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Multilateralism and Australia and Japan as America's deputies

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In Brief

Dr Malcolm Cook and Mr Andrew Shearer at the Lowy Institute in Sydney published last month a short analysis entitled Going Global: A New Australia-Japan Agenda for Multilateral Cooperation:

To help both governments navigate [a] more complicated and uncertain international environment, the paper offers a agenda for enhanced Australia-Japan multilateral cooperation organised around:

- support for American global leadership, and
- reforming post-war multilateralism.

Three areas of international policy are particularly well suited to closer Australia-Japan cooperation in pursuit of these goals: climate change and energy security; nuclear non-proliferation; and official development assistance.

I have doubts about these two foundational principles, especially over the mid- to long-term, given America’s own longstanding ambivalence about multilateralism, and its relative decline particularly since the GFC.


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In the short term, however, it seems worthwhile to think more deeply and creatively about three of their seven specific recommendations:

– Leverage APEC and the East Asia Summit more to act as caucuses in multilateral bodies like the WTO …
– Better coordinate Australian and Japanese aid policies and programs …
– More ambitiously, develop and pursue an Australia-Japan agenda for reform of the
multilateral system. (p2)

Mostly implicit in the analysis is the rise of China, although that the paper does mention that specifically (at p5) – along with the rise of India – as ‘changing power balances in the region’. Ian Castles has disagreed recently with the foreign editor of The Australian on ‘Measuring China’s Size and Power’, even in economic terms. How quickly China grows relative to the US will partly define the ‘short term’ for both Australia and Japan.

Already, Tobias Harris reports that PM Aso alluded recently in Beijing to the possibility of a Japan-China FTA. If this eventuates before any Japan-US FTA, what does this bode for the ‘support for American global leadership’ advocated by Cook and Shearer?

Nor should we forget India, as Bill Emmott argued in Rivals last year. Even in the short term, Raghbendra Jha remains ‘guardedly optimistic’ about its growth prospects – and everything, especially nowadays, is relative. Already, Japan has commenced bilateral FTA negotiations with India.

The point is that the world is becoming increasingly multi-polar, especially as the GFC and recession hit the US particularly hard. Hitching our wagon to America may well leave us behind. It might be better for Japan and especially Australia to support other economic powerhouses in leadership bids, on a more ad hoc basis. Similarly, regarding at least some security matters (like invasions of Iraq), but I leave that to the experts.

Another point is that America itself has hardly been exemplary in promoting ‘post-war multilateralism’, whether in security or economic affairs. (Think of its pre-WTO approach to market access in Japan and elsewhere, its slow implementation of adverse WTO rulings, and America’s active involvement in bilateral and regional FTAs – beginning with NAFTA.) That’s understandable for a great power, and the US may be – or turn out to be – better than others like the EU or large countries in Asia. But we don’t yet know for sure, and meanwhile it leaves a tension between the two guiding principles proposed by Cook and Shearer.

In the (truly) short term, however, this approach could be useful in some fields. For example, Australia and Japan could include balanced investor-state arbitration provisions in the FTA they are currently negotiating. These could serve as a template for those in the Trans-Tasman Partnership Agreement, which both Australia and the US wish to join. A permanent Appellate Body and improvements in state-to-state dispute settlement could be added to such Agreements, which in turn might promote useful reforms to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding at the multilateral level. But even in this process, note that the US could not call all the shots, even with the support of Australia and Japan. Other countries are already involved, and pragmatic accommodations reached. All the more so, if trying to include further APEC or East Asian Summit members.

A second area where the latter two countries could collaborate is ‘legal technical assistance’, within their ODA programs. For example, AusAID programs increasingly emphasise long-term sustainability, as with Sydney Law School’s program to promote human rights awareness among police and prosecutors in Nepal. As well as ‘training the trainers’, as in that program, it would be useful to be able to commit to follow-ups with other grants through agencies like JICA in Japan. More simply, the two ODA agencies could cooperate in a one longer-term project. This, in turn, might be better coordinated with regional or multilateral initiatives.

But note again that the vision of the perfect ‘rule of law’ in the US is not necessarily identical to that which has evolved over the centuries in Australia, from the original English variant of the common law tradition. Let alone the vision found in the countries like Japan, with a legal system that has borrowed heavily from continental European law traditions. So, once again, bilateral cooperation may come up against a trade-off between American leadership and a new multilateralism.

One response to “Multilateralism and Australia and Japan as America’s deputies”

  1. We live in a very dynamic and diverse world. On one hand, there is so much progress in globalisation and economic integration. On the other hand there seem so many and endless protesters who wish to stop such inevitable trends whenever there are gatherings of international organisations such as IMF and World Bank.

    Free trade as an economic thinking has existed for a long time. There is enormous progress in international trade and capital flows. International institutions governing trade evolved from GATT to WTO, with a number of trade agreements or rounds concluded and new round progressing. Yet, there are still powerful voices and forces aiming at creating further trade barriers to restrict trade and capital flows, especially at times of more economic turbulences.

    Yet the world has been moving on, in its own and inevitable direction of globalisation and integration, irrespective what any particular persons think or do, whether anyone moves along with it or not. Yes, there have been twists and turns in the course to march forward, such as the current financial crisis and the great recession. They may slow but will not stop the general progress.

    The world has changed a lot from a century ago, since the end of WWII, even since twenty or even ten years ago. It changes with so strong driving forces, so rapid speed and so deep implications that may have surprised some. Most of all, very few of us, for example, had anticipated that the USSR could suddenly collapse at such a frightening velocity. Some changes, such as the collapse of the USSR resulted in some regional pains. After a while, everyone has been better off. Even events, as painful to some as that, have deep implications for people to ponder, think and analyse. Different people may, however, derive different conclusions from common events.

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