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Are Multilateral Groups Missing the Point?

Author: Evan A. Feigenbaum
June 27, 2011
Business Standard

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For more than a decade, creating multilateral forums has rivalled badminton as the leading indoor sport of Asian academics, think tanks and governments. And the US has mostly watched from the sidelines even as proposals multiply and Asians organise themselves into an alphabet soup of new multilateral groups.

Now comes the news, from a June 21 meeting of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, that Washington and Tokyo are promoting a trilateral strategic dialogue with India. The three countries already conduct the Malabar military exercise. They now aim to expand their cooperation through enhanced diplomatic and strategic coordination.

Don't get me wrong: such coordination is commendable and necessary. And the US, Japan and India certainly have common strategic interests in Asia as well as a growing array of shared interests globally. But this new trilateral dialogue will join a confusing welter of at least four existing Asian trilaterals: US-Japan-South Korea, China-Japan-South Korea, US-Japan-Australia, and China-India-Russia. In Washington, there remains lingering talk of a US-China-Japan trilateral. And sentiment remains among some for a quadrilateral bringing together the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Perhaps it's time to ask a few elemental questions. Is there a functional purpose to all this redundant and overlapping geometry? What is unique to any of these groups of three or four that would enable enduring solutions to the most pressing security, economic or transnational problems?

To see this in stark relief, consider the proposed US-China-Japan group. It cuts out the other principal US ally in north-east Asia, South Korea. It risks irrelevance if it ducks the hard issues, such as competing Chinese and Japanese territorial claims, Japanese concerns about China's military posture, and Chinese suspicions about the US-Japan alliance and missile defence. And it will create frustration, even increase tension, if it does try to delve into such tough issues. Such a group will grope for purpose. And it is not obvious what issues or capabilities are unique to these three actors and do not already exist in other multilateral forums.

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