International relations, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia

14 December 2020

RCEP has resolved the ‘spaghetti bowl’ problem of the Asia-Pacific’s trade architecture and it may be time to do the same for security dialogue, Lukas Müller writes.

On 15 November 2020, the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, along with Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand, finally signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

This mega-regional trade agreement resolves what observers have termed the ‘spaghetti bowl’ problem of Asia-Pacific trade architecture. With the signing of RCEP, Asia-Pacific countries have managed what only few observers have thought to be possible: they have reconciled a mess of 21 different bilateral and trilateral agreements into one.

RCEP has faced and will continue to face criticism from observers. Like the bilateral and trilateral agreements that came before it, RCEP is shallow, mostly summarising existing commitments by its members and not adding much substance in terms of trade openness.

However, this criticism misses two major points. First, that it will grow in substance over time, and second, that unifying the region’s ‘spaghetti bowl’ of trade agreements into one represents an achievement in and of itself.

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RCEP will gather the Asia-Pacific’s key trade actors – except Taiwan – at one table, enabling them to negotiate future steps and to resolve disputes collectively. Importantly, this is exactly what a well-functioning security architecture would look like as well.

While the term ‘spaghetti bowl’ usually refers to trade, rather than security ties, it is equally applicable to complex institutional relations in the security sphere. Similar to their trade ties, ASEAN’s member states and all other actors in the Asia-Pacific have a bewilderingly complicated network of security alliances and relationships with one another.

While there are multilateral security processes in the region surrounding ASEAN, it is complex in its own right. Beyond its major multilateral security dialogue forums, multilateral security negotiations take place at the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM+).

If one widens the lens to the Indo-Pacific, yet another forum appears – the Quadrilateral Dialogue – involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, challenging ASEAN’s centrality. To stay with the food analogies, this resembles a stacking of multiple plates, with a spaghetti bowl on top.

Now that RCEP is a done deal, the time has come to resolve the complexity of this regional security architecture.

Of course, there are reasons for the complexity of security relations in the region. ASEAN states have always and will continue to have different security interests. This is due to their differing histories in engaging with great powers, as well as the different strategic imperatives of their geographic locations.

Indeed, animosity remains between certain ASEAN member states, such as Thailand and Cambodia, or Singapore and Malaysia, making an alignment of security relations unlikely to impossible in the medium-term. However, this sticking point does not excuse or explain the complexity and redundancy of existing security dialogues.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), created in 1994, has a storied history and remains at the centre of security dialogue in East Asia. Intended to keep the United States engaged in the region following the end of the Cold War, some perceived that the ARF may have lost some of its lustre over the years, and so in 2005 the East Asia Summit (EAS) was established to serve as the premier, summit-level security dialogue in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

However, the EAS has not met this expectation, resulting in it largely replicating the ARF agenda in recent years.

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The ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting, for its part, has certainly achieved certain objectives since its establishment in 2006, for instance the de-politicisation of security dialogue and the introduction of new areas of discussion, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

At the same time though, it too has massively contributed to overlaps of security dialogues in the region, including in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as non-traditional security.

The ADMM+ has also suffered from a lack of institutionalisation, specifically visible in the fact that the ten ASEAN member states continue to carry out informal meetings with individual ADMM+ countries such as the United States, China, and Japan.

This overlap between forums is not simply an aesthetic fault, but creates real problems for ASEAN and makes much of its most important work redundant.

The ARF and EAS remain so similar in agenda and character that membership of the EAS has become more of a question of prestige rather than substantial cooperation, and the proliferation of multiple informal bilateral ADMM+ relationships calls into question whether it is truly multilateral in nature.

Most crucially, however, the proliferation of identical agendas across the ARF, EAS, and ADMM+ opens the field for external actors to set their agendas in ASEAN’s place. The proliferation of security dialogue venues is in fact being used to push security agendas on multiple levels with the intention of finding inroads.

This shows that dialogue proliferation is a threat to ASEAN centrality in security affairs. Resolving the overlaps between forums by introducing a primary venue for security matters, just the way RCEP has done for trade, would streamline discussions and ensure a stronger position for ASEAN.

Actors in Asia and the Pacific can learn from the RCEP success story to improve the performance of their dysfunctional security dialogue forums. The overlapping venues of the ARF, the EAS, and the ADMM+ have outlasted their utility, and it may be time for a more streamlined and inclusive arrangement to enable a true multilateral process.

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