Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The rise and endurance of minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific

Will small groupings of nations last? Bet on self-interest.

The assessment of the Quad thus far is relatively mixed (Getty Images)
The assessment of the Quad thus far is relatively mixed (Getty Images)
Published 1 May 2024 

Minilateralism has enjoyed a golden age with the advent of the Indo-Pacific. The evolution of the Quad as well as the establishment of AUKUS and other trilateral groupings over the past several years have led to a flurry of debates about the rise and role of minilateralism in the regional architecture. Although minilateral groupings have been present in the region prior to the late 2010s, the significance of these newer minilateral arrangements lies in the broader strategic context surrounding their emergence.

In light of deepening major power rivalry and the shortcomings of large-scale multilateralism, minilateralism has emerged as an alternative – if not the cooperative format of choice – for several regional countries. The advantages of minilateralism have been discussed extensively and need no repetition here. More interestingly, recent minilateral initiatives have been regarded as the building blocks of an “Indo-Pacific” regional architecture amid the advancement of the new regional construct.

To a large extent, the “Asia-Pacific” concept that was prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s pursued the principle of inclusive multilateralism. This was perhaps best encapsulated by the membership and modalities of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) platform and the ASEAN Regional Forum. The “East Asia” concept, which increased in popularity in the late 1990s, promoted a more restrictive notion of regional multilateralism. This preference was demonstrated with the introduction of the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and the subsequent debate over whether the East Asia Summit should involve only the APT members.

The fewer number of participants in regional minilateral networks suggest that they tend to be less “sticky” than their multilateral counterparts.

In contrast to both the “Asia-Pacific” and “East Asia”, the “Indo-Pacific” advances a different picture of the regional architecture. It is premised on smaller groupings akin to “coalitions of the willing” or “like-minded” arrangements. For many of the recent minilaterals, moreover, China is – whether implicitly or explicitly – the shared concern. Participants of such minilaterals are perceived as being “willing” and “like-minded” in responding to China’s rise and assertive foreign policy behaviour. For example, the joint statements from the United States-Japan-South Korea summit in August 2023 and the United States-Japan-Philippines summit in April 2024 called out China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour” in the South China Sea, and strongly opposed any attempts by Beijing to unilaterally change the status quo in regional disputes.

In this regard, the newer minilateral groupings are either elements of the US-led “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy or efforts by middle powers to diversify and strengthen relations as they tackle challenges vis-à-vis the major powers. Given current regional dynamics, it is likely that minilateral groupings will continue to emerge and convene. But whether these arrangements would last in the longer term remains a point of debate.

The AUKUS meeting in San Diego, 13 March 2023 (Chad J. McNeeley/US Department of Defence)
The AUKUS meeting in San Diego, 13 March 2023 (Chad J. McNeeley/US Department of Defence)

A crucial question is whether participating states will continue to commit to their respective minilateral platforms amid leadership changes. The fewer number of participants in regional minilateral networks suggest that they tend to be less “sticky” than their multilateral counterparts. This means that should one or two of the participating countries lose interest, the minilateral arrangement is unlikely to continue. The rise and fall of the Quad 1.0 in the late 2000s exemplify this point.

One could make the case that the inaugural United States-Japan-Philippines summit has materialised in large part following the transition from the Rodrigo Duterte government to the Ferdinand Marcos Jr government in the Philippines. Under the former, it is doubtful that a similar meeting would have taken place. Similarly, given past fluctuations in Japan-South Korea ties, it is a possibility that new governments or specific incidents may result in a suspension of the trilateral process with the United States.

The prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the US presidency further casts a shadow over the sustainability of US-led minilaterals. Although it was under the Trump administration that the Quad was revived, the forum’s institutional progress has occurred mostly under the Joe Biden administration. It is uncertain how Washington’s approach towards minilateralism may change under a potential second Trump government, but its past record of withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from cooperative arrangements raise questions about the durability of US-led minilaterals.

To be sure, there are minilateral groupings that have stood the test of time. One example is the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) involving Australia, Japan and the United States, which first convened at the senior officials’ level in 2002. Since then, the three countries have inaugurated meetings among their foreign ministers, leaders and defence ministers. The TSD’s “unbroken pattern of cooperation” across different governments may highlight the importance of maintaining a consistent “like-mindedness” among participants in their views and approaches towards the specific challenges that the minilateral seeks to address. A certain degree of institutionalisation would additionally play a part in bolstering the platform’s resilience.

Participants in minilaterals are also likely to be driven by considerations of the grouping’s effectiveness and efficiency. These traits, after all, are meant to set minilateralism apart from the unwieldiness and divergent preferences characteristic of large-scale multilateralism. While it is too soon to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the recently established minilaterals, the Quad provides a useful reference point. The assessment of the Quad thus far is relatively mixed. Its Covid-19 vaccine partnership – portrayed as an alternative to China’s vaccine diplomacy – floundered, but analysts note that the Quad’s strategic objective of counter-balancing China’s influence is being achieved through collaboration among the Quad members and with third parties.

Other minilateral initiatives will, of course, have to be assessed based on their respective goals. But overall, the crux for members would be whether engaging in minilateral initiatives offers significantly more value than participating in multilateral processes. If minilaterals can better secure the interests of their participants and in a more efficient manner, then these groupings would, in all probability, endure.

Thus far, the record on minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific has varied. Some groupings have progressed steadily, while others have been hampered by challenges. Although the long-term sustainability of the newer initiatives remains uncertain for now, it is clear that minilaterals are regarded as additional or alternative options for like-minded countries to cooperate on key strategic and functional challenges. It is therefore expected that more of such groupings will continue to take shape.

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