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Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century

Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century by Andrew Yeo. Stanford University Press, 2019, 244 pp.

Asia’s Regional Architecture adopts a historical-institutional framework to explore the evolution of Asia’s organizational structure from 1989 to 2019, particularly in East Asia. The book argues that processes of continuity and change have occurred simultaneously, transforming an under-institutionalized part of the world into a complex patchwork of overlapping institutions. Drawing an analogy to building design, the author clarifies that “architects” in this context are policy makers and “structures” are institutions (p. 7). Taking the analogy further, the author’s “architecture” refers to the Asian institutional framework that provides “a framework for regional governance” (p. 7). Professor Andrew Yeo earned his PhD in political science from Cornell University and is a professor of political science at The Catholic University of America. His publication arrived as the US increasingly focused on Southeast Asia as a region of high strategic importance.

Professor Yeo’s book immediately makes clear that Asia’s regional architecture is extremely complicated, consisting of “a hodgepodge of overlapping bilateral, trilateral, mini-lateral, and multilateral institutions” (p. 3). To help unravel the tangled web of institutions, the author employs “historical institutionalism,” which examines regional agreements and organizations as they are layered on top of one another over time. Professor Yeo’s hypothesis suggests that “the emerging institutional architecture in Asia is shaped by this layering process” (p. 5). The author believes his publication is timely and unique because arguments from other academics do not adequately address “the challenge of explaining both change and continuity” in the regional architecture (p. 6).

After the book’s initial chapters on the historical-institutional perspective and consensus making in Asia, the remainder of the chapters proceed in chronological year groups from 1989 to 2019. In the early years, East Asian states overwhelmingly favored bilateral agreements over multilateral arrangements to form the regional architecture. This became and remains “the modus operandi for Asia” (p. 25). Of recent concern, the author claims this way of business butted up against President Trump’s calls for a “new mercantilist, nationalist, America-First brand of foreign policy” (p. 150). When President Trump visited several Asian states in November 2017, his priorities were to build international pressure to denuclearize North Korea, pursue “fair and reciprocal trade,” and promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” (p. 150). In short, the Trump administration intended to fully participate in regional forums and multilateral meetings. Ultimately, the actions of the US appear to encourage some degree of continuity in Asia’s regional architecture despite sometimes erratic statements from the Trump administration.

No discussion about Southeast Asian regional affairs is complete without addressing the elephant in the room: China. For several years, scholars and policy makers alike have pondered whether a more powerful, confident China will accept existing institutional arrangements that underpin the current regional order or whether it will “seek to rewrite the rules of the game” (p. 154). Unquestionably, China wants greater influence in the region and seeks to fill a void so that the US and its allies are less present and less engaged (p. 159). But while it is clear that China wields unmatched power and influence in the Asian sphere, it is not clear whether China will seek to influence other states’ institutions or focus more power within its own institutions.

Conceptually, Professor Yeo’s book suffers from very few shortcomings. However, considering the book’s regional focus, it is somewhat surprising that Professor Yeo never formally defines the term “Pacific Century,” especially as the phrase is featured in the book’s title. Possibly, a catchy title was selected early on in the writing process, and over various drafts, the focus of the book shifted to the regional architecture rather than the importance of Indo-Pacific alliances in the twenty-first century. This weakness can be overlooked in light of the book’s detailed content and timeliness.

Asia’s Regional Architecture comes at an extraordinarily important time in US-Asia relations. Perhaps to signify the US commitment to allies in the Indo-Pacific Region, Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga is the first foreign leader to meet in person with Present Biden, visiting him at the White House in April 2021. Even without an exact definition for the term, the “Pacific Century” may well come to define the remainder of this century. The author is convinced that “US bilateral alliances have and will continue to remain a key part of the region’s complex institutional architecture” (p. 172). In this patchwork of institutions, the US must carefully tend to one-on-one relationships with various allies in China’s backyard. The pace of Asian institution building has been frantic at times, particularly from China, suggesting that institutional balancing may be a key motive driving the complex patchwork.

A chief weakness of the book is its lack of proposals for future action. Professor Yeo embraces an academic perspective on institution building in Asia, but without a clear practical application. He could, for example, pose and answer one key question with ramifications for US defense planning. Specifically, as China grows in political and military might in the region, will it increasingly exert its political goals in local institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or perhaps in global institutions like the World Trade Organization? Almost certainly, China will use various instruments of national power, such as its economy and diplomatic channels, to achieve the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Local and regional institutions may bring peace and prosperity, but they may also be used as objects to achieve Chinese ends.

In the midst of an American swivel back to great power competition, US bilateral relations with key allies like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan will become more important. Alliances may come back into fashion, especially as the Biden administration signals a shift away from the Trump administration’s “America First” approach. As China embodies the greatest pacing challenge to the US, policy makers must leverage bilateral agreements in the regional architecture to counter the rise of China and enshrine US interests.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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