Asia’s Minilateral Moment

With fear of U.S. abandonment on the rise, Asian states are looking to increase cooperation with each other.

Asia’s Minilateral Moment
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president created many problems for U.S. allies across the world, but there may be a silver lining for security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. allies and partners in the region now face significant opportunities for so-called minilateralism. In fact, media reports suggest that such cooperation among a small number of countries is already intensifying as regional states are “unsettled by growing fears that the United States could not be relied on to maintain a buffer against China’s assertiveness.”

Since the early years of the Cold War, the security order of the Asia-Pacific region has been heavily influenced by a so-called “hub-and-spokes” bilateral alliance system led by the United States. Largely in response to prompting by the United States, Asia-Pacific states in the post-Cold War era have been gradually developing minilateral cooperation, connecting the spokes. Unlike region-wide multilateral mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, however, U.S.-led minilateral security cooperation has been perceived by Beijing as threatening. In 2007, for example, China issued diplomatic protests to India, the United States, Japan, and Australia as these four states initiated a quadrilateral security dialogue.

Due to China’s objections and regional states’ dependence on bilateral cooperation with the United States, minilateral security cooperation in the region has so far achieved only limited success. Even when U.S. allies and partners pursued cooperation among themselves, the main purpose of minilateral cooperation has been to please Washington and anchor the United States in the region. In the case of Japan and South Korea, for example, each seems to care more about how its efforts look in the eyes of U.S. policymakers than the actual development of cooperation between the two Asian neighbors. To put it differently, the main purpose of minilateralism for U.S. allies and partners has been to avoid abandonment by the United States by complying with U.S. preferences.

Donald Trump changed this dynamic by creating large uncertainty about the reliability of the United States as a supplier of security in the region. Asia-Pacific states now need to prepare against partial abandonment by Washington in case the United States does not provide support to its allies through the long-established bilateral ties.

U.S. allies should not place any less emphasis on bilateral security cooperation with the United States, but it is prudent for the allies to pursue minilateral cooperation as a complement to bilateral ties with the United States. Bilateral security cooperation with the United States will remain the most important source of security for the foreseeable future both because of U.S. military capability and the existing security ties. It would be difficult for U.S. allies to balance against the rise of China without the help of the United States. China’s military expenditure now dwarfs that of Japan, South Korea, and Australia. These states also have long-established formal alliance ties with the United States, whereas minilateral arrangements so far entail little security commitment.

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Increased fear of being abandoned by the United States should lead U.S. allies to place more emphasis on bilateral and minilateral security cooperation involving the United States at the expense of multilateralism, which is open to China. Of course, these states should avoid antagonizing China, but reducing the risk of abandonment often requires the acceptance of increased risks for other undesirable possibilities such as provoking an adversary or being entangled in another state’s conflict. As international relations scholar Glenn Snyder pointed out, there are trade-offs to be made in alliance politics.

U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific should seize the opportunity for improved minilateral cooperation, because Beijing is likely to understand their fear of abandonment by the United States. In fact, regardless of how long Trump stays in office, minilateral cooperation should be pursued more seriously. Trump has reminded the world that the reliability of the U.S. security commitment can change in a short span of time.

Tongfi Kim is Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels, specializing in the international security of East Asia. Kim is the author of The Supply Side of Security: A Market Theory of Military Alliances (2016, Stanford University Press).