Understanding the Institutional Challenge of Indo-Pacific Minilaterals to ASEAN.

AuthorHa, Hoang Thi

Over the past decade, minilateralism--a targeted approach to multilateralism with narrower membership--has proliferated and gained prominence in the global governance system and in the Indo-Pacific. (1) Loosely defined as informal and flexible coalitions of aligned interests and coordinated action among a small group of states in certain functional areas, (2) minilateralism is a natural response to the existing deficiencies and imbalances in the global governance system, especially the dysfunction of broad-based multilateral institutions due to their heterogeneous membership and atrophied bureaucratic processes. As noted by Alice Ba:

Multilateralism, or at least late-20th century multilateralism, has been premised on the principle and practice of pluralism and broad inclusion, and minilateralism today is a reaction in no small part to the difficulties of dealing with that pluralism in existing institutions. These include ASEAN and ASEAN-associated frameworks operated on the principles of broad engagement and consensus. (3) As a broad trend in global governance, minilateralism can take on many variations, subject to regional and thematic contexts. In Asia, minilateral coalition-building led by the United States has become more intense under the rubric of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy of the Trump administration, starting with the revitalization of the Quadrilateral Dialogue Partnership [Quad) between the United States, fapan, India and Australia in 2017. (4) US investment in minilateralism is an important strategic continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations. President foe Biden took bold steps to strengthen the Quad, upgrading it to the leaders level with the first virtual Quad summit in March 2021 and the first physical Quad summit in Washington D.C. in September 2021, and expanding the Quad's remit beyond a singular focus on maritime security. Besides the Quad's consolidation, the "minilateral moment" of 2021 was the 15 September announcement of the establishment of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defence partnership. (5) In this article, the term "Indo-Pacific minilaterals" is used to describe these major power-centric, mostly US-led, minilateral groupings.

The intensity of minilateral coalition-building among the United States and its allies and partners has rekindled concerns over the relevance of ASEAN-plus mechanisms (6) and ASEAN's claim to its central role in the regional architecture. The term "ASEAN centrality" is under-defined, perhaps deliberately so by ASEAN, and is thus the subject of much debate and many interpretations. (7) For the purpose of this article, an interpretation by Amitav Acharya is utilized. His definition places ASEAN as "the institutional anchor" of Asia-Pacific's regional architecture:

ASEAN centrality means that ASEAN lies, and must remain, at the core of Asia (or Asia-Pacific) regional institutions, especially the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asian Summit (EAS). ASEAN provides the institutional "platform" within which the wider Asia Pacific and East Asian regional institutions are anchored. To put it another way, without ASEAN, it would not have been possible to construct these wider regional bodies. (8) For decades, the notion of "ASEAN centrality" has been as much asserted by ASEAN members as it has been contested by competing and parallel institution-building efforts by other countries. This article argues that the proliferation of major power-centric minilaterals such as the Quad and AUKUS is the extension and accentuation of these longstanding contestations. What sets them apart from past experiences, however, is the acute sense of urgency and immediacy for action by their proponent countries to invest more in minilateral coalitions than in ASEAN institutions so as to advance their strategic goals, especially to compete with China and to arrest the accelerating momentum towards a China-centric order in Asia.

This article aims to contribute to the empirical literature regarding the relevance of ASEAN-led multilateralism in the regional architecture in the face of intensifying minilateralism among its external partners. It focuses on the ground-breaking minilateral developments in 2021--namely the consolidation of the Quad and the formation of AUKUS--as well as policy statements, published articles and interviews with high-level members of the Biden administration that demonstrate America's greater emphasis on minilateralism in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The article is structured as follows. The first section reviews the complex post-Cold War regional architecture in which multiple institutions, including ASEAN-plus mechanisms, have been co-existing and competing with each other as they embody different visions of regionalism and different layers of region cooperation. The second section answers why major power-centric minilateral coalitions in the Indo-Pacific today pose an acute challenge to the relevance of ASEAN-led multilateralism due to the increasing intensity of Sino-US strategic rivalry. The final section examines why the proponent countries of these minilaterals continue to proclaim their support for ASEAN centrality and what this means for Southeast Asia and ASEAN.

Contesting and Complementing ASEAN Multilateralism: A Beaten Track

In Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, the post-Cold War regional architecture is often characterized as having two key underpinnings, namely ASEAN-led multilateral institutions and US-led bilateral alliances. This characterization, however, does not fully capture the inherent complexity of the regional order, given the multiplicity of players involved and the layers of governance built up over time in a largely improvised manner. This geometry of bilateral, trilateral and other multilateral configurations have been described by Victor Cha as "complex patchworks". (9) Andrew Yeo saw this as "overlapping regionalism" driven by "the informal nature of Asian institutions coupled with competing visions of regionalism among Asian actors". (10) Meanwhile, See Seng Tan has observed that the "multi-multilateral" regional order has "no semblance of grand architectural or of strategic coherence", and is "far from the finished article". (11)

In this "multi-multilateral architecture", Ba argues that the value of "ASEAN centrality" does not lie in having a certain position in a hierarchy of institutions, but in its ability to connect otherwise divergent and different forces, a good example being the Regional Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (RCEP). (12) In the same vein, Malcolm Cook and Hoang Thi Ha note that "it is more useful to understand ASEAN and ASEAN-plus groupings as a flexible, responsive ecosystem in the wider regional environment than a formal purposive institution in isolation". (13) Seen in this light, ASEAN's cooperative ecosystem even facilitates the convening of minilateral platforms. For example, the first Quad meeting at the deputy foreign minister level was held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila in 2007, and several Quad consultations since its renaissance in 2017 were held on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (EAS). This convening power of ASEAN, however, is fading as the Quad members have reached sufficient strategic and political comfort to meet separately since mid-2020 (the COVID-19 pandemic that forced all ASEAN meetings to go virtual might have been a factor, but perhaps not a critical one).

For all of ASEAN's proclamations centring itself as the driving force in the regional architecture, regional institution-building has typically been a crowded field in Asia. In fact, the so-called "ASEAN centrality" has continually been challenged and complemented by both competing and supplementary institutions, whether initiated by ASEAN member states themselves or major external powers.

Subregional Cooperation and Intra-regional Minilateral Initiatives beyond ASEAN

Historically, intra-regional minilateral cooperation has co-existed with ASEAN since its inception (though it may not have been described in those terms). In its formative years, while ASEAN kept its distance from any pretension of a military alliance, it did not discourage intra-regional security relationships at the bilateral, trilateral or subregional levels. The Bali Concord Declaration in 1976--one of ASEAN's founding documents--provided for the "continuation of cooperation on a non-ASEAN basis between the member states in security matters in accordance with their mutual needs and interests". (14)

Geographically, ASEAN member states in the maritime and mainland domains have different security priorities and development needs, hence the need for different forms and layers of security and economic relationships. The variety of traditional and non-traditional challenges confronting different member states has led to the establishment of various subregional minilaterals involving only certain Southeast Asian states who may share certain security or development concerns. They include, among others, the Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP) involving Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, the Sulu-Celebes Seas Trilateral Maritime Patrols (TMP) conducted by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the development-focused Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV) cooperation in the mainland.

These subregional mechanisms exist independently of the ASEAN process, (15) but do not necessarily challenge ASEAN's convening role. For one, ASEAN serves as a diplomatic ecosystem that coexists with, and where applicable, facilitates these minilateral arrangements. For example, it was on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) in Laos in 2016 that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to establish the TMP. (16) Moreover, these subregional initiatives can potentially contribute to ASEAN-wide security cooperation. First...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT