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The Shifting Balance of Power and the Rise of Minilateralism: The Indo-Pacific and Beyond

Image Source: 首相官邸/Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, multilateralism formed the backbone of the post-war rule-based international order. However, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations have increasingly struggled to effectively address regional and global challenges. Dissatisfaction with the existing institutional framework, coupled with the intensifying superpower competition between China and the US, have instead brought about a worldwide rise in new minilateral agreements. 

This article is part of a series of articles authored by young, aspiring China scholars under the Future CHOICE initiative.

In February 2023, France, India, and the United Arab Emirates announced the establishment of a joint trilateral cooperation framework. The agreement will serve as a platform for cooperation in various fields, including technology, energy, and climate change. This newly created framework is only one recent example of a broader pattern. The past few years have seen the rapid rise of new minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, including AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Dialogue, and I2U2. Governments worldwide are starting to recognize the potential opportunities of joining smaller groups of countries with shared interests. 

In an increasingly multipolar world in which traditional institutions struggle to deal with new and complex challenges, the emergence of minilateralism presents a more innovative and flexible approach to diplomacy and international collaboration. Moreover, as middle powers, in particular, are taking up the role of active agents in shaping the international order, they seek to leverage the momentum that minilateralism brings to the table. 

Outdated Approach to International Relations

Today’s world faces many issues that transcend countries’ borders and require broader international cooperation. At the same time, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing urgency to combat climate change, and the protracted war of Russia on Ukraine all act as a reminder of existing inadequacies in the current multilateral institutions. Furthermore, the growing divide between the US and China, particularly the burgeoning technology war between the two countries, has prompted governments in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and elsewhere to seek ways to avoid overdependence on a single actor and prioritize their domestic interests and sovereignty. 

The number of global problems that world leaders need to address is expanding and diversifying. Many pundits, therefore, argue that we are entering a new era of international politics in which there is a growing need for an alternative to the traditional systems of international cooperation. And minilateralism carries the potential to open new doors for more effective and swift decision-making. The most cited advantages of minilateralism are its flexibility and adaptability, which stem from the idea that collaboration within these groupings is based on shared interests rather than common values and ideology. As such, member countries can jointly address mutual challenges without having to reach a consensus on other issues. 

Minilateralism as an Emerging Framework for Cooperation 

The Indo-Pacific, in particular, has seen a growing number of new minilateral groupings since Obama’s pivot to Asia in 2011. Especially under the Trump and Biden administrations, the architecture in the Indo-Pacific has increasingly been characterized by informal, non-binding, and purpose-built alliances and partnerships between the US and regional powers. Looking beyond the Indo-Pacific, small and middle-sized countries in the Middle East are using minilateralism to address Washington’s growing disconnect from the region and create a web of alliances to promote a more stable, secure, and economically prosperous Middle East. 

The I2U2 group consisting of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US, is the latest of the US’s efforts to cement partnerships across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Although some analysts have argued that the gradual expansion of American minilateralism has primarily been driven by the extraordinary rise of China and the perceived threat of its more assertive policies on the US’s role on the international stage, the reality is more complex. 

Even the Biden administration itself has stressed that its Indo-Pacific strategy focuses on a broader array of issues than merely containing China’s rise. It aims to bring together countries of various capabilities to work on areas ranging from security to climate change, infrastructure, and natural disasters. The I2U2 framework, in particular, has identified six objectives that will be at the core of the four countries’ cooperation. These include water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. 

Neither I2U2 nor, for instance, the Quadrilateral Dialogue, which consists of the US, Australia, India, and Japan, can be labeled as a purely anti-Chinese alliance. While in the case of the Quad, balancing China in the Indo-Pacific forms a core pillar of the four countries’ cooperation and is one of the main reasons behind the inception of the grouping, individual members have their own interests and agendas, especially regarding the perceived threat posed by China. India and Japan, for instance, have active territorial disputes with China, while Australia and the US do not, leading to different strategic calculations. Therefore, the diverging threat perceptions between the member countries are the main factor delimiting the scope of the Quad’s and other minilateral groups’ cooperation, and simply labeling these groupings as ‘anti-Chinese’ and defaulting to overt geopolitical references could be dangerous and have severe ramifications for some member partners. As a result, having a fairly uncontroversial agenda focused on mutual interests in areas that do not necessarily hold geopolitical connotations is not a coincidence but a must.  

Nice Try, but will it Last? 

Minilateralism brings a breath of fresh air to the current state of international collaboration. With its relative simplicity and straightforwardness, it has the potential to enhance inter-state relations and create innovative solutions. However, most of the minilateral groupings are still in their nascency and will have to overcome a host of challenges before they can be labeled a success. 

The member countries should be wary of the impacts that the growing tensions between the US and China will have on the internal dynamics of their minilateral groupings. Given that many minilaterals include the US, the member countries must find new ways to navigate these growing geopolitical and security complexes without being overly anti-Chinese in their rhetoric and actions. At the same time, for the groups to be successful, the member states must be able to put aside their differences and focus on the points of convergence in their agendas. 

The United Arab Emirates and Israel, in particular, will have to find ways to balance their national interests and the intensifying superpower competition in the Middle East. While the US perceive I2U2 as a strategic framework that can help maintain its regional dominance, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have been trying to expand their economic ties with China. Consequently, the most suitable way forward is to avoid introducing geopolitical goals as part of the I2U2 cooperation.  

Another potential hurdle for these groupings will be the question of expansion. The main advantages of minilateralism are its flexibility and focus on a specific mission. Therefore, allowing expanded membership could affect the cohesion of these groups and undermine the benefits of minilateralism as a whole. While newcomers can bring new capabilities and expertise, they also have their own economic and security interests, all of which will affect the trajectory and the effectiveness of minilateralism. 

Countries should work on solidifying their emerging partnerships within the different minilateral groupings and creating cohesion between the member states’ interests and needs. Then, once these alliances are on the right track to achieve their primary purpose, they can start looking at ways to expand their membership. Hopefully, this can be done while also avoiding clashes within the groups which would lead to ineffective decision-making and undermine the primary purpose of minilateralism – a better and more sustainable international collaboration. 

Written by

Dominika Urhová

Dominika Urhová obtained her Master’s Degree in security and diplomacy from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Her current research focuses on China’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf and Israel.