Opinion article

Global governance and the Asia Pacific region: from the margins to the centre

Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, analyses the current situation of global governance in the Asia Pacific region as well as an outlook for the future.

It is fair to say that Asia has been underrepresented in and sometimes ignored by the institutions of global governance even as the economic centre of gravity has shifted to this region.[i] This is not for lack of wicked problems in this rapidly urbanising region that require collective action to remedy on climate impacts, health pandemics, trafficking, and infrastructure gaps. The impact of repression, terrorism, armed conflict, and its aftermath­­ do not capture global attention like the Middle East but are intense nonetheless — including North Korea, simmering tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, border tension between China and India, and ongoing tension between China and Japan.[ii] 
Asia has also been a site of quiet, consensus-driven but successful governance in managing interstate conflict, uniting to decolonise and stay out of the orbit of Great Powers, creating financial stability and reducing extreme poverty. Extreme poverty in East Asia and the Pacific reduced from 58 per cent in 1990 to four per cent in 2015.[iii]  
The capacity for Asian governance to deal with these issues will be in the spotlight as the November ‘Summit Season’ begins. World leaders, including President Trump on his first major visit to the region, are scheduled to attend three Asian multilateral summits in November. In order, these are the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Vietnam 6-11 November; the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippines 10-14 November; and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines 13-14 November.

ASEAN is celebrating 50 years and moving to deeper levels of economic and trade integration. Australia was made a dialogue partner in 1974 and agreed to a Strategic Partnership in 2014. Sydney will be the host city for the upcoming ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March 2018.

APEC, 29 years in the making, includes Mexico, Chile and Canada; and has created a visa regime and significant business involvement in its processes. The East Asia Summit (EAS) is a regional leaders' forum extended by ASEAN in 2005 and then again 2011 to key actors. Membership of the EAS comprises the 10 ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Russia. Australia participated, as a founding member, in the inaugural EAS held in Kuala Lumpur on 14 December 2005. Australia has observer status with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Australia and Asian governance
Australian foreign policy is in a period of contestation as to the best strategy for engagement with Asia and the key governance bodies of the region. This debate will culminate in the release of the Foreign Policy White Paper later this year.[iv]
Some of the policy differences, as described in recent headland speeches by Shadow Minister Penny Wong, go towards whether Australia’s relationships with Asia are too ‘transactional’, lack a narrative and not geared towards deeper and entwined regional relationships where Australia gains acceptance as truly part of the region.[v]
On 29 September this year, Federal Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, outlined the Labor “FutureAsia” manifesto, purporting to provide “a framework for deeper and more meaningful collaboration with Australia’s Asian neighbours, both at an economic and cultural level”.[vi]  It would revive the Asian Century report and strengthen Asian literacy in Australia and support diaspora communities, with an annual report to Parliament by the Treasurer.
The governance reforms recommended are modest and include:
  • Meetings between Asia Pacific Finance Ministers in advance of each G20 Finance Ministers meetings; and
  • Establish annual meetings between Australian and Indonesian governments between finance and trade ministers.
There is considerable bipartisanship in this area of foreign policy. The Coalition rejected the Australia in the Asian Century report in 2013,[vii] but kept the ASEAN Ambassador,[viii] and maintained a priority interest on ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and the bilateral relationships with China, Japan and Indonesia. The Coalition has focused on economic diplomacy, and pursued free trade agreements with many Asian countries under the Coalition, at present focusing on India. At the same time, Australia has reduced its official development assistance to the Asian region as part of dramatic overall cuts.

Governance futures

Australia has yet to develop a clear strategy on how it will deal with Asian emerging economies asking for more representation and voice in global institutions and in the United Nations.[ix]  It is also unclear how we should treat the creation of parallel institutions when these efforts are stymied, such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Silk Road Fund, and so on.
For example, Australia has so far declined China’s offer to formally link the Northern Australia Project to One Belt One Road but are still considering. We joined the AIIB late in the game.[x] There is no consensus on whether Australia should start the long campaign to become an observer member of ASEAN.  Unlike the Asian gradualism we are used to, the region is changing rapidly in terms of its ambition to lead and become rule-makers rather than rule-takers, and Australian ambivalence may not be construed as support for a larger global role for our neighbours. 
These issues have extra urgency with the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) since the US withdrawal. The TPP sought to isolate China. This means the ASEAN centred proposal of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) takes centre stage. RCEP consists of ASEAN and those countries which have existing FTAs with ASEAN — Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand. RCEP will cover a population of 3.4 billion people – more than half coming from India and China — with a total gross domestic product of $49.5 trillion or about 39 per cent of the world’s GDP. And yet there is almost no public debate or scrutiny of RCEP at all in Australian communities and general media.
Australia needs some serious strategy around the future directions of Asian governance and our contribution. The White Paper could be a focus for a more accessible public debate about shared Asian futures and our place in this part of the world.    

Read CEDA's research report, Australia's place in the world.

[i] Mahbubani, K. and Chesterman, S. "Asia's Role in Global Governance: World Economic Forum Global Redesign Initiative - Singapore Hearing" (2010). New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers, p 175. 
[ii] Harris Rimmer, S. “War, conflict, economic strife: the world in 2017 is rife with hot spots, but leavened by hope.” The Conversation, 28 February 2017. 
[iii]The World Bank, Poverty, World Bank Issue Paper, September 2008. 
[iv] Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Foreign Policy White Paper website. 
[v] Wong, P. “Looking forward — looking back: Australia and the Asian Century”. Address to the Australia 360 Conference, Canberra, 8 August 2017. 
[vi] Bowen, C. “The case for engagement with Asia,” 29 September 2017. 
[vii] Beeson, M. “Is this the end of the ‘Asian Century’?” The Conversation, 29 October 2013. 
[viii] Since October 2013, Australia has had a resident ambassador accredited to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
[ix] Deepak, BR. “India, China and the future of global governance.” The Diplomat, 1 September 2016. 
[x] Harris Rimmer, S. “Why Australia took so long to join the AIIB,” The Interpreter, 30 March 2015. 
About the authors

Susan Harris Rimmer

See all articles
Susan Harris Rimmer is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor at Griffith University Law School. She is author of Gender and Transitional Justice (Routledge 2010) and over 40 refereed works on women’s rights and international law. Susan was Australia’s representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2014, and the W20 (gender equity advice to the G20) in Turkey 2014, China 2016, and Germany 2017. She is a National Board member of the International Women’s Development Agency. Sue was named in the Apolitical list of Top 100 Global Experts in Gender Policy in May 2018.