Traditionally, the United States is used to dealing with Japan and other Asian countries on a strictly bilateral basis—as the hub in a "hub and spokes" pattern. However, the development of Asian mulilateralism during the past decade has forced policymakers to move beyond this familiar paradigm. At a three-hour seminar on April 3, six panelists examined the policy implications of such multilateral forums as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the WTO for US-Japan relations in particular and for US-Asia relations in general.

Most of the panelists maintained that the United States should support, not circumvent, multilateral institutions in Asia. Such institutions minimize Asian resentment for a heavily engaged and armed superpower. Moreover, multilateral forums are the best means for incorporating China into the region.

On some levels, the loss of unilateral control will be hard for the United States, as discussed by
T.J. Pempel. Since the 1980s, U.S.-Asia relations have become increasingly complex, as non-state actors have elbowed into the process and issues have become split among ARF (security), APEC (trade and development), the WTO (trade), and ASEAN+3 (finance). As a result, the U.S. government, like all governments, is less able than previously to channel its influence. However, fragmentation has the beneficial effect of dissipating and diffusing tensions. Each actor can engage in "forum shopping" by going to the arena—global or regional—in which it is most likely to win. Each country must work at building coalitions, and an ally in ARF might be an opponent in the WTO. At the same time, Asian multilateral forums are extremely specialized (in contrast to their European counterparts). Consequently, politicians without technical knowledge are less able—and less motivated—to intervene.

Saadia Pekkanen examined one example of "forum shopping," showing how Japan has increasingly relied on the WTO to advance its own national interests, both as a direct compainant and a third-party participant. Japan has shown "determination to push forward with a legalized paradigm," challenging the United States in the process. Ellis Krauss investigated how the United States, in turn, used APEC to further its own agenda by pressuring Japan to open its markets through "early voluntary sector liberalization." (Unfortunately for the U.S., Japan stuck by a rather literal definition of "voluntary.") Jennifer Amyx analyzed Japan's move during the 1990s to establish an Asian Monetary Fund. While the AMF was never realized, the idea of regional alternative to the IMF is by no means dead, and may rise in a different guise in years to come, Amyx maintained.

Multilateralism seems to have had less impact in security affairs than in economic affairs. John Ikenberry pointed out that an Asian "NATO" is extremely unlikely, since resentment over Japan's World War II aggression continues to smolder in China and the Koreas. However, as pointed out by Akiko Fukushima, the US-Japan alliance can be considered a "regional asset" rather than a simple mutual-defense agreement between two countries. 54 percent of Diet members now support Japan's exercising its "right to collective self defense," pointing toward greater engagement in Asia and perhaps some sort of multilateral agreement in the distant future.

Bob Hathaway, Asia Program director
Drafted by Amy McCreedy, program associate