Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 21:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 21:54 | SYDNEY

Multilateral or unilateral? Whatever works


Rory Medcalf


14 May 2008 13:42

In response to my post about Asia’s failure to launch a serious multilateral response to Burma’s cyclone crisis, The Interpreter’s editor asks whether I have an intrinsic preference for multilateral or unilateral action on this front. The short answer is: whatever works. If you are a villager in the cyclone-ravaged parts of Burma, still waiting for help almost two weeks since the storm hit, you probably don’t care much about the diplomatic arrangements and acronyms behind the aid that you need: you just want it to arrive.

But more broadly on the question of disaster relief in Southeast Asia, my ideal would indeed be a multilateral arrangement that can rapidly deliver the goods without prompting geopolitical suspicions. Such a mechanism is clearly a remote prospect. At least in the wake of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, there was an effective core group of countries that co-ordinated a relatively speedy international response: the US, Australia, India and Japan. Admittedly, this, and the subsequent and short-lived quadrilateral dialogue among these countries, could be criticised for excluding China and for appearing to coalesce as much around common values as around common interests and capabilities. I would have hoped that the next time a massive natural disaster struck the region, the response would involve a core group based inclusively on capabilities and willingness to help, and that it would include China and at least one ASEAN state. But hope is one thing, and realistic expectation quite another.

In the meantime, my point about the rhetoric of East Asian regional cooperation being far ahead of the reality holds sadly true. While it is mildly reassuring to learn that ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has been hard at work trying to secure access for aid to Burma, it is slightly surreal to see the outcome – getting an ‘ASEAN Emergency Rapid Assessment Team’   into Burma two weeks late – being packaged as a ‘a defining moment for ASEAN’.