The paper sets the context for the special issue on ‘Collaborative engagement for sustainability in the Asia-Pacific region’. The relevance and risks of cross-sectoral strategic alliances for sustainable development vary greatly across the region. Potential alliances face unique hurdles given different public challenges, political systems, types of development, forms of civil society and cultural traditions. The four papers in the special issue highlight some key issues that have not been well explored in the current literature, such as the role of collaboration in state-centric societies, the applicability of a tri-sectoral model (of state, business and civil society) in places where ownership and accountability are more complex, and the business rationale for partnering when there is limited consumer, media or civil society demand for voluntary action. In this special edition the papers bring further light to some of these debates. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.