Minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific: Is It the Future?

There is a drastic shift in the Indo-Pacific region’s geopolitical landscape following China’s rise and its ensuing rivalry with the United States. The menace of Covid exposed the weaknesses of the multilateral organizations; now, countries have started resorting to minilateral cooperative structures to deal with emerging global challenges of climate change, cybersecurity, and infrastructure development. Minilaterals are informal groups of fewer states cooperating to address a specific threat or conventional and unconventional security challenges. The idea of minilateral is not new to the region; various trilateral engagements later became mini forms of multilateral arrangements without formal bindings. The first US, Australia, and New Zealand treaty was signed in 1951. Some other multilateral institutions are the Malacca Straits Patrol multilateral arrangement (2004); the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC, 2015); and the Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols (2017); the Five Power Defence Arrangements are also considered as minilateral defence coalitions among others. The shifting strategic relations in the early 2000s witnessed two significant trends in the minilateral arrangements – they are no longer geographically restricted and mainly focused on security threats.

Quad has its roots in the India Ocean Tsumani in 2004, which in 2017 revived as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the US, Australia, Japan, and India. To counter Chinese domination in the region, the US has adopted alliance mechanisms such as QUAD, AUKUS, US-Japan-ROK, etc. Europe too coined its strategy in 2021 to secure free and open trade across the Indian and Pacific oceans. On the other hand, China signed a security pact with the Soloman Islands, allowing it to deploy military forces in the island nation. The revival of the QUAD and the establishment of the AUKUS arrangement further challenge multilateral organizations’ relevance and question the efficiency of ASEAN in security affairs.

The regional and global balance of power is witnessing a transformation, and the ASEAN members have adopted a security approach better suited to their national interests. Minilateralism ensures a more result-orientated and relatively fast-paced decision-making mechanism to meet the hour’s challenges. Hence, minilateral organizations are not treated as alternatives to multilateralism. Instead, they should act as a bridging gap between bilateralism and multilateralism to address urgent issues, provide a security framework, and explore further opportunities for cooperation. It enhances the need to integrate different approaches diplomatically. Minilaterals offer a renewed scope for pursuing actionable agendas in an informal and flexible setup. Minilaterals have added the advantage of successfully carrying forward more targeted and interest-based shared plans. These shared agendas can gradually be incorporated into more traditional multilateral platforms for better outcomes. 

However, it has been debated by many scholars that the rising trend of minilateralism is due to the ineffectiveness of existing multilateral platforms. The South China Sea disputes and the Myanmar Crisis have highlighted its ineffectiveness. The failure of these multilateral formal forums to resolve issues based on consensus has pushed many countries into minilateral framework. However, this doesn’t reduce the relevance of multilateral formal regional organizations. The states now have seen the benefit of engaging in smaller, more interest-driven, informal groupings to work on contentious issues that are difficult to handle in larger forums. The member states also have the option to engage in different frameworks and coordinate with other countries with shared interests. 

Minilaterals and multilaterals are much-debated concepts on composition, flexibility, formality, informality, and exclusivity. US-centered unipolarity and ASEAN-led multilateralism that have dominated the Indo-pacific region in the post-Cold War world order witnessed a change. The stagnation of formal political structures of multilateral organizations has resulted in countries turning to minilateral platforms. The changing nature of contemporary threats has paved the way for informal minilateral platforms that are smaller, exclusive, flexible, and functional in a technology-driven world.

[Photo by 首相官邸, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Dr. Sreshtha Chakraborty is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies and holds a Ph.D. from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

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