Minilaterals and their impact on Indo-Pacific security

The Indo-Pacific has emerged as a new regional construct and a theatre for a thriving activity of regional grouping, mainly through minilaterals. Concerns about security in this region—motivated by the need for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific—have resulted in the creation of minilaterals, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the India-France-Australia trilateral and the India-Japan-Australia trilateral, to name a few. Since their inception, most dialogues have taken place at the level of senior officials. March 12, 2021, however, saw the first virtual meeting of the leaders of Quad countries—which elevated the discussion to heads of states. Apart from discussing the need to maintain a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy and anchored by democratic values, the Quad also sought to discuss new areas for cooperation in vaccine distribution, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies.

Concerns surrounding security have been one of the primary reasons which have driven the creation of minilaterals in the region. The rise of China as a significant political, economic and military power is treated with anxiety, and its flagship project—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—is seen as a means to consolidate Beijing’s geopolitical reach. Closely associated with this is the domain of maritime security, and the need to maintain the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and overflight in the Indo-Pacific—which is viewed in conjunction with Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea. A third, and more troublesome security issue, is the development of emerging technologies—such as 5G—which will underpin critical national infrastructure and hence, require robust supply chain security that is free from foreign influence and foreign intrusion.

The new emerging architecture

Minilaterals are steadily appearing to be the “go to” method for forging new, fluid partnerships to enhance regional security cooperation on these issues. While there is no agreed definition of minilaterals, they have certain characteristics distinguishing them from multilaterals. They are ad hoc, voluntary, issue-specific, and often without a formal institutional architecture. They are informal initiatives intended to address a specific threat through shared interests within a finite period of time.

In the Indo-Pacific, minilaterals have been instrumental in providing a platform for like-minded countries to converge on shared concerns and interests. It provides an avenue for the United States to extend its role over security cooperation in the region, and maintain a “favourable balance of power”. Through its participation, India can also serve its role as a balancing power to China, while Australia can squarely occupy a central position in the Indo-Pacific—which it has described as an area of “real strategic interest”.

More interestingly, the rise of minilaterals can be associated with stagnation of reforms and the perceived inability of multilateral organisations to successfully achieve security cooperation in the region. In 2009, Moises Naim famously said that multilateral initiatives have failed, since talks have stalled, deadlines have been missed and commitments are no longer honoured—and that one can have the “smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem”. The frustration with multilateralism has emerged, since it has failed to fulfill the objectives they set out to achieve—be it the maintenance of international peace and security through the UN, or the next round of trade negotiations within the World Trade Organization.

Geopolitical drivers and risks

Minilaterals appear to be a method of strong political signalling from member countries that have viewed China’s rise—and the security threats associated with it—with increasing trepidation. However, a key question regarding the efficacy of minilaterals is how far they would be able to achieve security cooperation, when majority of the countries within the geographical construct of the Indo-Pacific are outside these exclusive groupings. Members might be able to achieve results inter se. However, other forums—such as ASEAN—have been reluctant to show an inclination towards embracing this regional construct. For instance, the emphasis on the promotion and protection of democratic values—in a region that has governments with diverse regime types—may be treated with suspicion by other countries of the Indo-Pacific. As such, as a geographical and political concept, the Indo-Pacific is a popular concept among India, Australia, US and Japan—but not outside it, and is primarily seen as a way to respond to China’s rise in the immediate neighbourhood. This, in itself, may make major power rivalries more acute in the region, with China leading one side—through the BRI and institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—and the United States and the West leading the other—through minilaterals and military alliances.

Another factor that can frustrate the achievement of results, is the creation of a patchwork quilt of minilaterals in the region. Issue-specific partnerships can help with focusing energies on shared interests and security concerns. Members have the option of engaging with different countries over separate frameworks, to coordinate policy approaches. At the same time, proliferation of minilaterals can also lead to a disjointed approach towards policy and strategy in a common geographic region. Too many frameworks can lead to fragmentation of action and dilute outcomes which may, in turn, weaken security cooperation. An important note for policy makers would be to view minilaterals as a way to fill gaps in multilateral frameworks and supplement their activities.

Another concern is that voluntary, non-binding and consensus-based minilaterals may not be as effective in shaping state policy, interests and behaviour. Multilateral and regional organisations, with legally binding frameworks and through their independent bureaucracies, can help shape state behaviour, by applying both incentives and constraints. The European Union (EU) represents a unique example of a supranational actor that functions as a regional organisation, committed to multilateral solutions and collective action. It has not only helped coordinate political, economic and strategic relations of member countries, and but has also helped consolidate the geographical identity of the region. While the EU has struggled with the inability to act collectively or effectively due to structural issues, this in no way undermines the fact that it has been one of the most successful experiments in regional organisations. In contrast the “ASEAN Way”—the term for the forum’s distinctive diplomatic style that guards sovereignty—has been limited by its ability to influence the behaviour and policies of its members. This is why several security concerns, such as the question of Taiwan and tensions in the South China Sea, continue to remain unresolved.

The Indo-Pacific—and the Asia Pacific, more generally—suffers from an institutional deficiency, where extant frameworks such as the ASEAN Region Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) have been criticised for merely being “talk shops” making lofty promises with no significant results. Formal institutions have not had much success in Asia, due to differences in geography and regime types, divergent threat perceptions, and lack of intra-regional trade. On this note, it has also been argued that the Indo-Pacific regional conceptualisation is utilised by the Quad countries to address the deficiencies in Asia’s maritime security and institutional architecture.

On the other hand, ad hoc institutions can help establish consultations, transparency and a degree of familiarity and trust. However, given how loose frameworks may struggle to achieve concrete outcomes, the litmus test for minilaterals would be the ability to foster actual cooperation, overcome the challenges posed by ad hoc mechanisms, to achieve measurable and concrete outcomes.

Measuring success

Since Indo-Pacific security forms the basis of minilaterals, an important metric for their success is their long-term impact over strategic concerns in the region. Elevating groupings like the Quad, to the level of leaders will be useful in developing cohesive strategies and enhancing cooperation between different levels of the government on security issues. If members are committed to security cooperation through actionable policies coupled with monitoring mechanisms, minilaterals may well be crucial in shaping the future of Indo-Pacific security.     

There is an emerging divide between groupings exclusively led by China and those led by the United States and Western countries. Minilaterals can aggravate these divisions and lead to the creation of mutually exclusive power blocs, which can escalate great power competition and diminish possibilities of great power cooperation

However, there are two drawbacks to solely focusing on minilaterals as the only means for security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. As mentioned previously, there is an emerging divide between groupings exclusively led by China and those led by the United States and Western countries. Minilaterals can aggravate these divisions and lead to the creation of mutually exclusive power blocs, which can escalate great power competition and diminish possibilities of great power cooperation. The Quad’s military cooperation mechanisms, like the Malabar naval exercises, have been termed as an Asian NATO—a development that China has condemned as the “Cold War mentality” of a few countries. This, compounded by the fact that the exclusive groupings within minilaterals do not comprise of other countries in the Indo-Pacific, can further destabilise security in the region.

As such, will minilaterals be conducive to promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” if they broaden the rifts between great powers and lead to confrontation between different blocs?  The answer to this—in the next few decades—would depend heavily upon how minilaterals engage with actors outside their groupings. Deepening engagement with relevant forums—like ASEAN—and other Indo-Pacific countries on military training, standards setting and naval cooperation to address threats of common concern like piracy can be an important way forward. While minilateral dialogues can be used to frame action plans, developing a modus vivendi for inclusive engagement will also be crucial in building trust, confidence and eventually strengthening security cooperation with other Indo-Pacific countries.

Approaching the Indo-Pacific regional construct beyond the US-China dynamic is another way to mitigate the impact of great power rivalries in the region. As a start, focusing on “soft” security issues, such as disaster management, climate change, trade and health, can broaden engagement beyond the US-China binary and help frame the foundation of a more secure and stable Indo-Pacific.

The long-term significance of the Indo-Pacific and security cooperation in the region depends on moving beyond purely rhetorical and visionary statements to making an actual impact. Minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific will also need to take into account the impact of China’s own network of more institutionalised economic frameworks, such as the BRI, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the AIIB. Within minilaterals, leadership and political will are critical in steering members towards achieving measurable outcomes. However, a true impact on Indo-Pacific security will only be achieved if minilaterals engage with other countries in the region, supplement efforts of existing institutions, and serve as a precursor to more robust security cooperation frameworks. This would grant a higher degree of professionalism and legitimacy to minilaterals in the neighbourhood, and help tackle the most burning security concerns facing the Indo-Pacific today.

This article is published as part of a series of analyses that considers the key trend lines with the in region which see the regional order, critical technology and geoeconomics as arenas of competition and tools for strategic influence, and how they will influence regional security over coming decades.

It is published with support from the Japanese Embassy in Australia. The ANU National Security College is independent in its activities, research and editorial judgment and does not take institutional positions on policy issues. Accordingly, the author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this publication, which should not be taken as reflecting the views of any government or organisation.