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The United States in the New Asia

Regionalism, Trade, and American Engagement
3 November 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

I’ve been working for the past few months on preparing a report, The United States in the New Asia, which was released today by the Council on Foreign Relations. The authors, Evan Feigenbaum and Bob Manning, are veterans of the Bush administration with a deep appreciation for Asian sensibilities.

But Evan and Bob mince no words in criticizing the host of largely useless multilateral institutions that have been built up in Asia over the past 10-20 years. They observe, sharply, that “creating multilateral forums has rivaled badminton as the leading indoor sport of Asian academics, think tanks, and governments.”

That having been said, there are institutions and arrangements, particularly those emerging from ASEAN Plus Three and the Plus Three (China, Japan, and Korea), which threaten U.S. economic interests. But the solution is not for the United States to blindly jump into the Asian multilateral spaghetti bowl.

Kurt Campbell, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in mid-October, noted that–before the United States joins more multilateral groups or proposes the creation of any new ones–it is “incumbent upon the United States to have a vision about what it thinks it can accomplish in a multilateral setting.”

The report calls for renewed U.S. engagement on regional and global trade arrangements, the most consequential area of multilateral activity that excludes the United States; for an American leadership role in streamlining Asian institutions; for accepting some regional institutions that will exclude the U.S.; and for beginning a deeper dialogue with our allies, particularly Japan, Korea, and Australia, about the role of the United States in Asia.

The last point cannot be emphasized enough: if Japan continues working to develop regional trade arrangements that harm American interests, how can the U.S. expect to secure those interests?

I hope this report will function as a wake-up call not only for American policymakers but for our Asian allies, as well.

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  • Kevin Slaten said:

    The ABC Soup in Asia is overwhelming sometimes. One wonders if some sort of market mechanisms won't take hold (perhaps ironically) in Asia's IGO pool. That is to say, the most useful (e.g. ARF) will survive and the least effectual (e.g. ACD) will die out with either a bang or whimper.

  • Dan said:

    I don't think ARF, APEC, EAS, or most of the others count as being very useful. Even ASEAN, which was successful at bringing together a region full of intense internal rivalries, is now struggling for internal cohesion. China successfully prevented ASEAN from raising disputes in the South China Sea during last week's summit, which is a huge coup for China. Less collective bargaining power in Southeast Asia means a stronger Chinese negotiating position and a less useful ASEAN.

    The multilateral arrangements that now have lasting, and substantive, impact are those formal and informal groups that are bringing the region closer together economically.