- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Multilateralism, Regional Security, and the Prospects for Track II in East Asia

Ralph A. Cossa

Multilateral dialogue holds great promise for enhancing regional security, provided its limitations as well as its benefits are fully recognized. All Asia-Pacific nations express support for enhancing dialogue, and the current trend toward multilateralism is generally consistent with the national strategies of the major regional players.

Asian-Pacific multilateralism is clearly a growth industry today, both at the official and nongovernmental (track II) levels. One publication documented 13 governmental and 49 track II political or security-related multilateral dialogues during the second half of 1995 alone. Another noted that by early January 1996 at least 80 multinational conferences, symposiums, and workshops had already been scheduled for the year to discuss Asia-Pacific security developments.

While many are one-time affairs, a 1995 survey identified over 40 institutionalized forums in East Asia (including regularly recurring conferences) aimed at promoting political, economic, or security discussions. Some of these forums, particularly in the political and economic arenas, date back to the 1960s and 1970s, as do several military-to-military efforts.

However, the most ambitious and potentially significant are of a more recent vintage and focus on political or security issues. Foremost among the new official mechanisms is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This annual gathering of foreign ministers, first held in 1994, provides clear evidence of the growing regional commitment to multilateral security dialogue throughout the Asia-Pacific. In fact, well-established multilateral mechanisms aimed at enhancing Asia-Pacific security now exist both at the official and track II levels. Both official and track II forums are useful, with the latter especially effective in dealing with politically sensitive issues. In some instances, the track II efforts aim at facilitating essential official dialogue.