asian states grew after the cold war and gave U.S. “extreme hegemony” (Yao 2011, p.4). U.S. policymakers thought that bilateralism was a more culturally fitting remedy for Asia-Pacific relations and this idea might even be connected to U.S. officials depicting them as culturally and racially inferior (Katzenstein and Hemmer 2002, p.575).

            Post-war U.S. national security has shifted away from focusing on symmetric threats, and is now much more dedicated towards fighting asymmetric threats like terrorists. During the late 90s the Commission on US National Security Strategy and the National Defense Panel report pointed out that asymmetric threats where becoming more pressing than regional conflicts and interventions (Weeks 2004, p.30). The world would however have to wait until 9/11 to see a full redirection of military focus.  U.S. focus on regional problems in east-Asia has been reduced, and this has likely contributed to the rise of multilateral institutions.

            The end of the cold war seems to have reduced east-Asia tension because the countries in the region no longer where pulled between Soviet and U.S, concomitant with U.S. increasingly shifting its focus away from east-Asia (Kang 2010, p.71); more specifically toward the middle-east. Accompanying reduced tension in east-Asia is the rise of regional multilateral institutions, and this supports H1 and weakens H2. Japan might however feel threatened by U.S. shift of focus, and it´s motivation to engage in multilateral institutions is more in line with H2. Something that will be clearer later is that China has played a leading role in fostering multilateral institutions, but it remains to be seen whether they merely are epiphenomenal or not. There is still potential for instability and conflict in the region due to easy spread of diseases, financial crises like we saw in 1997 and the risk of irate behavior from North-Korea and even re-militarization of Japan. There are some benefits of bilateral institutions that should be borne in mind; fewer partners in negotiation enable the partners to broker clearer and more direct deals between each other.    

The Nature of the East-Asian Community

Multilateral cooperation to generate absolute gains is hypothesized to increase when tension is reduced according to H1, while it’s hypothesized to increase when the most powerful states fear instability threaten their relative gains according to H2. Rise of these institutions after the cold war supports H1, but H2 will be strengthened if these institutions are shown not to be the result of a general increased willingness to cooperate, but rather is used as a tool by the most powerful states to maintain their relative gains. The re-rise of China is an interesting regional development and its rapid rise will influence what kind of institutions that are allowed to develop. Even though China often is associated with dragons, it seems to be more of a gentle panda for the time being; notwithstanding such imagery. Cultural differences can be quite striking when one pauses to consider that the dragon represents the personification of evil in the west while it has positive connotations in the east. Any realist would be concerned that antagonism between U.S. and China could have a centrifugal effect in the region since the rise of another power is bad news in realist theory; some east-Asian states could be gravitating toward the west while others to the east. Its however perfectly reasonable for China to want more influence in the region, and one could even argue that U.S. hegemonic position in the region is unreasonable in the long term.     



The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) where the only regional multilateral institutions in 1990: with APEC having a broader agenda than ASEAN.  By 2005 ASEAN had grown from the original 5 to all 10 Southeast Asian states (Kang 2010, p.72). Southeast and Northeast Asian states where discussing security issues with representatives from Europe, North America and Australia by 1994 through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) (Ibid., p.72). ARF did receive its share of criticism after its failed effort to overcome the norm of non-interference in internal affairs made it appear more like a talk-shop than a forum ready to handle the security issues that were thrown at it (Capie 2004, pp. 150-151). This reluctance of the most powerful regional actors is in line with neo-realist skepticism. 

            The East Asian Summit (EAS) has a more general focus on promoting stability, prosperity and the east-Asian economy. It’s a forum for dialog between the 18 members, U.S. and Russia included, in which political, economic and strategic issues are confronted to achieve the aforementioned common interests of the members: EAS works in tandem with ASEAN. Hitoshi Tanaka and Adam P. Liff at the non-governmental “Japan Center for International Exchange” point out (Tanaka and Liff 2008, p.90-91) that even though there is regional progress when it comes to economic cooperation, there are many cultural and political issues that greatly complicate the development of regional multilateralism. Europe is in comparison much more politically and culturally homogeneous than east-Asia. Tanaka and Liff contend that the process of community building is of greater inherent value than establishing a regional superstructure akin to EU/EEA.  

There are also regional dialogues at the unofficial level, and these kind of ad hoc arrangements are mainly headed by various NGO´s. The North Pacific Cooperative Security Dialogue (NPCSD) between all the North Pacific states lasted from 1992-1993 and its spiritual successor is the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). East-Asia is also becoming more homogenous through business and cultural relations across state borders. These kind of bottom-up developments are called regionalization, and hence differ from the aforementioned top-down regionalism (Kang 2010, p.71).

Such official and unofficial ad hoc arrangements do not necessarily replace bilateral institutions, but rather grow on top of them. Whether they succeed in bringing stability, security and cooperation to the region are the criteria´s determining if they can become the default approach for the future (Yao 2011, p. 9). Their ad hoc nature and somewhat non-stellar track record suggests that the cooperative spirit is not especially strong in east-Asia, and that bilateral alternatives will remain for some time.

China and the Six Party Talks (SPT)

This “ad hoc” multilateral institution is designed to address the security concerns of the actors in the region. While still in its early phases, and dormant for the time being, this could be able to replace various bilateral security frameworks in the future. By not adequately addressing North Koreas nuclear weapons program SPT has failed to pass it’s most important litmus-test. Considering that it began in August 2003 in Beijing and pretty much collapsed by December 2008, it is not the most vigorous of multilateral initiatives. Though, it’s not uncommon for multilateral institutions to be born, die and get reborn in another form; NATO emerged after a score of failed attempts.(Yeo 2011, pp. 12-14)      

            It’s expected that states with vested interests in the hub-and-spokes system will be more reluctant to opt for a multilateral alternative like SPT. U.S.-Japan and South Korea seem to prefer their bilateral alliances, and that explains why multilateral security frameworks like SPT have grown on top of such alliances instead of replacing them. Chinas re-rise might however be more peaceful than what neo-realists would assume. Michele Acuto, a specialist in Asia-Pacific diplomacy, argues (2012) that China´s diplomatic style actually represents the best approach for establishing a robust North-East Asian security multilateral framework (Acuto 2012, p.2). The strength in China´s style is that its reconciliatory, multilayered, and open-ended; hence China is both a facilitator and catalyst in the SPT process. Encouraging North-Korea to embark upon the kind of reforms that brought China out of communistic isolationalism does not exclusively aim at tackling North-Koreas nuclear program, its neighbors are also concerned of the mass migration  and humanitarian crisis that would follow if North-Korea collapsed (Ibid., p.13).

            The desire to socialize North-Korea was however complicated during the Bush administration, when North-Korea was characterized as a “rouge state” and a part of an axis of evil. Roald Blaiker (2003 cited in Acuto, 2012, p. 13) thinks this rhetoric is outdated since it harkens back to cold war strategic thinking patterns. Acuto argues that states like U.S., Japan and North-Korea have an idea of the security dilemma that is too monolithic and that Chinas diplomatic approach takes the mutually constitutive dynamism of the region into account.  


While neither of the hypotheses can be categorically rejected, which is very common in the social sciences, the empirical data herein suggest that the growth of regional multilateral institutions in east-Asia is best explained by an increasing awareness of the benefits of absolute gains and reduced regional tensions (H1). The somber tone of H2 rests on China´s re-rise being a cause of worry, but the empirical data presented herein, maybe especially SPT suggest that China has peaceful intentions. U.S. is an Asia-pacific power with vested interests in bilateral relations in the region, but is so preoccupied in other geopolitical regions that there is an increased willingness to accommodate multilateral alternatives if they comply with its interests. The SPT North-Korea issue is a major concern, and North-Korea does not only complicate multilateral security issues in the region, it further causes international uncertainty.

            This research does pose questions that further research could answer. Cultural factors, beyond those directly manifested politically, might explain the rise of multilateralism and shed additional light on why it does not replace bilateral alternatives. East-Asia is culturally very diverse with communism in China, Catholicism in the Philippines, Islam in Malaysia and Japan with Buddhism and Shinto. Europe and America is primarily Christian secularist and hence much more homogeneous. The cost and benefits of homo- and hetero-geneity in regional multilateral institutions could also be a subject of further study.     

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