First published on the Lowy Interpreter on 30 November, 2015.
With PM Turnbull jetting out last week to take part in yet more summiteering in Paris for the COP21 climate talks (via Malta for that most baroque of institutions, CHOGM), he and his team must feel like multilateral veterans barely months into the job. They might also be feeling a tad jaundiced about these efforts, and not only from the jetlag. Asia's summit season this year delivered a particularly anemic harvest.
Every year in November, APEC, ASEAN with its various add-ons, and the East Asia Summit are held in close proximity. This year the biannual ADMM+ was also held several weeks prior to the others. This gives regional players plenty of opportunity to get to know one another, improve communication, foster goodwill and possibly even cooperate on economic and security policy. The meetings also provide a good barometer of the region's broader international environment and of course a chance to see how well the bodies are actually functioning as compared with the platitudes spoken about them by their many supporters.
This year's summit season reminded us that Asia now has abundance of multilateral structures. It was not that long ago that the region was bereft of opportunities for states to gather on a regular basis to improve their relations and coordinate policy. Yet, beyond the annual photo-op of leaders decked out in cliché ridden national costume, broader engagement with these mechanisms is poor.
for one thing, Asian multilateralism is largely an elite affair. This is understandable to a point, but the various forums lack connections to Asia's people. More significantly, this year's meetings displayed three big problems with Asia's multilateral groupings.
Although Asia now has plenty of multilateral bodies, they remain both individually and collectively insubstantial. At the most obvious level, the meetings showed that they lack the ability to drive meaningful policy coordination. Perhaps most famously, APEC has become known as a platform for discussion of non-APEC related trade negotiations. This time around the biggest talking point was the recently struck TPP deal and its fit with the the ASEAN-centric RCEP. But perhaps more importantly, the various bodies show little ability to shape state behaviour nor indeed have they demonstrated that they can build the trust that is so palpably in demand.
Supporters of multilateral institutions have long argued that their most basic contribution is that elites can get to know one another at a personal level, and that these links can be a platform for a more cooperative way of doing things. The EAS is ten years old this year, APEC is twenty-six while some of ASEAN's various add-ons date back nearly twenty years. Yet there was not much trust or common cause on display over the past few weeks beyond perhaps that old stalwart of 'ASEAN solidarity'. Indeed in the case of the EAS, ostensibly Australia's preferred institution, it is not at all clear just what it does that the others don't do.
One of the central problems of institutions lacking heft (existential or functional) is that they can easily be buffeted by external forces. Of course no multilateral grouping, no matter how effective or long lived, would be unaffected by the traumatic events in Paris or the turbulent forces in international affairs such as the long-running conflict in Syria or the tensions in the region itself. Yet the ability of ADMM+, EAS and indeed APEC to be not only overshadowed but blown entirely off course by such events is remarkable.
The EAS is a case in point. Held once again in Kuala Lumpur, ten years on from the first meeting, the EAS was poised to make a decisive move. The Summit was about to adopt an unambiguous purpose as the region's leading body for strategic dialogue, to establish bureaucratic support within the ASEAN secretariat and to adopt a number of clear issues as its core business. Considerable work behind the scenes had gone into this, and in the weeks leading up to the meeting, diplomats were uncharacteristically confident that the opportunity to allow the body realise its potential would be grasped. The winds of terrorism and territorial contest blew this off the agenda. Instead, EAS remains a two-hour photo op which issues motherhood statements about counter-terrorism, connectivity and blandishments about areas of cooperation.
Finally, and perhaps most depressingly, the summit season has shown that forums intended to corral the major powers are proving instead to be forums in which they compete. One of the great claims that institutional supporters make, and ASEAN boosters especially so, is that multilateral mechanisms can bind the hands of great powers and, by setting rules and norms, limit their competitive tendencies. Sadly, as China and the US squared off, primarily about the South China Sea but also about trade and economic matters, Asia's summit season reminded us that the institutions in the region have a long way to go before they can be said to hold the attention of the major powers, let alone shape their interests and constrain their behaviour.
But even though this year's meetings showed much of what is wrong with the region's mechanisms, one should not underestimate their basic importance. That they exist at all in a region beset with historical animosity, rising mistrust and a slew of territorial disputes is an achievement. These entities have real potential not only to build personal connections among elites and to manage crises, but also to establish the foundations of a more stable platform for Asia's future. The recent summit season shows us how much work we have to do before this can occur. It is a significant challenge but one from which Mr Turnbull's self-styled 'grown up government' must not shirk.
Professor Nick Bisley is the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia.