Asia's Regional Architecture
Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century
Andrew Yeo



Asia’s Regional Architecture

A Historical-Institutional Perspective

On the night of November 8, 2016, most Americans anxiously awaited the results of the US presidential election as the media reported incoming electoral votes from each state. Contradicting virtually every national opinion poll, in an unexpected twist, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump pulled ahead of his Democratic rival, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, to become president of the United States.

The 2016 election results not only caught the American people by surprise, raising questions about future policies under a Trump administration, but also left foreign governments wondering what implications a Trump presidency might have on global order and regional governance. This was particularly true in Asia, where the United States had cultivated long-standing alliance partnerships with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. In addition to bilateral alliances, for eight years, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had also promoted greater multilateralism in the region as a major diplomatic component of his administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Allies, strategic partners, and rival competitors of the United States anticipated that the pivot would continue, albeit under a Clinton presidency. After all, it was Clinton, as secretary of state, who advocated, and ultimately implemented the strategic rebalance to Asia.

Rather than reinforce Asia’s existing institutional order underpinned by a growing network of bilateral and multilateral ties, President Trump instead has questioned long-standing US alliances. During his campaign, Trump labeled close allies such as Japan and South Korea as free riders and threatened to withdraw US forces from host countries unless they increased their share of the burden in the alliance. Additionally, key players on Trump’s foreign policy team have treated multilateral institutions with disdain, leaving questions about the administration’s attitude toward a large number of multilateral forums, dialogues, and institutions operating in Asia and elsewhere. On the economic front, Trump made good on one of his campaign pledges shortly after his inauguration by withdrawing US participation from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral free-trade agreement involving eleven other countries in the Pacific region. The uncertainty of US leadership in Asia, coupled with China’s regional ambitions and unresolved historical and political tensions in East Asia, have led to looming questions, if not anxiety, about the future of Asia’s regional order.

A book about Asia’s regional architecture, the durability of bilateral alliances, and the rise of multilateral institutions would have resonated well under a US administration with a more traditional liberal internationalist outlook. Ironically, however, the rise of Trump and, more significantly, broader concerns about the potential retreat of the liberal international (and institutional) order in the wake of populist movements around the globe have made this book much more urgent and timely. Those who are worried about the future direction of US policy in Asia may even be reassured by this book’s central argument: that institutions are often more powerful and resilient than the whims of any individual leader. Such a statement by no means marginalizes the importance of influential world leaders, including the US president. However, individual choice and agency are framed within a larger temporal and historical context, making it difficult for new actors to reverse existing ideas and institutions which continue to represent the core interests and values of states. Thus, in contrast to the inconsistent signals regarding Asia policy from the Trump administration, Asia’s regional architecture should reflect greater stability and continuity than perhaps recent political commentators have assumed.

Continuity and stability, however, should not be mistaken for certainty, particularly in a region riddled with contradictions as Asia. For instance, in a short op-ed on the future of Asia, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas claimed that two “very different Asian centuries” loomed ahead.1 The first future promises robust levels of growth and the avoidance of conflict with neighbors. For more than twenty years, regional optimists have pointed to signs of growing East Asian cooperation supported by data on intraregional trends in trade, finance, production network flows, travel, and pop-culture diffusion.2 The rise of an East Asian political community, though moving in fits and starts, has been in the making since the end of the Cold War.

The second future, in contrast, reveals an Asia rife with mistrust, nationalist passions, and spiraling arms races. Regional pessimists have highlighted historical antagonism, increasing nationalism, uneven power balances, and weak institutions as signs of greater fragmentation and troubled times for the region.

Of course, these two different caricatures of Asia, though falling on different ends of the spectrum, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Both can be valid depending on which factors and theoretical perspective one wishes to highlight. Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, though, the future of Asian regional order—that is, the patterns of interaction between state actors—requires thinking more seriously about Asia’s regional architecture—the overarching institutional framework(s) that provide actors with governance structures that help shape order. While power and identity matter greatly in Asian international relations, the focus of this book is on institutions. The international relations literature defines institutions broadly as a durable set of rules and practices that shape expectations, interests, and behavior.3 In keeping with more common usage of the term, however, I follow a definition offered by practitioners that treat institutions as “arrangements and organizations, ranging from ad hoc and informal forums that lack an organizational core to formal standing bodies that serve a particular purpose.”4

This book is about the evolution of Asia’s regional architecture. Adopting a historical institutional framework, it explores the layering of US bilateral alliances and multilateral institutions from the post–World War II period (henceforth postwar) to the present, subsequently leading to the complex patchwork regional architecture that exists today. The scope of my argument primarily covers East Asia, with an emphasis on security and economic relations.5 However, countries included in the broader Asia-Pacific, such as Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand, are also discussed.

While international relations scholars and Asian experts have given much attention to topics such as China’s rise, the US strategic rebalance to Asia, and East Asian economic integration in recent years, something remarkable has occurred with little fanfare in the past twenty-five years. Considered severely underinstitutionalized at the end of the Cold War, Asia’s regional architecture is now characterized by a hodgepodge of overlapping bilateral, trilateral, mini-lateral, and multilateral institutions.6 How did this happen? Why should we care? And what does this mean for regional order and governance in the “Pacific century”?

At stake are questions of change and continuity in the region and whether efforts at institutional design actually matter for regional order. For regional optimists, particularly constructivist scholars and Asian policy makers who have rallied behind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) mode of institution building, the answer is resoundingly yes. An emerging multilateral regional architecture is both an enabler and a measureable outcome of a growing East Asian community. Yet as ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea attest, growing economic interdependence and multilateral efforts have not necessarily led to more peace in the region.

Despite the weakness of regional institutions, the demand for new ones continues to grow. Even realist policy makers, while not placing much faith in multilateral institutions, continue to promote bilateral alliances and other intra-alliance networks (e.g., Australia and Japan; US, Japan, and South Korea) as a means of ensuring national security and regional stability. Whether through bilateralism or multilateralism, then, scholars and policy makers generally agree that institutional structures shape how state actors organize and respond to security and economic challenges. How the regional architecture unfolds, therefore, matters greatly for Asia’s future.

The literature on Asia’s regional architecture tends to produce a dichotomy between bilateralism and multilateralism in Asia.7 Fortunately, more scholars today recognize the two institutional frameworks as complementary rather than contradictory. The more relevant question is the interplay of bilateral and multilateral institutions and the ways old and new institutions are layered and integrated. This layered pattern of regional architecture has also attracted significant attention from experts studying other regions of the world. Europe, Latin America, and Africa have also experienced institutional overlap and increasing regime complexity (i.e., the presence of several overlapping or nested institutions that address a particular issue) in their respective regional architectures.8 Whether regime complexity helps actors surmount traditional power politics and promote regional governance is therefore a question not only for Asia but also a larger comparative one.

The Argument in Brief

How do we explain the evolution of Asia’s regional architecture? Stated differently, how do we explain the robustness of US bilateral alliances with the rapid proliferation of multilateral institutions in the region? Social scientists, especially international relations scholars, tend to look first at the external environment for clues to change: shifts in the distribution of power, an increase or decrease in external threats, a rise in economic interdependence. What I propose, however, is a theory that takes into account endogenous change and continuity. Why? Because the evolution of Asia’s regional architecture is not just a story of change derived from external sources or exogenous shocks, although they, too, play an important role. The word evolution suggests slow-moving, gradual change, which in turn implies not only processes of change, but continuity as well. Asia’s regional architecture has undergone significant change over the past few decades. However, several institutional features remain intact from the Cold War.

To understand the evolution of Asia’s regional architecture, we must therefore account for both change and continuity. To do this, I adopt insights from a strand of research in the social sciences known as historical institutionalism. Historical institutionalism is “a research tradition that examines how temporal processes and events influence the origin and transformation of institutions that govern political and economic relations.”9 For historical institutionalists, the timing and sequence of events are fundamental to institutional outcomes, as later events are conditioned by prior ones. This is in contrast to strict rationalist approaches that consider institutions to be largely the product of actors’ interests and preferences at present.10 According to historical institutionalists, choices made earlier in time generate self-reinforcing mechanisms that make it increasingly difficult for decision makers to diverge from a particular institutional path. Over time, actors adapt their behavior in ways that both reflect and reinforce preexisting institutional arrangements.11

In the context of Asia, postwar US planners initially chose to build bilateral alliances to contain the spread of communism and maximize control over Asian allies.12 Reinforced by domestic institutions and deep-seated beliefs about national security, bilateral alliances between the United States and Asia-Pacific countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia became entrenched over time. Political leaders adapted to the hub-and-spokes system. They relied on bilateral ties for regional stability and security, thus making it harder to simply do away with bilateralism.

How do we explain change if bilateral alliances create self-reinforcing mechanisms that are difficult to overturn? External shocks such as war or financial crises are useful in describing periods of rapid institutional change. But as my research suggests, in post–Cold War Asia, both exogenous and endogenous processes facilitated institutional change. Although some actors may seek novel institutional arrangements to address new economic or security realities, they often lack the support or political power to replace existing institutions, which continue to provide positive returns. What ensues, then, is a process of institutional layering in which new institutions are built on top of existing ones.13

The hypothesis I examine suggests that the emerging institutional architecture in Asia is shaped by this layering process. Political elites in Asia, particularly those tied to the hub-and-spokes system (e.g., Philippines, Japan, South Korea), continue to rely on formal security ties to the United States. Given sunk costs, shared values, and the embedded nature of the US alliance in domestic national security structures, these elites are often reluctant or unwilling to supplant existing alliances with multilateral institutions. Instead, new multilateral arrangements, often weak and informal, are created on top of existing institutions. This process of institutional layering has led to the formation of several informal institutions and multilateral organizations overlapping or working in conjunction with bilateral alliances. Rather than replacing bilateral alliances, multilateral arrangements such as the ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit, Shangri-La Dialogue, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation have developed on top of or in conjunction with bilateralism. The outcome is akin to what Victor Cha and others have referred to as a complex patchwork: a regional architecture characterized by a variety of institutional arrangements including bilateral alliances, trilateral relationships, mini-lateral meetings, and multilateral forums.14

What does this argument add to our understanding of Asia and international relations more broadly, especially if others have observed similar patterns of overlapping institutions in Asia?15 Although others have described Asia’s changing institutional landscape from a functional, cultural, political economic, or geopolitical perspective,16 none of the existing theoretical arguments satisfactorily addresses “the challenge of explaining both change and continuity” within the regional architecture.17 Questions regarding the long-term development of Asia’s institutional architecture thus move us away from using conventional international relations paradigms and toward historical institutional analysis to understand change and continuity. Historical institutionalism is particularly well suited for examining “a high level of institutional continuity combined with a significant degree of institutional change,” or what Rixen and Viola refer to as the “dual empirical puzzle of institutional resilience and transformation.”18 In particular, this book pays attention to endogenous processes of change in Asia’s regional architecture. As Streeck and Thelen aptly state, rather than looking for “big changes in response to big shock, it is incremental change with [long-term] transformative results” that matters most.19


1. Richard Haas, “Which Asian Century?” Project Syndicate, October 28, 2013,

2. Kent E. Calder and Min Ye, The Making of Northeast Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); T. J. Pempel, Remapping East Asia: The Construction of a Region (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Peter J. Katzenstein and Takashi Shiraishi, Network Power: Japan and Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Ellen L. Frost, Asia’s New Regionalism (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008).

3. Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 8; Lisa Martin and Beth Simmons, “Theories and Empirical Studies of International Institutions,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 729–58.

4. Asian Development Bank, Institutions for Regional Integration Toward an Asian Economic Community (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2010), 5.

5. East Asia here is defined as including Northeast Asia (primarily China, Japan, and Korea) and the ten Southeast Asian countries. In the first two decades after the Cold War, much of the debate over Asian regionalism and Asian institution building centered on East Asia, thus justifying my bias toward this particular area of Asia. More recently, however, South and Central Asia have taken on greater significance in discussions regarding Asian regional architecture, a point I turn to in Chapter 6. Except when referring to East Asia proper, I generally stick to the term Asia rather than East Asia to indicate the broader application of the historical institutional framework to the region. Admittedly, readers may find some analytical slippage in my use of Asia given the empirical bias toward East Asia. Then again, Asia itself is a fuzzy construct. For further discussion on the concept of a region, see Peter J. Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 10; Amitav Acharya, “The Idea of Asia,” Asia Policy 9, no. 1 (2010): 32–39.

6. Mini-laterals are diplomatic forums addressing a specific topic with a limited number of participants.

7. The reasons for analytically separating bilateralism and multilateralism go beyond the obvious structural differences. Currently, a disjuncture exists between advocates of Asian regionalism who highlight political economic trends and analysts who observe competition for power and rivalries in Asia. For exceptions, however, see Avery Goldstein and Edward D. Mansfield, The Nexus of Economics, Security, and International Relations in East Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); T. J. Pempel, The Economy-Security Nexus in Northeast Asia (New York: Routledge, 2012).

8. Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, “The Politics of International Regime Complexity,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 01 (2009): 13–24; Stephanie Hofmann, “Overlapping Institutions in the Realm of International Security: The Case of NATO and ESDP,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 1 (2009); Detlef Nolte, “Costs and Benefits of Overlapping Regional Organizations in Latin America: The Case of the OAS and UNASUR,” Latin American Politics and Society 60, no. 1 (2018): 128–53; Katharina Coleman, “Innovations in ‘African Solutions to African Problems’: The Evolving Practice of Regional Peacekeeping in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies 49, no. 4 (2011): 517–45.

9. Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia G. Falleti, and Adam Sheingate, The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.

10. Kathleen Thelen, “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999): 369–404; James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

11. Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

12. Victor D. Cha, “Powerplay: Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia,” International Security 34, no. 3 (2009): 158–96.

13. Eric Schickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

14. Victor Cha, “Complex Patchworks: U.S. Alliances as Part of Asia’s Regional Architecture,” Asia Policy 11, no. 1 (2011): 28.

15. See, for instance, T. J. Pempel, “Soft Balancing, Hedging, and Institutional Darwinism: The Economic-Security Nexus and East Asian Regionalism.” Journal of East Asian Studies 10, no. 2 (2010): 209–38; Saadia Pekkanen, Asian Designs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Cha, Complex Patchworks; Ralf Emmers, ASEAN and the Institutionalization of East Asia (New York: Routledge, 2013).

16. For a functional perspective, see Haggard, “The Organizational Architecture of the Asia-Pacific: Insights from the New Institutionalism,” in Integrating Regions: Asia in Comparative Context, ed. Miles Kahler and Andrew J. MacIntyre (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 199–221. For a cultural perspective, see Ba, (Re)Negotiating East and Southeast Asia. For a political economic perspective, see Calder and Yi, Making of Northeast Asia. For a geopolitical perspective, see Frost, “Rival Regionalisms and Regional Order.”

17. Thomas Rixen and Lora Anne Viola, “Historical Institutionalism and International Relations: Towards Explaining Change and Stability in International Institutions,” in Historical Institutionalism and International Relations Explaining Institutional Development in World Politics, ed. Thomas Rixen, Lora Anne Viola, and Michael Zürn, 3–34 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 8.

18. Rixen and Viola, “Historical Institutionalism and International Relations,” 4.

19. Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelen, Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5.