Multilateralism in East Asia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In his masterpiece, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Italian film director Sergio Leone constructed a surreal cinematic space through microscopic close-ups of his movie characters juxtaposed against the vast macroscopic landscape of the greater American West. These characters were not merely captured by the camera; they were monumentalized by it, a flirt with parody to boldly over-accentuate the key features of the central cast: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While this distortion of perspectives constituted an innovative art form that worked extremely well for Leone’s surreal movies it would be better avoided by those searching for analytical lenses that can project an image of the real world. Transatlantic international relations (IR) theory has sought to study, in John Ruggie’s words, what makes the world hang together. Yet, it is marred by concepts that seek to apply typically Western understandings of IR to the rest of the world.

The problems with the contemporary study of multilateralism in East Asia are threefold. First, we tend to get Asia wrong by using concepts and theories, derived primarily from European experiences, to explain international relations in Asia.1 At the same time, transatlantic IR theory has become entrapped in analytical straightjackets and paradigm wars that “ha[ve] created a body of soul-crushingly boring research,”2 ignoring the empirical and theoretical challenges posed by area studies, diplomatic history, and comparative politics. As Iain Johnston recently observed, “a more careful examination of East Asian … cases could reveal important scope conditions for theories.”3 Second, IR theory overexposes transatlantic patterns of collective action and underexposes variations in institutional design and cooperation across regions, including East Asia. There is a tendency to heavily focus on institutional design and architecture rather than process in managing collective action problems, without due analysis of the global and regional context within which international cooperation is helped or hindered. Third, as a result, transatlantic IR theory generates a fairly warped view of the processes and institutions that guide or restrain East Asian multilateralism. The challenge we face is to develop analytical lenses that provide an accurate image of the dynamics of East Asian multilateralism rather than stylized stereotypes that belong to the realm of fiction and film.

This article departs from the observation that multilateralism is a label rather than a concept that is still searching for a framework to rationalize and explain international cooperation in the 21st century. East Asia is a treasure trove for the study of multilateralism as the region refutes so many mainstream conventions of transatlantic IR theory. The primary objective of this article is not to analyze the emerging architecture of East Asian multilateral structures, as it has already been done,4 but to contribute to the development of analytical concepts of multilateralism that can be used more widely. Analyzing the essence of multilateralism in East Asia helps to transcend the Western discourse and to gain a more subtle understanding of patterns of international cooperation across regions and institutions. The first section addresses the question of the distinct nature of multilateralism in East Asia. How does it differ from Europe? The second section highlights six important scope conditions for East Asian multilateralism, i.e., great power management, layered hierarchy of states, global-regional nexuses, informal/tacit understandings underlying regional cooperation, historical memory, and the reassertion of the state as market actor. The third section offers a potential pathway for the study of multilateralism in East Asia. The final section looks forward and teases out some principles that may serve as signposts for establishing a new multilateral security order in the Asia-Pacific.

Multilateralism in Europe and Asia: Two Different Worlds?

By comparison, East Asian institutions are far less legalized than those in Europe.5 The notion of the “ASEAN Way” of institutional cooperation has gained particular prominence in this regard. In essence, it “involves a high degree of discreteness, informality, pragmatism, expediency, consensus-building, and non-confrontational bargaining styles which are often contrasted with the adversarial posturing and legalistic decision-making procedures in Western multilateral negotiations.”6 As Gill and Green have observed, multilateralism in East Asia “is still at a stage where it is best understood as an extension and intersection of national power and purpose rather than as an objective force in itself.”7 In short, East Asian and European institutions display a different set of functions in regional integration and collective action problem-solving that cannot be captured by standard accounts of institutional theory. However, one should not over-accentuate these institutional differences, as there has been a rapprochement in institutional development over recent years. While ASEAN multilateral processes became further formalized and legalized through the 2007 ASEAN Charter, the European Union has always been driven by frequent recourse to informal means of governance.8 In a nutshell, studying the interplay between formal and informal governance is crucial to generate a better understanding of the dynamics of cooperation not only within but also across regions.

Scope Conditions of Multilateralism in East Asia

Great power management: China, Japan, and the United States

Liberal writing on global governance focuses too much on the identification of collective action problems and the delivery of public goods, while caring too little about the perils and pitfalls of managing unequal power.9 To begin with, post-1945 multilateralism worked precisely because it was centered on the United States and the industrialized Global North that largely excluded the developing Global South. The aims and scope of multilateralism were partial. But the situation has fundamentally changed in the post-Cold War world, with relative power shifting to emerging countries. The sources of authority in addressing urgent global problems are more contested. The United States today is no longer seen as the exclusive framework to solve urgent collective action problems. This became most visible during the global financial crisis of 2008, which seriously damaged the authority of the center of global capitalism. Consequently, debates over multilateralism need to be conducted with full appreciation of the contested character of international political order.

In East Asia, the United States historically has shown a preference for hub-and-spokes bilateral alliances rather than embracing regional multilateralism, which has created very distinct dynamics of cooperation (or the lack thereof). In this context, China and Japan require special scholarly attention because they do not easily fit into Western theories of realism or liberalism. Yet, understanding and explaining their foreign policies is crucial, as both countries have key roles to play in the regional economy and regional institution-building such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN+3 process. In fact, regional stability will depend a great deal on China and Japan’s ability to define mutually compatible visions of cooperation to address collective action problems in East Asia. While rising China was long keen to be seen as a status quo power, Japan has yet to decide whether it should be a “normal” regional power. Japan’s leadership is compromised by regional memories of its World War II legacy. China has shown a rather hostile attitude to non-communist regimes in East Asia and exercised a policy of non-leadership in the post-Mao era. As a consequence, “for the most part, ASEAN rather than major powers has directed the drive toward multilateralism.”10

Layered hierarchy of states

While post-Cold War East Asia is in the midst of a power transition, the global shift in the distribution of relative power has not led to outbreaks of war, but is most visible in the subtle changes of authority, which has become more diluted, diffused, and differentiated.11 Regional order is transitioning towards a layered hierarchy. The impact on regional security cooperation is as follows: regional states are forced to perform a balancing act between limiting or resisting the excesses of unequal power of China, Japan, and the United States on the one hand, and maintaining the hegemonic US regional leadership on the other. As a result, East Asian great powers—most notably China and Japan—thus far have had a tendency to defer to US leadership in order to maintain the existing regional security order. While traditional security concerns are primarily addressed by US bilateral hub-and-spokes military relationships, non-traditional security issues have found their way into regional multilateral cooperative structures such as ASEAN. Major changes in East Asian security cooperation are only to be expected if US leadership will be further undermined by international events such as the global financial crisis, with regional support shrinking. In brief, major structural changes in the East Asian security order will only occur if the US-led regional hierarchical order is challenged at the top.

Global-regional nexuses

The stark juxtaposition of East Asian regionalism against both globalism and European regionalism is not helpful. Economic regionalization in East Asia has been in fact outward-looking and remarkably open, which highlights the need to study the global-regional and regional-regional dynamics that drive collection action in East Asia.12 There is a strong nexus between the renegotiation of global and regional economic order. While the United States remains the key global provider of financial public goods, since the 1980s, there has been a gradual shift in burden-sharing, for example, regarding the terms and conditions of contributions to and disbursement of capital liquidity. The recently established Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) aims at providing an effective regional mechanism for emergency liquidity to ASEAN+3 economies in case of currency crises through formal reserve pooling arrangements, a weighted voting system for disbursement of funds, and enhanced surveillance capabilities. However, the regional CMIM is clearly nested within global institutions such as the IMF. In sum, East Asian economic powers may use regionalism as a vehicle for voice and representation in the global economic order. Although China has not directly challenged Western liberal institutions, it has used East Asian regionalism and its commitment to build a BRICS development bank to increase its voice and influence in the IMF.

Informal/tacit understandings underlying regional cooperation

Multilateralism in East Asia depends a great deal on informal understandings underlying regional cooperation.13 Those patterns and understandings are not always visible but nonetheless extremely important. Robert Avson argues that formal institutions often reflect deeper understandings on the rules of the regional cooperation game. Most importantly, the analytical focus on formal multilateralism in East Asia, with a strong preference for informality within formal institutional structures, does not expose the backbone of regional cooperation: informal or tacit understandings between the major powers, which will neither see the light of day nor be sanctioned by any formal treaty-based agreement. This is particularly evident in the area of regional arms control, where formal legal agreements are suspiciously absent. There are longstanding traditions of restraint in East Asia, which may effectively translate into a tacit understanding on regional arms control. Yet, striking an informal understanding between China and the United States on ways and means of sharing power will be the sine qua non of regional stability. Without an informal or tacit bargain on the rules of the game underlying regional cooperation in East Asia, multilateral institutions will not be able to perform their functions in solving collective action problems.

Historical memory

Historical memory is a key driver of foreign policy decision-making in East Asia, especially in China and Japan. Negative historical memories (often expressed in nationalism) act as a powerful constraint on regional cooperation and integration with the ability to destabilize Sino-Japanese relations to a significant extent. For example, China’s foreign policy orientation—epitomized in a rather absolutist understanding of sovereignty and rigorous defense of territorial claims—is deeply influenced by the trauma of colonialism.14 Furthermore, starting in the early 1980s, China instrumentalized memory of Japanese colonialism in its diplomatic relations with Japan.15 Historical memory has a constraining effect on regional cooperation that needs to be scrutinized if we want to explain patterns of multilateralism in East Asia. This is particularly evident when examining the impact of war memories on the foreign policies of the two key regional stakeholders, China and Japan. While Europe’s post-World War II experience may provide a useful reference point or source of inspiration to study pathways to regional integration and reconciliation, it cannot serve as a model or blueprint for engaging with war memories and historical legacies in East Asia. At the same time, there is little evidence that democratization in Indonesia, Taiwan, and South Korea over the last two decades has created a “democratic peace” effect in East Asia.16 In sum, the processes and institutions of multilateralism in East Asia cannot be understood without due consideration of the persistence of historical memory in the foreign policies of regional stakeholders.

Reasserting the state as a market actor

Especially after the global and European financial crises, East Asian states had to address the crucial question of whether they want more governance and greater responsibility in the global economic order.17 Three observations are in order. First, East Asian governments used both the ASEAN+3 framework and the G20 to achieve the short-term policy goals of stabilizing currencies and financial systems rather than the longer-term structural reforms towards recalibrating growth models. Second, despite the potential negative repercussions of the recent European crisis for the region, it turned out that East Asia may not necessarily wish to assume greater collective responsibility for key problems in the global financial system. East Asian countries may want more global governance to stabilize the international economy and address risks in the euro zone, but they also want less global governance if that comes in the form of stricter or more intrusive regulation in areas like current account imbalances and Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs), which go to the heart of domestic political economies. Finally, given the scarcity of funding sources, the global and European crises have highlighted the critical role of SWFs in rebalancing growth and long-term development financing. These crises have become turning points that reasserted the state as a market actor in East Asian economic governance.

Pathways to Study Multilateralism in East Asia

Having examined six important conditions that guide and restrain collective action in East Asia, I briefly outline a potential pathway to study multilateralism.18 Since many of the collective action problems we are facing today are global in nature, several challenges arise. While there seems to be a growing demand for global cooperation, we have neither universally applicable concepts to analyze collective action nor a common language to paint a vision of global governance. In fact, the same collective action problem may be perceived and consequently addressed quite differently in different parts of the world. Hence, what does “multilateralism” mean looked at from separate regional perspectives? How can multilateralism be effective if there are no clear reference institutions available at the regional level to deal with specific collective action problems? Who are the rule-makers and who are the followers in addressing collective action problems?

While there have been recent efforts to engage in comparisons of regional international institutions, which generated important insights into why different forms of institutionalization exist in different parts of the world and whether variation in institutional design leads to variation in the nature of cooperation,19 such an approach is marked by three limitations that need to be highlighted: 1) the focus on institutions and institutional design provides a relatively static view on cooperation and obscures the shift in the distribution of relative power that is currently occurring; 2) it obfuscates the dynamics of the formal and informal processes of collective action problem-solving that often evolve simultaneously at multiple levels, bilaterally and multilaterally; and 3) existing studies of regional international institutions do not grasp global-regional dynamics that are key for the understanding of cooperation.20
In order to overcome the shortcomings in our conceptual approach to explain cooperation, we may want to study the formal and informal processes that define responses to specific collective action problems rather than looking at a particular set of institutions. The underlying aim is to explore the relationship between collective action problems and creation of authority; in doing so, we look at the sources of authority to engage in collective action, to enforce collective action outcomes, and to make those outcomes acceptable to a wider audience.21 Consequently, the analytical framework that is presented here to study multilateralism focuses on the processes to manage collective action problems rather than on institutional design and architecture. This is further substantiated in the following section.

Multilateralism as governance: the formal-informal continuum

Multilateralism is understood here as the processes and institutions, both formal and informal, that generate authority to forge collective action, to enforce particular collective action outcomes, and to make those outcomes acceptable to a wider audience. In essence, multilateralism is part and parcel of global governance. Rather than studying international cooperation in binary terms—formal versus informal— we situate the processes and institutions of multilateralism on a formal-informal continuum across regions, with varying degrees of formalization and legalization; they may exist permanently or develop ad hoc around a specific issue. At the thinner end, we can see bilateral and multilateral caucuses and backstage negotiations, coalitions of the willing, contact groups, core groups, or groups of friends. Those informal institutions usually develop a set of procedural norms governing, inter alia, membership, operational practices, and rules, acting either inside the formal international organization (IO), or within the objectives of a resolution or a mandate of an established IO but outside its formal structures, or they can exist wholly outside of that framework. At the thicker end, we may find IOs that display significant differences in their pattern of legalization and formalization across regions. Understanding multilateralism as governance that evolves on a formal-informal continuum carries one important advantage. It allows for a far more subtle examination of international cooperation by grasping the dynamics of the formal and informal processes in response to a specific collective action problem. Those dynamics may have quite distinct patterns across regions.

Moreover, the neat distinction between bilateralism and multilateralism tends to obfuscate the same strategic purpose of these two cooperative approaches: they both display ordering functions in the evolving East Asian security system. In essence, bilateralism and multilateralism are channels of strategic interaction, reflecting contending visions of order, especially over the continuation or the potential replacement of the existing US regional hegemonic order.22 Key bilateral hub-and-spokes relations, promoted and maintained by the United States, serve as the underpinning of security order in East Asia and, in fact, create a strategic environment of both deterrence and reassurance that is conducive to multilateral regionalism. However, multilateral institutions in themselves may turn into a conduit for strategic competition between key regional stakeholders, notably China, the United States, and Japan. The bilateral-multilateral nexus can thus be seen as an indispensable part of the formal-informal continuum of international cooperation in generating authority over a particular path of collective action and in enforcing particular collective action outcomes. Multiple pathways to cooperation and strategic interaction are of particular importance at times when the rules of the game underlying security order are contested and in the process of being renegotiated. The result is a patchwork and multilayered set of relationships, which reflect the contested character of regional order in East Asia. Contestation implies that the transition of order in East Asia is essentially an ongoing process with an open outcome.


The end of the Cold War forced a major reevaluation of the principles and institutions of multilateralism and the US-led Western liberal project, which aimed to transform society in accordance with liberal values and practices. A decade later, the shift in global power has led not only to a diffusion of power but also to a diffusion of principles, preferences, ideas, and values that have implications for global and regional reordering. Hence, the liberal order is in a state of flux and great uncertainty, and an order based on US primacy no longer appears to be the exclusive framework it once was. There are claims that continued unipolarity will facilitate a transformation of the current order solely on US terms. Yet those views are far too rosy and ignore the deeply contested nature of the liberal project, and with it the patterns and understandings of multilateralism.

Maintaining Asia’s peace and stability will be a challenge over the next few decades, as key adjustments are needed to manage the transition from an order based on US primacy to an order that accommodates the rise of Chinese power. China is no longer satisfied with its perceived political and strategic subordination to the United States The patterns and understandings of the global order that evolved in the post-Cold War period are now deeply contested, resulting in global and regional arrangements that are often overlapping and—at times—competing. At the same time, US primacy is deeply entrenched in East Asia and will not easily fade, despite the global restructuring of power. The United States is realigning its defense strategy to meet these new realities by recalibrating and concentrating American resources in the Asia-Pacific, but US rebalancing creates a number of challenges that need to be addressed. First, rebalancing has reassured US followers in the region that they can still depend on American preponderance and the security umbrella that comes with it. Second, Asian countries do not seem to be satisfied with the prospect of a regional order based on Chinese primacy. Finally, US rebalancing and Chinese assertiveness create an extremely volatile situation in the Asia-Pacific that is neither an architecture nor an order. Instead, the region is still searching for both a vision and a design to manage relations among major powers on the one hand, and relations between major powers and weaker countries on the other.

Five principles may serve as signposts for creating a new regional security order in the Asia-Pacific. First, great-power management trumps institutional design. An effective security order requires political bargaining among key stakeholders on the “rules of the game.” Those rules precede international and regional institutional frameworks and help foster some degree of compliance with certain principles of conduct. A regional order in the Asia-Pacific must be based on a grand bargain— centered around a Sino–US condominium–with the (tacit) approval of other major powers such as India, Japan, and Australia.

Second, institutional form follows function. The form of regional institutions in the Asia-Pacific must follow the function of the grand bargain among great powers. Otherwise, the institutions will not have the capacity to shape the relationships among Asia’s key stakeholders. Those who promote an ASEAN-centric regional ordering need to work out how to manage great-power relations in an era of deeply contested US primacy.

Third, multilateral pluralism trumps monism. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for effective security reordering. Collective-action problem solving needs to take advantage of both formal and informal approaches to multilateralism, and those approaches are not mutually exclusive. There is a strong demand to create synergies between minilateral groups and formal international organisations.

Fourth, contestation is part and parcel of collective action. Effective security governance requires a strategy on how to promote a discourse that champions one path of collective action over another. This strategy needs to generate enough authority to enforce a particular collective-action outcome and to make the outcome acceptable to a wider audience.

Finally, power needs to be matched by accountability. In light of the contested and fluid nature of global and regional security reordering, accountability of those who wield power and military force is of paramount importance. Accountability is inextricably linked to justice and legitimacy, which constitutes the flipside of the great-power bargain.

While US primacy is deeply entrenched in the Asia-Pacific, the shift in global power—and the rise of Chinese power—is transforming the regional order. A common understanding on the principles underlying the new security order for the region will assist in maintaining Asia’s peace and stability as these global shifts take place.


1. David C. Kang, “Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks,” International Security 27, no. 4 (2003): 57-85.

2. David C. Kang, “Getting Asia Wrong,” 83.

3. Alistair Iain Johnston, “What (If Anything) Does East Asia Tell Us About International Relations Theory?” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 57.

4. See, for example, the excellent volume by Michael J. Green and Bates Gill, eds., Asia’s New Multilateralism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Search for Community (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

5. Miles Kahler, “Legalization as strategy: the Asia-Pacific case,” International Organization 54, no. 3 (2000): 549-571; Yuen Foong Khong and Helen Nesadurai, “Hanging together, institutional design and cooperation in Southeast Asia: AFTA and the ARF,” in Crafting Cooperation: Regional International Institutions in Comparative Perspective, ed. Amitav Acharya and Alastair Iain Johnston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 32-82.

6. Amitav Acharya, “Ideas, identity, and institution-building: from the ‘ASEAN way’ to the ‘Asia-Pacific way?’” Pacific Review 10, no. 3 (1997): 329.

7. Bates Gill and Michael J. Green, “Unbundling Asia’s New Multilateralism,” in Asia’s New Multilateralism, ed. Michael J. Green and Bates Gill, 3.

8. Philomena Murray, “Comparative regional integration in the EU and East Asia: moving beyond integration snobbery,” International Politics 47 (2010): 308-323; Thomas Christiansen and Simona Piattoni, eds., Informal Governance in the European Union (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004).

9. Andrew Hurrell, “Effective Multilateralism and Global Order,” in Effective Multilateralism: Through the Looking Glass of East Asia, ed. Jochen Prantl, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, St Antony’s Series, 2013), 21-42.

10. Alistair Iain Johnston, “What (If Anything) Does East Asia Tell Us About International Relations Theory?” 64.

11. Evelyn Goh, “Hierarchy and Great Power Cooperation in the East Asian Security Order,” in Jochen Prantl, ed., Effective Multilateralism, 177-195.

12. Evelyn Goh, “East Asian Financial Regionalism and the Renegotiation of Global Economic Order,” in Global Economic Governance in East Asia—Through the Looking Glass of the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, ed. Jochen Prantl and Petr Blizkovsky, Studia Diplomatica 46, special issue (2013): 11-29.

13. Robert Ayson, “Formalizing Informal Cooperation?” in Effective Multilateralism ed. Jochen Prantl, 196-211.

14. Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Scars of Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology, Victimhood and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

15. Yinan He, The Search for Reconciliation: Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations since World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

16. Benjamin E. Goldsmith, “A Liberal Peace in Asia?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 44, no. 1 (2007): 5-27.

17. Helen Nesadurai, “ASEAN/East Asia and Global Economic Governance: Reasserting the State as Market Actor,” Studia Diplomatica 46, special issue (2013): 51-70.

18. Jochen Prantl, “Introduction: International Cooperation under Order Transition,” in Effective Multilateralism, ed. Jochen Prantl, 1-18.

19. Amitav Acharya and Alistair Iain Johnston, eds., Crafting Cooperation: Regional International Institutions in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

20. William Tow, ed., Security Politics in the Asia-Pacific: A Regional-Global Nexus? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

21. Authority implies a relationship in which rule-takers voluntarily comply with the laws and commands exercised by the rule-makers. On authority as a central concept of social science and the diverse motives of compliance, see G. Roth and C. Wittich, eds., Max Weber: Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology Vol. 1, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), Part 1, Ch. 3. See also David A. Lake, “Escape from the State of Nature: Authority and Hierarchy in World Politics,” International Security 32, no. 1 (2007): 47-79; David A. Lake, “Relational Authority and Legitimacy in International Relations,” American Behavioral Scientist 53, no. 3 (2009): 331-353.

22. Evelyn Goh, “Conceptualising the Relationship between Bilateral and Multilateral Security Approaches in East Asia: A Great Power Regional Order Framework,” in The Bilateral-Multilateral Nexus and Asian Security: Contending Cooperation, ed. William T. Tow and Brendan Taylor (London: Routledge, 2013): 169-182.