Multilateralism and minilateralism have historically worked together in Southeast Asia, the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, where different models of multilateral cooperation fall within a continuum rather than distinct categories. The situation has changed with the emergence of the reference to the Indo-Pacific, as the increasing attention paid to regional actors by external powers, primarily through a security or strategic register, tends to favour tightened partnerships. The various Indo-Pacific “agendas”, “visions” and “strategies”, all agreeing on the reference to the “centrality of ASEAN”, do not intrinsically aim to weaken regional multilateralism. However, the multiplication of mechanisms and formats intensifies bilateral and minilateral sollicitations towards regional actors. The result is a bypassing of deliberation platforms, a dispersion of means and an overlapping of processes, which in practice weakens the coordinated pursuit of global security objectives in the region.
In Asia, the regional security architecture was historically built around ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), founded in 1967 at the initiative of its member states. Normative and institutional innovations at the regional level took the form of fora organised concentrically around the association (ZOPFAN, ASEAN+3, ARF, ADMM+). These arrangements aimed to foster the emergence of a regional security community, without compromising the principles of autonomy, sovereignty, and non-interference that regional players see as a prerequisite for political cooperationAmitav Acharya, “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism”, International Organization, vol. 58, n° 2, 19 mai 2004 ; Ralf Emmers, “Unpacking ASEAN Neutrality: The Quest for Autonomy and Impartiality in Southeast Asia”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 40, n° 3, 2018, pp. 349-370 ; ou encore Andrew Yeo, Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century, Stanford University Press, 2019, 264 p.. The emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept has broken with this pattern of initiatives at the regional level: for the first time since the 1960s, ASEAN and its members have assimilated a strategic concept driven by external powers, likely to reshape the configuration of their multilateral cooperation. In this context, the denunciation of the potentially destabilising role played by “minilateral” fora, perceived as exogenous, is recurrent. The latter are often opposed to the multilateral arrangements supported by ASEAN, which are meant to be inclusive, driven by regional players and providing political and strategic predic-tability. This representation largely converges with the French discourse. Paris is promoting an “inclusive” approach that aims to break away from Quad-style minilateralismThe quadrilateral dialogue relaunched in 2017 between the United States, Japan, India and Australia. by contri-buting to the consolidation of multilateral cooperation, as emphasised by the Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific initiated in February 2022 by the French Presidency of the European UnionThe first edition of this Forum, held in Paris on February 22, 2022 brought together European institutions, foreign ministers from the 27 EU member states and some 30 Indo-Pacific countries, as well as representatives of regional organisations from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.. However, minilateralism is also part of the French repertoire in the regionThe India-France-Australia dialogue, launched in 2020 and interrupted by the crisis linked to Australia’s cancellation of the submarine contract in favour of its commitment in another partnership, AUKUS; or the France-India-United Arab Emirates dialogue initiated in September 2022 and confirmed in February 2023. Under the Swedish presidency of the EU, the format has been maintained through the organisation of the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Stockholm on May 13, 2023. (see Annex 2).
Nevertheless, the opposition between multilateralism and minilateralism should be put into perspective, taking into account the continuum between these two formats, while at the same time questioning the articulation of the mechanisms and their longer-term contribution to the objectives of regional stability.
Thus, three preliminary observations can be made:
- Chronologically, multilateralism did not precede minilateralism at the regional level – they were instead co-constituted, with ASEAN being prefigured by several embryonic associations with a limited perimeterFor example, in 1961 the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) was created by the Philippines, Thailand and the Federation of Malaya. In 1963, the Maphilindo grouping was formed between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia., then facilitating the emergence of minilateral cooperation between its members.
- Concerning the method and the articulation of the formats, all Indo-Pacific pla-yers practice minilateralism to varying extents – for example, defence agreements with extra-regional powersThe Indonesian approach is opposed to any binding defence agreement. On this aspect, it diverges, for example, from Malaysia’s adherence to the Five Power Defence Arrangements set up in 1971, the mutual defence treaty between the United States and the Philippines (1951), or the opening of the Changi naval base (Singapore) to the US Navy. have coexisted with the development of more inclusive arrangements and the institutionalisation of regional multilateralism.
- Regarding the aims, minilateral partnerships have specific objectives without necessarily conflicting with the ambitions of multilateral arrangements when they are intended to foster functional cooperation between players pursuing common objectives; in this respect, they may reflect a “multi-speed” multilateralism, which is not always synonymous with fragmented objectives.
However, the multiplication of formats and arenas, and their increasing overlap in the context of intensifying diplomatic and strategic commitment in the Indo-Pacific region, are leading to the weakening of deliberative spaces, the dispersion of means, and the saturation of the agendas and operational capacities of the players involved. In practice, this weakens the promotion and coordinated pursuit of global security objectives in the regionThe framing adopted favours a broad definition of security issues on a IP scale, converging with the doctrines of regional players for whom security and defence are part of an integrated approach reflected in the notion of national and regional resilience (Delphine Allès, “Premises, Policies and Multilateral Whitewashing of Broad Security Doctrines: A Southeast Asia-Based Critique of ‘Non-traditional’ Security”, European Review of International Studies, vol. 6, n° 1, 2019, pp. 5-26).. As a contribution to the debate on how to prioritise existing arrangements this note identifies (1) the contrasting practices among players in the Indo-Pacific, within the scope of both the promotion of multilate-ralism and the minilateral uses with distinct aims; (2) it highlights the limits resulting from the multiplication of multi- and minilateral arrangements; (3) finally, it identifies the conditions for a constructive articulation between these models.