Asia’s new normal: Making multilateralism work with multipolarity

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global political and economic architecture has been undergirded largely by one superpower, which set the stage for an unprecedented period of globalisation managed through multilateral institutions and actors. Now that unipolar moment is giving way to an era of diffused powers, with countries like the US, China and Russia each bearing considerable disruptive capacities, and each struggling to stitch together new norms and rules for these rapidly changing times.

This phase, the beginning of which was marked by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and characterised by America’s two bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen a vacuum emerge. Many are seeking to fill it, most determinedly China, but with a push back from countries such as Japan and India. Separately, ISIS and radical energies in the Middle East also seek to grab new space. Russia has chosen this very moment to signal its ability to muddy the Eurasian fields and intervene in the Middle East. The fact is, there is not enough room to accommodate all of these ambitions.

A median will have to be arrived at, but who will sacrifice what?

Today’s ‘multi-power’ reality is most visible in Asia and this can be attributed to the lack of a unifying political and security architecture for the Asian region (or regions). The question then arises: Will the Asian century be defined by contestation or cooperation? And how will Asian powers reconcile multipolarity and multilateralism, a process for which there are no handy 20th century templates? The trans-Atlantic political and economic regimes that were the ‘hub’ of the liberal international order has no parallel in Asia. And the single guarantor of good behaviour (certainty and/or predictability) is clearly absent.

The quest for global or regional leadership is the quest for control of common spaces. If in the earlier centuries, territorial borders and maritime frontiers were the crown jewels, today’s common spaces have been rendered seamless by digital arenas and technology that straddles deep oceans and outer-space. What makes the Asian century unique is the differing conceptions of common spaces by major actors. Continental trade regimes and economic integration will sculpt Asia’s future, but these terms are by themselves contested. How can the competing agendas of, for instance, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and One Belt, One Road be reconciled?

On the digital front, is the internet of today the ‘Splinternet‘ of tomorrow? Is cyberspace the new coliseum for digital gladiators? Asian powers and every power engaged with the region is excited by the potential of the digital economy, but many perceive the virtual world through the territorialism of pre-digital politics. Can the internet be a force for collaboration or is it destined to be a contested arena within and between countries, communities and peoples? How can multilateralism sit with this new paradigm where the power of transnational corporations make the equations more complex?

To be sure, the old fault-lines remain active. The Indo-Pacific system is the world’s greatest maritime trading zone, but political ambitions, too, sail across its seas and waters. In the absence of an Asian equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine (sole power dominance in the region), sovereignty is being contested everyday on the high seas. Robust military capacities sustain these conflicts in the Indian Ocean and Pacific littorals. Will the waters of Asia connect and empower, or will they divide and devastate?

Perhaps the most significant policy question for the Asian century is ensuring the realisation of ‘human value’. How will demographic realities in Asia translate into economic, and by extension, political transformations? The region hosts the youngest as well as the most rapidly ageing populations in the world, suggesting that demography can both be a dividend and a disaster. Growth models of decades past are being rendered obsolete by technological advancements and digitisation. These cripple the notion of a demographic dividend. What are the livelihood avenues available to 21st century Asians? Will unemployment continue to fuel the high-octane nationalist and sub-nationalist movements that Asia is witnessing? Does this detract from the ability of Asian actors to ‘sacrifice’ and ‘compromise’, something that multilateralism demands?

Asia needs to think through these pressing questions and so does the world. After all, the Asian century is not exclusive to Asia. It is as much about the rise of Asia, Asian actors and Asian institutions as it is about others who engage with the continent. Challenges and transformations in the region will define not just this continent’s century, but that of the planet.

Asia will shape the 21st century as much as the Atlantic consensus shaped the 20th century, or Europe, the 19th.

Contestation or competition?

In the seven decades since 1945, the US largely succeeded in scripting some significant rules that still survive, and they have guaranteed the stability of global institutions that are the bedrock of contemporary multilateralism. The UN system, the key security treaties, conventions and norms for managing common spaces, all emerged from the conversations of that era. The period since 1990 saw the triumph of the liberal order, and placed the globalisation project firmly within the Atlantic consensus.

The economic imperative to rebuild post-war Europe inevitably necessitated some of these political responses and military instruments. Superpowers became the global guarantors of predictability, whether in trade and commerce or the security domain, and by extension, of multilateralism. This task is now devolving in Asia, but in an Asia that has not been dominated by one sovereign power since the times of Genghis Khan, and an Asia that is stubbornly multipolar.

Asia needs to discover a bridge between multipolarity and multilateralism

This is occurring at a moment when many holdover institutions are flailing, if not failing. The UN resembles not an NGO, as is often suggested, but a think tank. It offers a good platform for talking about norms and rules, but is ill-equipped to enforce any. Inaugurated in 1995, the WTO is in a premature midlife crisis. So where are the new institutions for the Asian century? Where are the important conversations taking place, and among whom? Or, is it time to face up to the harsh truth and accept that rules, actors, institutions, arrangements and ethics that may be able to serve the Asian century are yet to be discovered, born, written and even conceived?

Perhaps, it is time to pursue a new project, one that begins to create a political Asia. Like the Atlantic order needed to flourish on the basis of the Bretton Woods and UN systems, Asia needs a new management, a new board of directors and a new security architecture. At the very least, this system needs to bring three resident actors (China, Japan and India) and two regional stakeholders (the US and Russia) to the same table. Other sub-regional influencers should be drawn in as well.

The East Asia Summit, of which all these countries are members, has been suggested as a possible fulcrum of such an architecture. Yet, the East Asia Summit is insufficient to address the concerns of Central and West Asia. Is an expanded mandate for the G20 (seven Asian countries, two more if one were to include Turkey and Russia) the answer? Alternatively, is a greenfield institution inevitable?

Three possibilities — distinct, but not mutually exclusive — emerge. At the commencement of the 21st century, Asia’s politics resembles the fraught, rudderless multipolarity of the beginning of the 20th. It took 50 years and two wars for that reckless order to settle into a multilateral equilibrium. Asia has to do it better, faster and without the external stimulus of a great War. As the dowager power, the US can incubate new institutional arrangements in Asia, playing Greece to emergent Asia’s Rome, to borrow from Harold Macmillan’s description of the post-war relationship between Britain and the US.

Should the US choose to bequeath the liberal, international order to Asian forces, India will be the heir-apparent. India would not, under this circumstance, play the role of a great power — because Asia is too fractious and politically vibrant to be managed by one entity — but simply that of a ‘bridge power’. India is in a unique and catalytic position, with its ability to singularly span the geographic and ideological length of the continent. But two variables will need to be determined. Can the US find it within itself to incubate an order that may not afford it the pride of place like the trans-Atlantic system? And, can India get its act together and be alive to the opportunity it has to become the inheritor of a liberal Asia?

The second possibility for an Asian order is that it resembles the 19th century Concert of Europe, an unstable but necessary political coalition of major powers on the continent. The ‘big eight’ in Asia (China, India Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Russia and America) would all be locked in a marriage of convenience, bringing their disparate interests to heel for the greater cause of shared governance. Difficult as it would be to predict the contours of this system, it would likely be focused on preventing shocks to ‘core’ governance functions in Asia, such as the preservation of the financial system, territorial and political sovereignties and inter-dependent security arrangements. Given that each major player in this system would see this as an ad hoc mechanism, its chances of devolving into a debilitating bilateral or multi-front conflict for superiority would be high — very much like the Concert that gave way to the First World War.

A third possibility could see the emergence of an Asian political architecture that does not involve the US. This system — or more precisely, a universe of subsystems — would see the regional economic and security alliances take a prominent role in managing their areas of interest. As a consequence, institutions like ASEAN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the AIIB, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation will become the ‘hubs’ of governance. The US would remain distantly engaged with these sub-systems, but would be neither invested in their continuity, or affiliated to its membership.

Rather than crystal gazing these three possibilities, our objective is to gauge the political underpinnings behind an emerging Asian architecture. Very simply: will it be defined by contestation or cooperation? Can the US incubate a political order that is largely similar to existing multilateral systems or will the cost of creating disruptive institutions keep Asian countries from buying into them? And finally, can any credible pan-Asian governance institution successfully absorb — or at the very least acknowledge — the cultural, economic and social differences that characterise the continent? The quest for the Asian century is not for the Holy Grail of shared governance, but diagnosing the right means to reach a sustainable and inclusive platform.

This post originally appeared as a two part series in The Interpreter.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).




Ashok Malik

Samir Saran

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