Home Globalisation & Geopolitics Minilateral initiatives to balance China in the Indo-Pacific

Minilateral initiatives to balance China in the Indo-Pacific

John West
AUKUS is the latest minilateral initiative involving the US and its allies and partners to balance China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific. If only China and the US could make peace, minilateralism involving the two could solve some of the world’s greatest challenges
Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute
Paper boats with national flags of Australia, United States and United Kingdom

Multilateralism has been a key foundation of the postwar rules-based international order which revolves around international organisations—with virtual universal membership—like the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). But these organisations have become less and less effective over the decades. The multilateral system has been slow to adapt to the world’s changing power structures, and to create organisations, rules and norms for emerging issues.

“Minilateralism” is the new movement in the Indo-Pacific. It refers to the formation of small informal groups of countries to address specific issues, and avoid getting bogged down in endless multilateral negotiations. Some examples are AUKUS, the Quad, a trilateral ministerial dialogue between India, France and Australia, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. These examples of minilateralism involve the US and its allies and partners, and are designed to balance (or even contain) China.    

AUKUS makes waves across the Indo-Pacific

AUKUS is the most recent minilateral to appear in the Indo-Pacific. It was launched with great fanfare by the leaders of Australia, the UK and the US.  In the short-term at least, they each have a great stake in this new “enhanced trilateral security partnership”.   

It’s not difficult to see short-term political considerations, at least partly, behind AUKUS. President Joe Biden is obviously very happy to have a positive initiative, following quickly on the heels of the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the key forces behind Brexit, is very keen to promote a “Global Britain”, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison is desperate to enter a “forever partnership…between the oldest and most trusted of friends” at a time when Australia’s relations with China are at rock bottom.

Much of the commentariat have focussed on AUKUS’s first initiative, namely, supporting Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (but without nuclear weapons) for the Royal Australian Navy, and the ditching of a long-troubled Australian deal with France for building conventional submarines. But AUKUS promises to be more ambitious and extend cooperation to: deeper information and technology sharing; deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains; and enhancing cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.

The examples of AUKUS, the Quad, India-France-Australia Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue and the CPTPP show that the Indo-Pacific regional order is very actively responding to the rise of an assertive China through developing innovative minilateral initiatives.

While the word China was not mentioned in the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, this initiative is clearly a response to the degraded security environment in the Indo-Pacific provoked by China’s rise and its rivalry with the US. AUKUS is also a slimmed down version of the Five Eyes, the world’s key intelligence alliance.

AUKUS does not address key issues like foreign interference, spheres of influence, economic coercion and human rights, which are germane to the great power competition between China, and the US and its Australian and UK allies. But it will enhance Australia’s military and technological capabilities, even if the envisaged eight submarines take many years to build. 

Moreover, AUKUS will be mutually beneficial in that the militarily overstretched US wants its allies to play a bigger role. And Australia, which suffers from a strategic fear of abandonment, is keen to keep the US firmly anchored in the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, in the region only Indonesia and Malaysia have criticised AUKUS, while India, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore have expressed support. Despite China’s constant rumblings, the US seems to still be welcome in the Indo-Pacific.     

Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) is another minilateral initiative that seeks to balance and counter China’s assertive behaviour and protect the rules-based regional order. Since the election of US President Biden, this group of leading democracies from the Indo-Pacific—Australia, India, Japan and the US—has already met twice at the leaders’ level.

The Quad’s history has been a long and winding road since 2004. Since President Biden is very keen to work closely with allies and partners in balancing China, he seized upon the informal grouping as a ready-made vehicle for democratic countries to work together. The first Quad summit was held virtually in March this year, with the second summit taking place in person on 24 September 2021. The Quad’s vision is for a “free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. 

The recent Quad Summit covered a predictable array of topical issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and critical and emerging technologies. But hard results are difficult to see at this stage. The Quad has made ambitious pledges to donate vaccines, but delivery seems to be lagging. 

What to make of the Quad? The Quad members are united in their concerns about China, but they do not always share the same concerns.  To some extent, it is a case of four countries sleeping in the same bed, but dreaming different dreams! But the Quad is also only very new as a leadership forum. While national leaders maintain their interest in the Quad, it has the potential to deliver useful results, especially if it helps keep the US interested in the Indo-Pacific.

India-France-Australia Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue

With China increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative, India, France and Australia have just begun a new trilateral dialogue, their first meeting of foreign ministers taking place in May this year. These three countries are also committed to achieve a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific. They have undertaken to work together to promote the rules-based maritime order based on the centrality of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)

Another minilateral initiative, the CPTPP, originally known as the TPP, was an ambitious trade deal led by the Obama administration. The idea was for the US to pre-empt China’s burgeoning leadership of the Indo-Pacific by pushing through high quality standards for international business. These standards go beyond mere trade liberalisation and deal with issues like services, electronic commerce, state-owned enterprises, labour rights, intellectual property, government procurement, transparency and anti-corruption, and the environment. 

While negotiations were successfully concluded on 6 October 2015, the US Congress never ratified the deal. And then in January 2017, US President Trump withdrew the US from the TPP. The remaining signatories—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, US and Vietnam—then modified the TPP, which has since come into force as the CPTPP.  Most regrettably, President Biden has no intention for the US to rejoin the CPTPP. This highlights yet again how US domestic politics can undermine its effectiveness on the international stage, to the great disappointment of its Indo-Pacific allies and partners.

“Minilateralism” is the new movement in the Indo-Pacific. It refers to the formation of small informal groups of countries to address specific issues, and avoid getting bogged down in endless multilateral negotiations.

Curiously, China has recently applied to join the CPTPP (an application from Taiwan quickly followed suit!). In principle, China would have great difficulty complying with some of the key elements of the agreement, notably those regarding state-owned enterprises, labour rights, intellectual property, government procurement, and transparency and anti-corruption.  The risk is that China will bring pressure to bear, such as through economic coercion, to enter the CPTPP on favourable terms, and potentially undermine the quality of the agreement over time.

Not surprisingly, Australia is pushing President Biden to consider rejoining the CPTPP, while the UK has already applied to join the CPTPP. 

What do these developments mean?

The examples of AUKUS, the Quad, India-France-Australia Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue and the CPTPP show that the Indo-Pacific regional order is very actively responding to the rise of an assertive China through developing innovative minilateral initiatives. These initiatives may be relatively new, but there is every reason to expect them to prosper and mature, while China maintains its assertive posture and the US sees merit in working with allies and partners to maintain security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. We should expect more minilateral deals to be formed in the coming years.

However, while China and the US compete vigorously for dominance in the Indo-Pacific, the future of the planet depends on the capacity of these two to cooperate, standing as they do, head and shoulders over all other countries. As Richard Haas argues in his new book, “The World: a brief introduction“, we have a whole set of global issues—from climate change, management of cyberspace, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, North Korea and global health—for which global governance is totally inadequate.

This leaves the world on a very dangerous course, which could only be really solved by an effective minilateralism partnership between the US and China, since trying to achieve effective agreements between the world’s 180+ countries is futile.

Looking ahead, it is very difficult to be optimistic. US-China relations are at their lowest ebb, and keep falling lower and lower, to the great detriment of the international community. We desperately need both of them to work together to address our many looming challenges.

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Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute

John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).

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