US President Joe Biden’s controversial withdrawal from the Quad leaders’ summit is a reminder that even the mightiest nations face inexorable economic and political constraints.
As countless “minilateral” groupings such as the Quad continue to emerge, and amid calls for those which already exist to expand their remit, Biden’s sudden absence from the meeting that had been scheduled to be held in Sydney next week begs the question: “How much is too much?”
Minilaterals typically involve three to nine countries collaborating to address specific challenges that larger, more inclusive, and often more institutionalised multilateral structures are ill-suited to handle. Unlike their multilateral counterparts, such as the East Asian Summit, minilaterals are task-oriented, exclusive, and more conducive to reaching consensus. Their informal nature also makes them more agile and adaptable.
Minilateralism has quickly become the favoured form of security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The revival of the Quad since 2017 and the establishment of AUKUS in September 2021 exemplify this trend. Likewise, the decision to invite Japan into joint US-Australia force posture initiatives, announced at the AUSMIN meeting last December, gave new life into one of the region’s oldest minilaterals, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.
Often underappreciated is the equally significant growth in minilateralism centred on East Asia. For example, despite its notorious opposition to AUKUS and the Quad, China spearheads several minilaterals, including the so-called Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism. Southeast Asia is also awash with similar-sized groupings, such as the Malacca Strait Patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. And there is no shortage of suggestions for new Southeast Asian-anchored minilateral initiatives either.
But how sustainable is this remarkable rise of minilateral groupings as part of an already crowded regional security architecture, particularly during this era of global economic malaise?
According to a recent Perth USAsia Centre report, Australia already belongs to more than 20 minilateral groupings, with further proposals constantly floated – the latest being for a new US-Australia-Philippines triad.
Yet, security cooperation never comes without costs. Economies around the region and the world continue to reel from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, multilateral activity, then this region’s favoured form of security collaboration, dropped away significantly as cash-strapped governments simply couldn’t afford to send representatives to meetings.
AUKUS alone, and especially the mammoth undertaking of building nuclear-powered submarines, is already sucking substantial human and financial resources from Australia’s Department of Defence.
One possible, somewhat Darwinian, solution might be to let natural selection decide which minilaterals are “fit for purpose” and which are left to flounder. The problem with this approach, however, is that all institutions develop a certain level of “stickiness” which means they often linger well past their use-by dates.
For instance, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), one of the region’s pioneering multilateral security groupings, is now largely moribund yet continues to meet. Its minilateral equivalent may be the once-heralded MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Türkiye and Australia), whose raison d’etre as a grouping of “like-minded” middle powers has also become increasingly unclear, especially following Ankara’s authoritarian turn.
Alternatively, Canberra could decide in which minilaterals Australia can profitably invest its energies, while downgrading or possibly even abandoning the rest. Yet such an approach risks an unnecessary ruffling of regional feathers. Despite its questionable utility, for example, would the Albanese government ever really consider canning the Australia-France-India trilateral having only just repaired relations with Paris?
In 2020, then prime minister Scott Morrison gave the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the job of auditing the plethora of multilateral groupings to which Australia is party. A similar audit is now needed to examine the region’s minilateral mechanisms, and Australian engagement with these, to determine their sustainability.
This article was supported as part of a grant from the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed are those of the author.