The limits of minilateralism in Asean

Australia convened a meeting recently with six South-east Asian states focused on counter-terrorism.

The meeting in Perth was not only a notable development in and of itself but also just the latest example of the use of minilateralism in the security realm in South-east Asia.

While such minilateral institutions no doubt have their advantages when properly utilised, amid the hype around some sort of new age of minilateralism, it is also important to keep in mind their limits.

Minilateralism is by no means new to the world or to South-east Asia. Within the region, though the bigger institutions within the Asean-led framework tend to get the most attention, there have been minilateral institutions emerging as well over the decades. These include the Mekong River Commission in mainland South-east Asia in the 1990s and the Malacca Strait Patrols in maritime South-east Asia in the 2000s.

But it is also true that over the past few years, minilateralism has been gaining greater traction in South-east Asia and beyond. Part of this is due to the perception that bigger multilateral institutions cannot adequately address a growing list of urgent challenges in a fast-changing world in a timely and effective manner, be it terrorism or maritime security. In South-east Asia, an additional oft-cited complaint is that Asean operates through consensus, which reduces outcomes to the lowest common denominator.

It is therefore no surprise that we have begun to see iterations of minilateral institutions emerging in the security realm in South-east Asia over the past couple of years. The two clearest examples of this are the trilateral patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, which are being expanded to include Brunei and Singapore, as well as the "Our Eyes" counterterrorism intelligence initiative which groups six South-east Asian countries, with plans for further integration.

When properly executed, such minilateral institutions no doubt have their advantages in a South-east Asian context. Apart from the fact that convening fewer countries is easier to do, it also affords these smaller groupings of countries greater flexibility and speed in decision making.

And viewed from a broader perspective, minilateral institutions can also catalyse collaboration at other levels, be it at the bilateral level or even multilaterally, whether out of inspiration or simply the fear of being left behind.

But it is also important to keep in mind that the pursuit of such minilateral projects has its limits. First, as they are being mulled over and even initially introduced, minilateral projects can be too narrowly framed and get too far ahead of the comfort level of certain countries too quickly. A case in point in South-east Asia is the short-lived official convening of a claimants group on the South China Sea.

Second, minilateral projects can be difficult to sustain. Since they tend to be tied to specific issues or narrower areas relative to larger multilateral ones, minilateral institutions are more likely to wax and wane over time in accordance with various factors, be it evolutions in the challenges they are trying to resolve or changes in the priorities of governments. This makes them faster to take off but harder to maintain in terms of momentum. We have already seen this sustainability problem with respect to several institutions in South-east Asia, including the continuing struggle in forging greater cooperation in the so-called Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area.

Third and finally, even if these minilateral institutions do take hold, they raise questions about their impact on other excluded countries and institutions. If minilateral institutions in South-east Asia are framed as being competitive rather than complementary to existing multilateral institutions and subsequently garner more interest from outside powers, they can contribute to further weakening the centrality of wider Asean-led institutions.

That could pose problems for South-east Asian states, since the very purpose of upholding Asean centrality in the first place was to manage the relations among themselves and between external powers.

To be sure, there are ways of maximising the benefits of such groupings while minimising the risks they pose. Part of this requires caution with respect to how ideas for such groupings are incubated. That can be accomplished through various methods, such as first testing out sensitive minilateral groupings privately through consultations at the Track 2 and Track 1.5 level before publicly unveiling them.

As evidenced by the case of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or "Quad") between Australia, Japan, the United States and India, initial perceptions of groupings being targeted at certain countries can take hold quickly and influence not only current iterations of minilateral institutions, but future ones as well.

But perhaps most important of all, minilateral institutions need to be considered as just one layer of cooperation within a wider network of relationships in the Asia-Pacific level, rather than being seen as a substitute for others.

In this respect, it has been encouraging to see the "Our Eyes" counterterrorism intelligence initiative being framed within the broader Asean framework, with opportunities for some degree of expansion beyond the current membership.

• The writer is senior editor of The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, and a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, researching Asian security issues and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'The limits of minilateralism in Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe