Optimum Balance Needed to ‘Reinvent’ ASEM

Many international institutions created in the wake of World War II are becoming outdated, and new multilateral forums are springing up to address transnational issues. Senior Fellow Akiko Fukushima, who attended a Track 2 conference to discuss the challenges facing ASEM, examines the crisis in multilateralism and considers the contributions Japan can make toward a more effective " Pax Consortis ." The following is reprinted with permission from the July 1, 2014, edition of the Japan News .

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One of the topics discussed at the June 6-7 Track 2 conference in Singapore, held in preparation for the upcoming 10th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM 10)—scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17 in Milan—was the forum’s low profile and ways to “reinvent” the gathering of Asian and European leaders to enhance its global presence.

When the establishment of ASEM was jointly proposed in 1994 by Singapore and France, expectations for a forum between the two major regions undergoing dynamic change and development were high on both sides. The meeting was seen as filling the “missing link” to the comparatively more developed transatlantic and transpacific ties. Europe was keen on strengthening its partnership with Asia’s fast-growing economies, and Asia was excited to be treated as an equal by Europe.

ASEM has had its ups and downs over the past 20 years. In fact, Asia was struck by a financial crisis immediately after the first summit in 1996, which led to a dampening of interest in Europe. With Asia’s economic resurgence, though, Europe has shown renewed interest in Asia—and also in ASEM. The perception of increasing regional connectivity has been an additional factor in compelling both sides to take a new look. Those of us in Asia see the Ukrainian crisis, for example, not as an unrelated event in a distant part of the world, but as a development with significant implications for our region as well.

These factors have led to the phenomenal expansion of ASEM’s membership from the original 25 states—15 from Europe, seven from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus China, Japan and South Korea—to 49 states and two institutions. ASEM members now account for 62.5 percent of the world population, 60 percent of global trade, and 57 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Despite ASEM’s size, members complain about the forum’s lack of global influence and its low public image—except for the few days during the biennial summits.

ASEM has functioned primarily as a dialogue facilitator and as a test bed for new policymaking ideas and has not yet achieved tangible results, participants at the Singapore meeting noted. It seems ASEM has fallen victim to its own growth; that is, the large size of its membership prevents substantive discussion, turning meetings into a talk shop.

Is this challenge unique to ASEM? Probably not, as other forums appear to be facing similar dilemmas, leading to claims of a “crisis in multilateralism.” At the same time, we are witnessing a mushrooming of regional and global forums and institutions. The formal international institutions created in the 1940s are becoming obsolete, having failed to adapt to the shifting balance of power. In order to fill the lacuna, informal groups, such as Groups of 7, 8, and 20, have emerged. These forums have the potential of becoming viable international institutions, but the interests of participants have sometimes failed to converge. Whether the most recent of these groupings, the G-20, will develop the concrete institutional capacity for decision-making and agenda-setting is far from certain.

Turning to regional institutions, Europe has successfully promoted regional cooperation and integration, as symbolized by its single currency, and has offered a model for others to follow. As the European Union has expanded, though, its homogeneity has weakened. The recent election results for the European Parliament suggest that people are seeking a smaller EU.

Initiatives toward regional integration in Asia are largely undeveloped. One reason for this is that Asia lacks a willing and capable leader. Countries with large GDPs have historically played a leadership role, but in Asia, participants in Singapore argued, unresolved historical issues have prevented Japan from leading. China has been incapable of stirring regional enthusiasm for different reasons. ASEAN has, by default, become the driver of regional cooperation. ASEAN has fortified its institution by adopting a charter to become a legal entity and has plans to build a politico-security, economic, and sociocultural community in 2015.

Capitalizing on its tradition of holding meetings with dialogue partners, ASEAN in the past two decades has been playing a central role in launching pan-Asian institutions, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting plus eight dialogue partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States, or ADMM-Plus). Among the so-called alphabet soup of acronyms, APT initially constituted the Asian participants in ASEM.

Seeing the crowded landscape of regional forums, some are quick to dismiss their significance, but on closer inspection, one notices a phenomenal level of functional cooperation in fields ranging from the economy, trade and investment to environment preservation, antipiracy measures, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.

States harbor a strong wish to resolve transnational issues through multilateral cooperation, and the enthusiasm for creating multilateral frameworks is such that the alphabet soup is becoming too thick to swallow. Often though, the initial excitement following a forum’s creation fades quickly. There seems to be no magical recipe for keeping the soup edible. Perhaps it is time to recognize anew the value of global governance—even in the form of network or “patchwork” governance.

The bipolarity of the Cold War era has given way to a multipolar or uni-multipolar balance of power. Having experienced Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, are we now heading toward a Pax Sinica, or is there a new global order in the making based on the spirit of cooperation, perhaps to be called Pax Consortis?

In reinventing ASEM—or any other multilateral institution—we will need to achieve the optimum balance between competition and cooperation, with members making reciprocal sacrifices and reaping mutual gains.

Some participants at the Singapore meeting repeatedly criticized Japan for not contributing enough to multilateralism. An examination of the historical record is enough to show that this is incorrect. Japan has consistently led and contributed to multilateralism at the global, regional, and subregional levels. The leadership has perhaps been low-key—“leading from behind,” if you will—given the sensitivity to historical issues, but Japan has nonetheless offered strong and committed support, being one of the few to fulfill its commitments.

In its first-ever National Security Strategy, announced in December 2013, Japan outlined a strategy of a “proactive contribution to peace based on international cooperation.” This is a statement of Japan’s commitment to work with other states and multilateral institutions to address issues that threaten regional and global peace and stability. In keeping with the theme of ASEM 10 of “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security,” I trust that Japan will prove to be a committed partner, linking economic growth with security responsibilities. Under the Pax Consortis, we will need a coalition of committed, willing, and like-minded partners. If we fail to reenergize ASEM, we will all lose.

福島 安紀子/Akiko Fukushima

Akiko Fukushima

  • SENIOR FELLOW

Areas of Expertise

  • International relations theory
  • international security