The current global system views multilateralism as the key to fostering new mutually beneficial relationships, improving current international relationships, and promoting peace. In Asia, China is eager to form new multi-party bonds that will put Beijing in a position to lead Asia both economically and militarily into the twenty-first century. The fact that multilateralism can be used to promote a single nation’s agenda, however, has prompted some to question whether multilateralism holds the promise so many seem to think it does. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center hosted Chang-hee Nam of Inha University to discuss South Korean views of multilateral cooperation in the Asia Pacific.  This event was moderated by Carnegie-Tsinghua’s Zhang Chuanjie.

Cooperation in Theory

Asia has seen an explosion of multilateral and bilateral organizations aimed at fostering cooperation among nations, Nam said. These organizations have varying goals, from economic to military. However, Nam argued that the region is overlooking a potentially valuable cooperative structure, minilateralism.

  • Minilateralism: Minilateralism is a cooperative structure between three nations, and thus is smaller than multilateralism and larger than bilateralism. Multilateralism often leads to a situation where larger or more powerful nations can overshadow smaller nations, such as South Korea. The same problem exists with bilateralism; the larger nation will overshadow the smaller nation, often defeating the purpose of cooperation. Nam argued that minilateralism works best when two smaller nations join together with a larger, leading nation in order to maintain a voice and hold clout in the group.
  • Benefits of Minilateralsm: In addition to allowing smaller nations to maintain a voice, minilateralism creates a faster decision-making process than the often slow-moving bureaucratic multilateral organizations. Equality is much easier to maintain in a minilateral organization than in a multilateral one, as smaller nations are more fairly represented. Furthermore, a minilateral structure can easily grow into a multilateral organization, if the situation calls for it.

Cooperation in Practice

Nam offered a number of past and potential examples of minilateralism, including:

  • In 1999, mid-level government officials met for the Korea-China-Japan Summit.
  • In 2008, high ranking policymakers from Korea, the United States, and Japan came together in a minilateral meeting.

Future possibilities

  • North Korea: South Korea, the United States, and Japan could come together to find a solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In response to a question from the audience, Nam explained that he left China off this list due to China’s unwillingness to condemn North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010. While China has been able to use its relationship with Pyongyang as a bargaining chip with the United States, Nam suggested there is some distrust in South Korea about the nature of the North Korean-Chinese relationship.
  • Economy: South Korea, China, and Japan could come together in a minilateral economic structure to promote economic prosperity.

Power Shifts in Asia

Although the United States has long been a stabilizing force in the region, this may change as China begins to assert itself, with aspirations of becoming the primary power in Asia, Nam said. While China has made significant progress toward transforming itself into a leading nation, much remains to be done.

  • Chinese Maturation: China must begin acting as a responsible stakeholder in international affairs, Nam asserted. It can no longer continue its habit of claiming victimization. Nam explained that while China is satisfied with its position in the G2, it remains wary of U.S. intentions in Asia, fearing an attempt at containment by Washington. China’s non-negotiable position on Taiwan is also a point of tension for many Asian allies, Nam added. 
  • U.S. Presence: The United States remains the dominate power in Asia with a strong military force in the region, Nam said. In response to a question by an audience member asked about the condition of anti-U.S. sentiments in the region, Nam said that the United States has withdrawn a large number of troops from Asia and the smaller U.S. presence is much more palatable to locals. Though tensions do arise, the U.S. presence is generally seen as a positive thing, he concluded. 

  • Korea-China: Nam stressed that China-South Korea relations remain very important for both nations.  He pointed out that South Korea is in a very strategic location for the U.S. military; bases located in South Korea would enable U.S. airpower to strike both Shanghai and Beijing, something that cannot be done from Japan. However, the likelihood of the United States and Korea going to war against China is very low, Nam added.