Multilateral Organisations: just talking shops?

Do multilateral organisations play an important role in Asia-Pacific security?

Aghallya Janarth

Politics, International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia

25 June 2019

The Asia-Pacific is home to Multilateral Organisations like ASEAN, APEC and EAS, but they have a very limited role in constructing meaningful connections in the region, writes Aghallya Janarth.

Most Multilateral Organisations (MLO’s) are nothing more than ‘talking shops’, struggling with a lack of substantive output and effectiveness in leadership and sovereignty amongst regional members.

Non-interference with other ASEAN member states creates problems; states say they’d rather not get involved in the domestic issues of their neighbours, with members holding that interfering would result in tensions between previous allies, even alienating supporters of the region.

But many human rights issues that are in breach of international law happen internally, with the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar being a key example; the only action undertaken was allowances by India and Pakistan, which provided shelter to Rohingya refugees.

The remainder of ASEAN didn’t offer help, and Malaysia and Thailand blatantly refused to open their doors.

Economic and military sanctions could have limited the power of the ruling military in Myanmar but the fear of pushing the military into reversing their recent democratic reforms loomed far too large. While the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and Amnesty International set up refugee camps and provides aid to refugees, no other MLO in the Asia-Pacific region made any effort to offer assistance.

More on this: Aiding conflict in Myanmar

As well as this, the absence of great power multilateralism limits the ability of states to directly negotiate their problems.

The presence of a clear and respected leader in the various organisations in the region, like the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, ASEAN and ASEAN+3 means that groups will be able to generate meaningful discussions with the potential to suggest useful reforms that can be implemented, instead of engaging in mere talk.

The lack thereof will mean that states will question the legitimacy of the organisation on grounds that no change has been made.

The obvious question now would be, why not implement a leading state to direct the MLO’s?

While this is the clearest solution, it comes with a multitude of problems. The United States has come forward to offer help but Asia-Pacific states have not been enthusiastic about the idea. This is unfortunate given that American interest in the region has the potential to reinvigorate the state of the organisations in the region. Northeast and Southeast Asia view China with extreme distrust and would not want the superpower to hold superiority over the rest.

Power shifts in the Asia-Pacific region have made the task of establishing effective leadership amongst MLO’s difficult, contributing to the limited role the organisations play in the region.

Despite the limited role MLO’s have in the Asia-Pacific, they have been pivotal in highlighting the importance of human security in the region.

It cannot be said that human security is a widely accepted framework in the region but the different financial crises, communicable diseases like SARS, and natural disasters have aided in bringing about this level of understanding.

Nations in the Asia-Pacific region now understand the importance that lies behind a more people-centric approach to security. Looking particularly at the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the impact that MLO’s have had on drawing attention to human security will be clearer.

The crisis drew attention to many critical problems the region faced; unaddressed incidences of poverty and illegal migration were causing widespread political unrest and had to be looked at. This underscored the need for human security to make sure that the needs of minorities in the society were taken care of.

Nations saw that there needed to be adequate systems in place to ensure that every individual was sufficiently protected in the event of unexpected homelessness, poverty and unemployment. Whilst MLO’s have a limited role to play in Asia-Pacific security, they’ve been effective to a small extent in stressing the importance of human security.

The range and extent of crises that the region has undergone highlights to Asia-Pacific leaders the need for a people-centred approach to security, and MLO’s could bridge the gap between corrupt governments and actualising goals in the region.

However, suffering from bureaucratic inertia, MLO’s in the Asia-Pacific are nothing but ‘talking shops’.

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