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The Evolution of Minilaterals: Catalysts for strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The current set of multilaterals, collectively or individually are facing a challenge in achieving four objectives of the largest multilateral institutions, the United Nations viz, “maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid and support sustainable development”, owing to rising great power competition, unbridled competition among regional powers and unprecedented challenges in the Global North and the Global South. Naim (2009) criticises the world’s obsession with multilateralism as he argues that though the need for multilateral collaboration has increased, they have failed in that they missed the deadlines, did not achieve the intended objectives and did not honour the financial commitments. Consequently, countries look towards minilateral institutions, that work with few countries, having shared concerns and mutual interests towards a specific range of issues in the scope of their specialisation in a comparative informal manner, in comparison to bureaucratic, highly formal and consensus and majoritarian decision-making based approach of multilateral institutions. It not only comprises of state as an actor, but it is a multi-stakeholder forum specialising in their respective area, to facilitate inter-governmental and intra-governmental cooperation, hence they tend to be more flexible, adopting innovative approaches to diplomacy to tackle novel issues.

On 06 September 2021, while delivering the “JG Crawford Oration-2021” organised by the Australian National University, Dr S Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs, Government of India, stated quite unequivocally, “The days of unilateralism are over, bilateralism has its own limits and as the COVID reminded us, multilateralism is simply not working well enough… the resistance to reforming international organizations compel us to look for more practical and immediate solutions”[1], hinting towards the prospects of minilateralism. As Indo Pacific region evolves as the hotbed for geostrategic competition, the Indian diplomacy is manoeuvring minilaterals to navigate the issue-based partnership to tackle the rising contestation in the region, some of which are discussed below.

Indo-Pacific region, home to 64% of the global population and 62% of global GDP has become a typical region to nurture India’s partnerships with its Western partners. As Euro-Atlantic countries significantly mention the importance of ‘Indo-Pacific’ in this century in their respective white paper, it becomes natural for them to partner with India, given its economic growth, defence capabilities, location, demography and innovative capabilities. Such partnerships based on a positive sum game not only provide the Western powers to strengthen their power in the region characterized by intense competition but also provide India a platform to entrench its position in the region, which is increasingly being circumvented by its adversarial neighbour China, which is on a spree on terrestrial and maritime expansion from the South China Sea, to the Indian Ocean, to the territorial incursions in the South Asian countries.

QUAD is one such alliance where the member countries are increasingly bringing to on table the need for complementarity to collaborate with Pacific islands and ASEAN, given their proximity to and interventionist policies by China, as they search for a more multilateral engagement to solve their emerging challenges issues of “climate emergency, ongoing economic and connectivity challenges, including debt management, and digital transformation”[2]. India’s manoeuvre to partner with QUAD aimed at information sharing, resource mobilisation, sharing of best practices and development cooperation, and its reluctance to join the US featured AUKUS, which clearly aims to balance the Chinese influence in the region through military alliance and defence collaboration exemplifies how India views the Indo-Pacific region as an inclusive region and a competitive region, and not as a zone of conflict.

Apart from QUAD, the Indo-Pacific is home to several other minilaterals. South Korea-Japan-USA and AUKUS are among many of which India is not a member, given their bend towards ideological alliances rather than partnerships. India is engaged in trilateral initiatives such as the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative between India, Japan and Australia to “promote best practice national supply chain policy and principles in the Indo-Pacific”[3]. The trilateral cooperation among the middle powers to capitalise on their maritime geography in the region through sharing of best practices amid supply chain disruptions also indirectly counters China’s disrespect for rule-based order in the region. India-France-UAE is another trilateral which emerged in September 2022, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Sustainable economic development, renewable energy, innovation partnership and defence cooperation emerged as the key areas of cooperation (Ministry of External Affairs, 2023). The partnership also aims to foster defence cooperation among the members, as France envisages its global leadership in defence capabilities and UAE and India finds an alternative partner for defence coordination, with USA’s retrenchment from the Middle East in case of UAE and India’s effort to diversify its defence equipment supplier basket.

With the active pursuit of strategic autonomy by middle powers and the rising polarisation, minilaterals are emerging as an active diplomatic engagement forum to redress shared concerns and pursue a mutual interest. However, the internationalists who contest the minilaterals say they undermine the role of international institutions and create fragmentation in the global order, leading to counter-alliances. This is most evident in China’s reaction to QUAD, where Foreign Minister dismissed the grouping as ‘Indo-Pacific NATO and accused it of stoking geopolitical rivalry, to contain China and serving as ‘pawns’ of US hegemony to disrupt regional peace and stability’ (Gan, 2022). Arms race intensification, formation and expansion of security partnerships such as AUKUS, and preponderance of addressing shared concerns over global stability in the minilateral groupings have exacerbated power balances in the Indo-Pacific region, where the regional states are trying to maintain the balance of power. As minilaterals are characterised by non-hierarchical arrangements, Anuar and Hussain (2021) say it creates a leadership vacuum.

The rise of minilateralism presents both opportunities and challenges for the global order. While minilaterals can offer more flexibility and effectiveness in addressing specific issues, they also risk exacerbating power imbalances and undermining existing multilateral institutions. Moving forward, a key question is how to ensure minilateralism complements, rather than competes with, multilateralism. This could involve encouraging minilateral cooperation on issues where multilateral institutions are struggling, and ensuring minilateral outcomes are fed back into the multilateral system. Ultimately, the success of minilateralism will depend on its ability to contribute to a more effective and inclusive global governance architecture.

[1] https://theprint.in/diplomacy/days-of-unilateralism-over-bilateralism-has-its-own-limits-what-jaishankar-said-on-quad/729212/

[2] https://forumsec.org/sites/default/files/2024-03/52nd%20Pacific%20Islands%20Forum%20Communique%2020231109.pdf

[3] https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/for-australian-business/boosting-supply-chain-resilience

References:

https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/36192/Statement_of_the_Government_of_the_French_Republic_the_Government_of_the_Republic_of_India_and_the_Government_of_the_United_Arab_Emirates_on_the_Estab

https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/23/china/quad-summit-china-threat-analysis-intl-hnk-mic/index.html

http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28278.5

Priyanshi Agrawal Priyanshi Agrawal
Author is a final year student of MA in International Relations at South Asian University, with a graduation in BA Economics (Hons) from Christ University.
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