In this policy paper, two leading authorities on the topic--one Japanese and one American--take a look at the rise of regional multilateralism in Asia. Akiko Fukushima’s monograph provides a rich historical background on Japan’s periodic flirtation with multilateralism, including the disappointments during the inter- war and immediate post-war period. Dr. Fukushima traces renewed interest in multilateralism to a thaw in relations with Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and outlines in rich detail the range of initiatives in which the Japanese have not only participated, but played a central role. Her analysis points to an emerging liberal consensus that multilateralism, while beneficial, needs to be seen as augmenting the core, bilateral relationship with the United States. Moreover, she traces the complex thinking about the appropriate scope for multilateral initiatives and notes that there is no natural or easy membership that makes sense for Japan. However, the inclusion of the US as a player in any initiative, whether tripartite or wider seems to be a consistent theme. The reasons for this center on concern that multilateralism not be perceived as an alternative to the core alliance relationship, but also as a way of providing assurances to regional parties that Japan’s leadership will not become intrusive or threatening.
Ralph Cossa’s paper focuses on five multilateral institutions that have emerged in the 1990s: the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Four-Party Talks, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), and the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD). Cossa concurs with Fukushima that the end of the Cold War and decline of the Soviet Union provided other actors, principally the US, with incentives to support multilateral security institutions in the region. Previously, the Soviet Union had proposed multilateralism in an attempt to weaken the United States’ strong bilateral ties in East Asia. Cossa explains some of the limits to multilateralism in the region, as well as linkages between track I and track II dialogues. For example, the ARF is limited by an agreement to “move at a pace comfortable to all participants.” However, this creates opportunities for track II institutions such as the NEACD and CSCAP to discuss issues that may be too sensitive for government representatives in an official setting. Furthermore, some countries in the region are apparently reluctant to participate in multilateral dialogues when there is fear of becoming a target of ridicule from others in the group. This may explain the establishment of issue-specific institutions such as the Four-Party Talks and KEDO.
The review here suggests the conclusion that multilateralism may be entering a period of pause or perhaps even slowdown. The initial enthusiasm for multilateral initiatives has not altogether dissipated, but there is a greater sense of limits on what they might accomplish. Focused multilateral dialogues at both the track one and track two levels can in themselves constitute important exercises in confidence building and socialization. However, they cannot overcome more fundamental conflicts of interest and perception, and it is misleading to think that they can. Moreover, there is clearly an evolutionary process in train; the system is not likely to sustain as many initiatives as now exist, and we already have examples of efforts which have flourished and later fallen by the wayside. We may now be entering a period of consolidation when the plethora of existing initiatives demands some rethinking. We hope that these papers contribute to that effort.