If governance can be defined as “the processes and institutions, both formal and informal, that guide and restrain the collective activities of a group,”1 one might ask how useful have the Asia-Pacific’s multilateral regional organizations been in performing this guidance and restraining function. We celebrate the fact that the Asia-Pacific region has not experienced major inter-state conflict since 19792 (although intra-state violence has remained prevalent) and that it has enjoyed rising prosperity. Since the end of the Cold War, it has also become a dense multilateral organizational space, which suggests a perception among some that the regional level currently has the capacity, or at least the potential, to contribute to regional governance.

This paper investigates the role that Asia-Pacific regional organizations play in the governance process. It draws out some of the differences between the formal versus informal institutional arrangements and suggests that the formal regional institutional objectives and processes remain important in setting out aspirational goals, as tools of learning, as well as guidance mechanisms. It also argues that some of the underlying informal processes have acted as implicit forms of constraint. However, the primary argument of the paper is that the regional organizations have not been able to act as strong governance mechanisms partly as a result of formal institutional design, but also because of the more negative understandings and perceptions that underpin these institutions.

Additionally, the paper argues that the region often demonstrates reliance on global governance mechanisms acting as restraints on state behaviour for reasons that primarily are connected to a lack of inter-governmental trust among the many participants in these multilateral regional organizations. This absence of deep trust reinforces a more deeply-rooted and continuing preference for state autonomy and the building of state capacity over regional community. While regional awareness has certainly grown over the last ten years or so, regional cohesion and deeper forms of cooperation have been more difficult to achieve.

The multilateral regional organizations that provide the basic empirical evidence for this paper are the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—established in 1994, made up originally of 21 participants, and now comprising 27 countries;3 the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), set up in 1989 and with 21 member economies;4 the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) arrangement,5 which first came together in 1997 at the time of the Asian financial crisis; and the more recently established East Asian Summit (EAS), with an inaugural meeting held in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005 with 16 member countries.6 Since ASEAN, first established in 1967,7 has been a primary shaping mechanism in all these bodies (with the partial exception of APEC), that Southeast Asian sub-regional grouping also needs to be a focus of attention. Certain of these bodies have proven durable and as founding bodies—e.g. ASEAN, APEC, and ARF—have spawned other multilateral organizations such as the EAS and ASEAN+8 (ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, plus an expanded EAS from December 2011).

They also form the basis for an examination of three key elements important to the workings of all intergovernmental organizations and to the effectiveness of governance mechanisms: organizational design (procedural and ideational); organizational purpose (explicit and implicit); and organizational boundaries (cognitive and social). At the root of this approach is agreement with those who argue that institutions matter, in part because they are the “self-conscious creation” of political actors who want to advance both particular and joint interests.8

The Contributions of Formal Institutional Processes to Regional Governance

There is great overlap in the official goals of all the regional organizations studied here. Each details a long term vision to develop regional community (security, political, economic, and social) and emphasizes dialogue and cooperative mechanisms as a means of reaching this vision. ASEAN described its purposes in the preamble to the 1967 Bangkok declaration as being “to promote regional cooperation in Southeast Asia in the spirit of equality and partnership and thereby contribute towards peace, progress and prosperity in the region.”9 Non-interference, respect for territorial integrity and Westphalian understandings of sovereignty have acted as regulatory norms for ASEAN members and have been transmitted to many of the larger post-Cold War multilateral organizations. In its mission statement, APEC writes of a determination to remain “united in our drive to build a dynamic and harmonious Asia-Pacific Community”.10 The most recent of these regional bodies, the East Asia Summit, puts it somewhat similarly, although in a more detailed and comprehensive form. It promised in its first declaration in December 2005 to foster “strategic dialogue” and to promote “cooperation in political and security issues,” as well as in “development, financial stability, energy security, economic integration and growth, the eradication of poverty” and so on in order to realize an East Asian community.11 The building of a regional community, is, then, a major aspiration and viewed in comprehensive terms.

Some of these cooperative efforts have acted as constraints and as forms of guidance. Dialogue on strategic and economic matters has resulted in the transmission of ideas about what it takes to be truly secure, and what it means to be transparent about one’s security strategy. The social pressures that come from membership of a group impose reputational costs if group norms are violated. Meetings have increased in number and have helped to build a range of elite inter-connections. These gatherings have occurred in predictable ways on a regular schedule, providing opportunities not just for multilateral dialogue but, on the side-lines, for bilateral diplomacy. Agendas have evolved to include discussion of many specific functional topics, including counterterrorism, energy security, financial stability, disaster relief, and so on. Regular foreign and finance ministry participation is now matched by defence officials’ dialogues. With respect to the ARF’s original agenda, which included a determination to build confidence among participants before moving to preventive diplomacy, this has resulted in member states producing Defence White Papers on a regular basis and participation in the United Nations Conventional Arms Registry in order to enhance transparency in the defence field.  Jurgen Haacke argues that three particular and important non-traditional security issues have dominated the ARF agenda in the last ten years or so: terrorism, maritime security, and disaster relief, with the latter having seen the most progress, including a field exercise in the Philippines observed by several ARF members and involving the actual participation of personnel from the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the United States and Japan.12

The APT and its associated Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), designed to provide emergency liquidity and overall financial stability, has also witnessed some forward movement, with a shift from bilateral swap arrangements to the decision after the 2008 financial crisis that the +3 countries (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) will expand the reserves, offer additional swap lines, and from March 2010 inaugurate a multilateral Chiang Mai Initiative (CMIM). The APT itself lists several areas of cooperation now and for the future and involving finance ministers, central bank governors13 and foreign ministers.

Thus, with the ASEAN states as the building block of these regional organizations, some elements of governance have evolved out of the earlier establishment of this Southeast Asian sub-regional grouping. That sub-regional grouping provided some obvious and welcome (although not complete) stability to the relationships between those Southeast Asian member states. Institutional experience gained within ASEAN has been passed to larger groupings that play a role in welding together a much larger conception of region, suggesting some acceptance of a common fate, and guiding some of the collective activities of their members. It is instructive that though many of these organizations have attracted criticism for the glacial pace at which they advance their respective agendas, they have not withered away, and indeed we have witnessed an expansion in the number of these institutions in the last few years.

Formal Institutional Processes as Constraints on Regional Governance

However, the formal design of these regional organizations has also had detrimental effects on efforts to develop strong and effective regional governance mechanisms. This design privileges state autonomy over regional level governance. The major regional organizations all draw from the organizational features of ASEAN and accord ASEAN a distinctive role. Both the APT and EAS are always chaired by an ASEAN state, as is the yearly ARF summit, although it has a co-chair in its intercessional meetings.  APEC chairs rotate among all members, but it too has followed an organizational design similar to that of ASEAN. The ASEAN formula, as Amitav Acharya has put it, has meant a particular emphasis on non-intervention, which has led to, “consensus-based decision making, an aversion to legalization, and avoidance of any form of supranational bureaucratic structure.”14

As has frequently been noted, consensus-based decision-making results in lowest-common denominator outcomes, which ensures that certain topics fail to make progress or to get onto the agenda of some organizations at all. Thus, while the ARF shows an interest in discussing the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and it may make statements critical of North Korea’s nuclear tests, it will not debate how best to resolve the matter of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula.15 The movement from the 1995 formal agenda of confidence building, followed by preventive diplomacy, and finally “elaboration of approaches to conflict”—itself a watered-down version of an original call for the “development of conflict-resolution mechanisms”—has been difficult in the face of a stated formal commitment that the ARF would advance its agenda only at a pace “comfortable” to all participants. Confidence building in ARF has not propelled the members forward to preventive diplomacy even though most of the western members of the ARF would like to see this happen and, within Southeast Asia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand have also supported such forward movement.16

An aversion to legalization results in “voluntarism.” Thus, as noted earlier, while it is valuable that the ARF mechanism has encouraged member states to generate some cooperative activity, the organization relies on longer-term social rather than legal and formal compliance pressures to accomplish specific goals. Similarly, the “ASEAN-way” preference for voluntarism has influenced APEC’s agenda since its early inception: when APEC adopted an economic liberalization agenda for the Pacific region, ASEAN governments that were members of this organization insisted that this not be legally binding but voluntary, and as a result of unilateral rather than multilateral decision.17

In addition, formal organizational design has not included giving powers to an independent secretariat for any of the bodies under discussion here. The ARF relies on the ASEAN secretariat, for example, but despite some attempts at strengthening that secretariat it is still lacking in resources and does not have much of a remit beyond acting as a depository of organizational decisions. A consequence of that for this body as well as the others discussed here is that they rely on the energy of individual states to generate proposals for agenda advancement.18  

In order for these individual state proposals to make headway, however, these recommendations also must be attentive to the priority given to state autonomy among some members of the regional organizations above the idea of a supra-national regional governance authority. Thus, the ARF’s move towards giving greater emphasis to non-traditional security issues, while explained in part as a response to the discomfort some participants experience when confronting the traditional security agenda, does not necessarily mean that non-traditional security interests will be advanced via a regional governance mechanism. The shift to non-traditional security has been promoted mainly as a way of building individual state capacity and also sustaining state autonomy—both valuable in themselves but not directly or immediately contributing to the idea of regional governance. The ARF agreement on disaster relief, for example, stresses: “(1) the affected country has the primary responsibility to respond to the humanitarian needs following natural disasters; (2) where needed, the affected country should facilitate humanitarian assistance from other countries and international organizations… (3) external assistance should be based on a request from the affected country; and (4) disaster relief efforts should be undertaken under the latter’s overall coordination.”19

Even within ASEAN, a more tightly focused body in terms of membership, and of much longer duration than the ARF, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, finally adopted in June 2002, similarly emphasized the individual state role rather than an idea of ASEAN governance. That agreement “endorsed national monitoring and enforcement mechanisms over regional ones, while acknowledging in Article 3 the ‘sovereign right’ of member states to ‘exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies’.”20 

The global financial crisis of 2008–2009 also appears to have had an initial weakening effect on the APT (although later on it prompted further multilateralizing efforts). During and immediately after the crisis, members of that organization adopted unilateral or global solutions over regional ones: for example, none of the liquidity provisions of the Chiang Mai Initiative were utilized by any APT member, and the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Japan decided to turn to the U.S. Federal Reserve for lines of credit.21 This preference for the global or other external governance mechanism has been manifest elsewhere. For example, the CMI, even as the newly-minted CMIM, retains its continuing link with the IMF surveillance mechanism; in 1999, we witnessed a referral to the United Nations rather than to ASEAN for resolution of the East Timor crisis; and in 2002 the Indonesian and Malaysian governments decided not to use the ASEAN High Council to mediate their dispute over ownership of the islands of Sipadan and Ligatan, preferring instead to accept resolution of the sovereignty dispute by the International Court of Justice.22

Thus, regional governance mechanisms are often undercut by the preference among regional states for enhancing state over regional capacity, the retaining of state autonomy, including a central role for the individual state’s decision-making authority, and continuing openness to global governance mechanisms given the levels of distrust that remain present at the regional level.

Informal Perceptions and Understandings

If it has then been difficult for regional organizations to act as regional governance mechanisms as a result of the formal organizational design of the most significant of the region’s multilateral organizations, how have the informal processes within these organizations helped or hindered regional governance? Those informal understandings that hinder regional governance mainly relate to (1) strategic uncertainty;23 (2) strategic rivalry;24 (3) strategic distrust;25 and (4) fear of big power dominance.26

For example, many of the states are reluctant to move beyond dialogue into deeper forms of cooperation, let alone supranationality, because they perceive other members of these groups as competitors or rivals ready to take strategic advantage.  Movement from confidence building to preventive diplomacy immediately raises fears among some ARF members that their security interests will be threatened and strategic autonomy will be lost. Certainly, the APT and its associated CMI makes more geographical sense as a regional body: it reflects the enhanced levels of economic inter-dependence among the members; it links a smaller number of states together (with an implied assumption that common values will be easier to find); and it also makes use of the power of those that hold large foreign exchange reserves. Nevertheless, actual behaviour in the 2008 financial crisis suggests that these arguments do not carry the weight that might be attributed to them. As noted earlier, there was a reluctance to be beholden to those who have provided the reserves suggesting a continuing lack of trust and absent sense of common fate. And even with the new multilateralization initiative, the CMI economies have retained an IMF link: countries will only get standby credit if they have previously agreed stand-by arrangements with the IMF.27

In addition, China’s presumed preference for the APT over wider-membership bodies28 has spawned regional institutional competition as well as a reasonably widespread fear that Beijing might seek to dominate a more narrowly-conceived body. Yoshihide Soeya argues that Japan fears Chinese hegemony within the APT and the organization’s inevitable development as a regional organization that shows a preference for closed over open regionalism, one that, in particular, underlines the exclusion of the United States as a Pacific-Asian state. Chinese preferences for the APT are perceived less as a means for the development of an East Asian community and more as a function of Sino-American strategic rivalry and Chinese hegemony. Thus, Japanese promotion of the more open EAS or ASEAN+6—a policy preference supported by others in East Asia such as Singapore and Indonesia—accomplishes two ends for Japan, Soeya argues. The inclusion of states such as Australia and New Zealand (and to some extent India as well) “holds a double function. First, they provide a venting channel leading to the United States as a security anchor in East Asia… Secondly, the membership of Australia and New Zealand is also important from the point of view of universal values that will sustain, as well as keep open, the basis of an East Asian community to the rest of the world.”29 

ASEAN states themselves also have another reason for preferring more open regional organizations than narrower versions as reflected in the APT.  A major ASEAN goal in the early 1990s in helping to develop the ARF was to ensure ASEAN’s continuing relevance in a region that they feared at that time might come to be dominated by China and Japan. Similarly, a fear of irrelevance within an APEC dominated by the major economies resulted in the idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus and a preference for ASEAN+1 Preferential Trade Agreements, rather than something more regionally-based. As Alice Ba has shown, there is a strong link between a desire to keep ASEAN at the centre of the region’s security and economic frameworks and the institutional make-up of new bodies.30 This fear of irrelevance is entirely understandable among a group of weaker states if we accept that great powers are not necessarily perceived as the providers of regional governance but rather more as a potential source of domination and control with the outcome that weaker states’ policy options are constrained.

Despite the negativities associated with these informal understandings, we can perhaps salvage something more positive from this. This positive element should not be overstated because the examples used here indicate a shallowness to regionalism and regional cooperation. Nevertheless, institutional competition and relative power concerns have been the source of an important debate about the region and its potential as a governance mechanism.  The debate has been about three main issues: (1) open versus more closed forms of regionalism—a debate that inevitably touches on questions of membership and the boundaries of the region; (2) dialogue as a trust-building exercise versus problem-solving and practical forms of cooperation; and (3) the relationship between multilateralism and bilateralism and the extent to which the latter reinforces or detracts from the likely success of the former.  These debates have not been resolved, but suggest that on balance it is difficult to stop an inexorable movement in favour of the idea of open regionalism, difficult to retreat from the obvious preference for dialogue over functional problem-solving agendas and ad hoc multilateralism, and multilateral organization as the preferred mode in Southeast Asia, while Northeast Asia relies more obviously on bilateral modes of governance.

In the course of the debates on these important questions, individual state positions have become important political signalling devices and in indirect ways other governments’ understandings of the signals have acted as guidance for and constraint on the exercise of major regional state power. Such signalling has been an important indirect function of these multilateral organizations, illustrating that limits can be placed on the agenda-setting and policy-making power of major states.

Thus, there is little doubt that support for or opposition to the norm of open regionalism is taken as an important indicator of intention, with support for closed regionalism implying some acceptance of Chinese hegemony and U.S. exclusion. Neglect of multilateral institutions in favour of bilateral alliances is similarly perceived as exclusionary and against dominant normative understandings, especially in Southeast Asia. Thus, Obama administration officials, when wishing to indicate a more engaged relationship with the Asia-Pacific (the United States “is back” as U.S. Secretary of Hillary State Clinton put it in July 2009) saw the need to visit ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta, to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and to endorse the notion of “ASEAN centrality” in the process of building regional organizations.31


Regional organizations have then made some intended and unintended contributions to regional governance. They have acted to some degree as forms of guidance and restraint. The regional organizations have generated outcomes related to governance that may well not have occurred in their absence. Most institutions, once created, are difficult to remove because of in-built procedures, mission statements, and time-tables. However, these regional organizations will not reach full potential in the absence of higher levels of trust among participants and some greater shift in focus from state and regime security to regional community-building. The organizational design of these organizations—a design that recognized and reflected these underlying conditions of distrust and preference for state autonomy—will make it difficult to move far beyond the level of the state to a focus on region. In this respect, global governance and individual state governance as opposed to regional governance are likely to remain important to the Asia-Pacific for several years to come, with regional organizations predominantly playing a useful adjunct rather than primary role.

Rosemary Foot is a professor of international relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, U.K. This paper was first presented at the Shanghai Forum, Shanghai, on 29th May 2011. The author is grateful to the organizers and especially to Professor Wu Xinbo for the invitation to speak and write on this topic. 

[1] Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, “Introduction”, in Nye and John D. Donahue, (eds.) Governance in a Globalizing World, (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 12.

[2] Current developments involving Cambodia and Thailand are somewhat worrying in this regard.

[3] That is, the ten ASEAN countries, plus ASEAN’s 10 dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Russia, and the United States), together with six other members—the DPRK, Mongolia, Pakistan, Timor Leste, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and an ASEAN observer (Papua New Guinea.)

[4] The member economies are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, the PRC, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the ROK, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.

[5] The Plus Three are the ROK, China, and Japan.

[6] The ASEAN 10 plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and the ROK.

[7] The five founding members of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei joined in 1984, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma/Myanmar in 1995, and Cambodia in 1999.

[8] This is a slight modification of a point made in Amitav Acharya and Alastair Iain Johnston (eds), Crafting Cooperation, (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[9] http://www.aseansec.org/122.htm.

[10] http://www.apec.org/en/About-Us/About-APEC/Mission-Statement.aspx.

[11] The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the East Asian Summit, 14 December 2005, Kuala Lumpur, available at http://www.aseansec.org/18098.htm, accessed 30th March 2011.

[12] Jurgen Haacke, “The ASEAN Regional Forum: from dialogue to practical security cooperation?”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 22:3, Sept. 2009, p. 428, p. 442.

[13] Chu Shulong, “The ASEAN Plus Three Process and East Asian Security Cooperation” in Acharya and Evelyn Goh (eds.) Reassessing Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007).

[14] Amitav Acharya, Whose Ideas Matter? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), p. 69.

[15] The DPRK is a member of the ARF, one major reason why such a debate is not likely to occur.

[16] Sheldon W. Simon, “Whither Security Regionalism? ASEAN and the ARF in the Face of New Security Challenges”, in Acharya and Goh (eds.) Reassessing Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007) pp. 123-4.

[17] Yuen Foong Khong and Helen Nesadurai, “Hanging together, institutional design, and cooperation in Southeast Asia: AFTA and the ARF”, in Acharya and Johnston (eds.) Crafting Cooperation, p. 49.

[18] According to Jurgen Haacke, within the ARF, initiatives to move beyond dialogue to practical cooperation have mainly come from Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States. “The ASEAN Regional Forum: from dialogue or practical security cooperation?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22:3, September 2009, p. 443. 

[19] Haacke, “The ASEAN Regional Forum”, p.442, quoting from the ARF Chairman’s Statement, 15th ARF, 24 July 2008.

[20] Khong and Nesadurai, “Hanging Together”, p. 49.

[21] Amy Searight, “Special Assessment: Asian Regionalism. New Challenges, New Vision, Pedestrian Progress”, Comparative Connections, April 2010, p. 3. I mention a mixed result, however, because the crisis did spur the +3 countries to expand the reserves, to announce additional swap lines, and from March 2010 to inaugurate a multilateral Chiang Mai Initiative. Searight, “Special Assessment”, p. 3.

[22] The Court, much to Jakarta’s chagrin, ruled in Malaysia’s favour in December 2002.

[23] Mainly connected with China’s increased capacities, despite its reasonably successful reassurance strategy at least for the ten years after 1997.

[24] For example between China and Japan, with each reluctant to see the other take on a leadership role in the region.

[25] For example, between China and the United States, Singapore and Malaysia, North and South Korea, China and Vietnam, among some others.

[26] A fear that is prevalent among ASEAN members.

[27] William W. Grimes, “The Asian Monetary Fund Reborn? Implication of Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization,” Asia Policy, no. 11, Jan. 2011, pp. 79-104.

[28] As Chu Shulong put it: “the APT is the most truly Asian approach… if Asians want, need, and should have their own multilateral regional approach or mechanism, the APT is the right and only one in Asia today.” “The ASEAN Plus Three Process”, p. 161.

[29] Yoshihide Soeya, “An East Asian Community and Japan-China Relations” at http://www.jiia.or.jp/en_commentary/201004/30-1.html, accessed 30th April 2010. See also Takashi Terada, “The Origins of ASEAN+6 and Japan’s Initiatives” in The Pacific Review, 23:1, March 2010.

[30] Alice D. Ba, [Re]negotiating East Asia, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) p. 217. Unsurprisingly, therefore, ASEAN members were especially hostile to the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s, proposal for an Asia Pacific Community, a body that was to span the whole region, but that failed to “give adequate recognition to ASEAN’s central role in regional architecture.” Searight, “Asian Regionalism”, p. 6.

[31] Amy Searight, “Special Assessment: Asian Regionalism,” Comparative Connections, a quarterly e-journal, April 2010.