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OECD and Asia: IV
Wednesday, 30 March 2011 05:00

Non-member partnerships with Asia


The OECD has for a long time conducted non-member partnership activities with Asia.  Japan became a member of the OEEC’s Development Assistance Group before joining the OECD.  Korea was a member of the Working Party on Shipbuilding from the late 1980s. 


For much of the Cold War period, the OECD’s relations with Asia were confined to the OECD’s Development Centre (1) which functioned as an “arm’s length window” on the developing world.  Even today, the OECD Development Centre has been recruiting non-OECD countries as members, with India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam joining up.  This only provides a very limited vector of cooperation with the OECD, since major OECD Member countries like the United States, Japan and Australia withdrew from Development Centre membership some time ago.  


In addition to expanding its membership after the Cold War, the OECD also launched major programmes of outreach to non-member countries, in part to prepare them for possible membership, but also to respond to globalization.  For much of the 1990s, these outreach activities concentrated on the former communist countries.  The dynamic economies of Asia and Latin America were a much lower priority.


This reflected the political priority attached to their transition to full fledged democracies and market economies by the former communist countries.  These former communist countries were the “lost sheep” of the North Atlantic community which were prevented from benefiting from the Marshall Plan by the Soviet enemy.  However, by the 2000s decade, China had grown to become the most important outreach partner, as its dynamism continued, and developments in Russia became more problematic. 


In parallel to the 2007 membership opening, OECD ministers agreed to launch a programme of "Enhanced Engagement" with Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, all of which are G20 members.  This programme is aimed at preparing these countries for possible future membership (even if preparation of the non-democratic China’s membership would be a long haul process).  Many valuable studies are undertaken, and conferences and missions organized. 


The split between those countries invited to become members and the Enhanced Engagement group is explained by the fact that all countries in the former group had expressed interest in OECD membership, and were given a positive response, whereas the Enhanced Engagement Group had not expressed an interest in membership (indeed, some of these countries quite clearly do not want to become members of the presently very “North Atlantic OECD”).  In other words, the OECD wants these countries to be members more than they would like to join.    


Thanks to the Enhanced Engagement programme, these five big countries are now involved in most OECD activities, and even sit at the same table as OECD ministers at their annual Ministerial Council Meeting.  In appearances, these countries may seem to be de facto members of the OECD, but in reality they do not take part in its formal decision making, or contribute to its budget.  This Enhanced Engagement Programme has been described by a very senior OECD official as a “one way love affair”, with the three countries having no interest whatsoever in OECD membership, even though they are participating actively in the Organisation. 


A programme was also established with Southeast Asia, which is deemed to be a region of strategic interest to the OECD in light of its growing importance.  The latter programme was essentially the product of political horse-trading by which some non-Europe OECD members like Australia extracted a concession in exchange for agreeing to more European members of the Organisation.


For some years now, the OECD has been involving non-members in its over 40 principal functional committees (like the Environment Policy Committee, Committee on Fiscal Affairs, Investment Committee or the Trade Committee), but Asia is much less present than other regions (2).  China is a regular observer in only two OECD committees, in the areas of science and technology, and fiscal affairs.  India participates in committees for competition policy, consumer policy, health, information technology, science & technology, statistics and steel.  Indonesia only participates in a tax forum and one education group.  Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand each participate in one or two committees.


Since the general opening of the OECD over the past two decades, non-members have been welcome to participate in OECD instruments on the same terms as OECD members.  For example, in addition to the 34 OECD member countries, four non-member countries have signed on to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, namely Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, and South Africa.  This Convention establishes legally binding standards to criminalise bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions and provides for a host of related measures that make this effective.  Similarly, some 8 non-member countries have adhered to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, in particular, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Latvia, Lithuania, Morocco, Peru and Romania.  Asia is conspicuously absent from these lists of non-member countries. 


This non-member participation in OECD activities could be regarded as a form of “strapontin-governance” (3).  In other words, where a non-member economy is very relevant to the Organisation’s work in a subject area, it is invited to participate (that is, sit on a spare folding chair!).  This pragmatism has allowed the OECD to respond flexibly to the Asian-led globalization.  But it is not very attractive to Asian countries for several reasons.  It puts them in the position of “rule takers” whereby they basically have to accept the OECD’s own rules of the game.  In this context, they can also feel like “second-class” citizens.  It most clearly does not provide great encouragement to large Asian countries to find that they are mere observers when very much smaller European countries are full members. 


1.  OECD Development Centre


2.  OECD, On-Line Guide to OECD Intergovernmental Activity (accessed 23 September 2010)


3.  “Strapontin” is a French word for a fold-out seat that is used in theatres and the Paris metro when there is so many people that all the normal seats are full.  When you get up off a strapontin, it folds back suddenly in a rather unwelcoming manner.



Complete Series of Articles


OECD and Asia:I -- World’s Apart in Today’s Globalization


OECD and Asia: Introduction


Asia and the Evolving Logic of OECD Membership


Non-member partnerships with Asia


Why Asia Matters to the OECD


Adapting the OECD to Asian-led globalisation


Asia in the OECD


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