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The multilateralism menu: The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

Want a slice of the regional pie? Or to understand the spaghetti strands of national ambition? We’ve just the dish.

What’s your favourite gastronomical metaphor for regional architecture? (romjanaly/Pixabay)
What’s your favourite gastronomical metaphor for regional architecture? (romjanaly/Pixabay)
Published 17 Dec 2021   Follow Teesta_P

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds.

Foreign policy analysts kept up the gastronomical foreign policy metaphors at Lowy Institute events even as our sourdough fatigue set in as the pandemic raged for a second continuous year.

There were notable mentions in the food metaphor catalogue – namely of the lattice work (usually associated with pie crusts) of alliances and partnerships Jake Sullivan mentioned in the 2021 Lowy Lecture. Here the lattice meant the different minilateral and multilateral groupings such as the Quad, AUKUS and Five Eyes that Sullivan said were an “integrated, interoperable and moveable set of alliances and partnerships designed around the 21st century’s security, economic and technology environment”.

My favourite gastronomical metaphor for the Indo-Pacific regional architecture was put forth by Professor Akiko Fukushima at Lowy’s Indo-Pacific Operating Conference of 2021 where she described the current regional architecture as a lasagna in its design due to the multiple layers of regional groupings. This is an important change in food metaphor because pre-2021 the region, specifically the Southeast Asian region, was referred to as a spaghetti bowl due to the overlapping bilateral free trade agreements that often caused fractures in overall regional trading, dividing countries’ trade into different tariff treatments, rules and regulations.

Going to regional lasagna from bilateral spaghetti is a big ask.

With the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018 and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2021, there are signs that the crisscrossing strands may have evolved into a layered and multifaceted trading region.

Turning spaghetti into lasagna signifies that the Indo-Pacific economic infrastructure, particularly in the Southeast and East Asian regions, is now more integrated and less fractured. This has resulted from an increased regional convergence.

A perfectly baked lasagna would eventually mean that we can consolidate all bilateral free trade agreements into a strong regional trading bloc. Going to regional lasagna from bilateral spaghetti is a big ask as we see the geopolitical rivalries between the United States and China continue to grow, which could inhibit regional multilateralism.

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