The Missing Link

Multilateral Institutions in Asia and Regional Security

President Barack Obama, center, and leaders of ASEAN wave as they pose for a group photo at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 16, 2016.

Endnotes and citations are available in the PDF and Scribd versions.

Asia’s security situation is changing: China is aggressively asserting its claims to disputed territories; Japan is simultaneously redefining its security posture; the United States is expanding its military presence in the region; and challenges related to North Korea and the South China Sea are only becoming more complex.

The economy of the Asia-Pacific is also evolving: goods and labor are moving more freely; megatrade deals are competing to set regional standards; and foreign investment is moving south as wages in China rise. Despite a regional economic slowdown, Asia continues to be a critical driver for global growth.

Recognizing that the Asia-Pacific is the world’s most dynamic region and is essential to long-term U.S. security and economic interests, the Obama administration has attempted to rebalance the U.S. government’s attention and resources to meet this challenge.

This effort has included a robust, multipronged approach to security issues. The core of U.S. policy has been to deepen long-standing treaty alliances with Japan; the Republic of Korea, or ROK; Australia; the Philippines; and Thailand. In addition to these traditional alliances, the United States now has significant bilateral ties with every country in the region except for North Korea. Emerging partnerships with countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia can even sometimes be as dynamic as traditional alliances. A deeper and broader U.S.-China relationship, while complex, is also a critical component of regional engagement and has produced areas of groundbreaking cooperation, such as climate change.

The Obama administration has also invested in trilateral mechanisms, such as a U.S.-Japan-ROK dialogue to improve coordination and relationships among U.S. allies in the region. In order to bolster strategic coordination with India in Asia, the Obama administration also created a U.S.-Japan-India dialogue.

Last week, President Barack Obama traveled to Japan for the G-7 summit and made his first visit to Vietnam as president. This trip, his 10th to Asia, included an historic stop in Hiroshima—the first ever by a sitting U.S. president—and marked the beginning of the Obama administration’s final push to solidify the gains of this rebalancing policy. The trip will be followed by a flurry of activity over the summer, culminating in President Obama’s final trip to Asia in September for the G-20 summit in China and the East Asia Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Laos.

As Asia has become more complex, addressing challenges increasingly requires cooperation with a wide group of countries in multilateral settings. The Obama administration has consequently prioritized multilateral institutions, which are now the main driver of presidential travel to the region.

Unfortunately, while the United States has now invested in engaging multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific, many of those organizations are not operating to their full problem-solving potential, despite the major security challenges and disagreements facing the region today. The challenge for the next U.S. administration, therefore, is to build on the success of the Obama administration in engaging with these critical institutions to make them capable of effectively handling a new security environment.

This report outlines the landscape of regional institutions and their perspectives, describes and explains questions and challenges for the United States in its engagement with multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific, and offers policy recommendations for the next U.S. administration. While it touches upon the wide range of regional institutions that exist, the conversation focuses largely on the ASEAN-centered regional security institutions that include the United States. These regional security institutions are the primary platforms for formal U.S. engagement on transnational issues in the Asia-Pacific.

Michael H. Fuchs is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Brian Harding is Director for East and Southeast Asia from the Center for American Progress.

This report is freely licensed to the public under a non-exclusive Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.