The Elephant in the Room: Is the Emerging Third Pillar Reshaping Asian Architecture and Regional Responses? - CWP Alumni Kuik Cheng Chwee

Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017
by dsuchens

There was an elephant in the room at the recently concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila as well as at the East Asia Summit (EAS) and other ASEAN-based meetings in Kuala Lumpur last month: the quiet, potential sway of China-centered initiatives and arrangements on the future of Asian architecture, amid the increasing great power rivalry in the South China Sea. APEC and EAS, of course, are not led by China. Since their creation in 1989 and 2005, these institutions have been, respectively, dominated by the United States and its Asian partners and led by the member countries of ASEAN. However, there are signs that Beijing’s various recent proposals, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the “Belt and Road” initiative (Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road), and a host of region-wide platforms, are slowly reshaping not only the extant regional forums but also the broader institutional dynamics of the evolving Asian economic and security architecture in the twenty-first century.


National Commentaries The first signs started to appear in 2015, especially after Great Britain, other European countries, and many Asian states (including US allies Australia and South Korea) joined the AIIB as the founding members of what is poised to be a key financial institution in Asia. Fueling the trajectory were the establishment of offshore RMB clearing centers in a string of critical corners around the globe, the signing of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea and Australia, the growing membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as the increasing numbers of participating countries at the Beijing-backed Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia and the Beijing-led Xiang-shan Forum (designed to rival the US-backed Shangri-La Dialogue as a Track 1.5 defense forum in Asia). The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) decision in early December to include the RMB in its Special Drawing Rights basket, which made the yuan the fifth international reserve currency, is expected to further increase Beijing’s clout beyond its immediate periphery. The Beijing-initiated proposals and arrangements under Xi Jinping can best be described as “an emerging third pillar” in Asian regional architecture. While still in its nascent stage, this new pillar is progressively evolving into a chain of institutionalized cooperative arrangements among Asian countries and beyond. The arrangements evolve side-by-side with the existing pillars of the post-Cold War Asia-Pacific architecture, namely the US-led bilateral alliances and the ASEAN-based regional multilateralism. The notion of the “third” pillar does not imply that it is the least significant pillar. Rather, it is the third in terms of sequence of formation. The first pillar can be traced back to the 1950s, while the second pillar has been in place following the creation of the ASEAN-plus forums one after another in the 1993-2010 period. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was created in 1993/1994, the ASEAN Plus Three1 (APT) in 1997, the EAS in 2005, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in 2010.

Neither does the notion suggest that China’s regional activism is new. Beijing has since 2000 spearheaded a number of regional initiatives, such as the China-ASEAN FTA, the ARF Security Policy Conference, and several sub-regional economic proposals (e.g. Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation). It has also actively supported key regional mechanisms like the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI, 2000) and the CMI Multilateralization (CMIM, 2010). Nonetheless, its earlier regional activism (with the exception of the SCO and the Six-Party Talks) mostly took place within the second pillar, i.e. the ASEAN-centered platforms. Xi’s regional initiatives, by contrast, have been promoted primarily outside of the ASEAN-based framework, even though China has continued to take part in all of the ASEAN-centered institutions, as evidenced by its active participation in the series of regional meetings in Kuala Lumpur the past few months. What exactly does this emerging third pillar mean for Asia? Whether, and if yes, in what way is it shaping the regional architecture, through what processes, and at what levels? To what extent have the changing dynamics thus far prompted ASEAN states to recalibrate their strategies? More specifically, does the recent conclusion of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (of which China is not a member), negotiations—along with the concurrent strengthening of US defense ties with its allies and partners under Obama’s rebalancing strategy—mark the consolidation of the US-led first pillar? Does the lack of concrete progress in the China-backed 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (in which the United States is not included) negotiations—as well as the lack of clear support for Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road initiative at the regional level—mark a setback for China-centered regional arrangements, as suggested by some media analyses? Finally, does ASEAN’s decision not to issue a joint declaration at the recent 3rd ADMM Plus mark a failure of ASEAN cohesion and centrality as the second pillar amid the growing power rivalry? I offer a preliminary analysis on the above issues. I contend that the key to evaluating the progress and prospects of the Asian architecture should not be confined to the temporal status of one or two arrangements at any diplomatic forums, but also longer-term trajectory and evolving institutional dynamics at the macro level, in order to better make sense of the changing patterns on the ground that may have an impact on Asian states’ policy choices. Reshaping the Institutional Dynamics of Asian Architecture Regional architecture is defined here as the embodiment of all institutionalized region-wide arrangements—including alliances, institutions, and networks of bilateral and sub-regional development clusters—that are underpinned by sets of organizing principles and the power structure at the macro level, upon which regional countries seek to pursue cooperation and manage conflict in a pattern. Based on this conception, I argue that the China-backed initiatives and platforms are re-shaping Asian regional architecture in at least two aspects: the evolving institution-alfabric and the power foundation of Asian architecture.

The Elephant in the Room: Is the Emerging Third Pillar Reshaping Asian Architecture and Regional Responses? (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Apr 25, 2017].


December 18,2015 National Commentaries

The Malaysian POV: The Elephant in the Room – Is the Emerging Third Pillar

Reshaping Asian Architecture and Regional Responses?

The Elephant in the Room: Is the Emerging Third Pillar Reshaping Asian Architecture and Regional Responses? (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Apr 25, 2017].