Minilateral or Multilateral? A Role for ASEAN in an Evolving Indo-Pacific

Lizzie Su, Jun 29, 2024

In a first-of-its-kind summit in April this year, U.S. President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines to discuss military ties and alliance commitments.This trilateral summit underscores the growing integration of the U.S. alliance network in the Indo-Pacific region [1]. In the region, the U.S. has placed significant emphasis on Northeast Asia, forming strong bilateral ties with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Yet, with an increasingly dominant China, the U.S. recognizes that their regional approach has to evolve. By strengthening relationships with Southeast Asian countries, the U.S. aims to enhance deterrence against China [2].


On the heels of the Japan-Philippines-U.S. (JAPHUS) trilateral summit, the question remains: does China’s rise warrant an increased U.S. security infrastructure in the region? With the risk of aggravating China that comes with U.S.-based alliance networks like JAPHUS, AUKUS, and the Quad, the Indo-Pacific needs a system of diplomacy that prioritizes states within the region and remains independent of great powers. 


Unsurprisingly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has issues with seemingly anti-China alliances. Following the JAPHUS summit, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry took a stance against the practice of “bloc politics'' and “exclusive groupings,” arguing that the interference of countries outside the region will only create greater tension [3]. Some commentators categorize these “exclusive groupings'' as minilateral forums—small groups of countries that cooperate to address certain challenges. For minilaterals like JAPHUS, exclusivity is often advertised as an advantage: only those who are relevant to a problem are necessary to work towards a solution, allowing for efficient decision-making [4]. However, the problem of security in the Indo-Pacific is not likely to be resolved by three countries. Lasting regional stability should be the result of a multilateral framework for diplomacy and conflict management. While the U.S. may envision itself leading future multilateral dialogue in the region, such action could lead to a U.S.-China arms race, counterbalancing, and the exclusion of regional stakeholders, illustrating the need for this role to be fulfilled by Southeast Asian states alone.


Similar to JAPHUS, AUKUS is a trilateral alliance between Australia, the UK, and the U.S. that aims to cement American and British commitments to the Pacific [5]. AUKUS is primarily focused on building military strength to constrain China, evidenced by the planned provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia [6]. This strategy particularly alienates Southeast Asian states; Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have formally declared the region to be a “zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality” [7]. Even though a few countries, like Vietnam, have publicly welcomed the AUKUS alliance [8] as a complement to the existing infrastructure, there is greater worry about an arms race that may ensue with China if AUKUS continues to project power [9].


Additionally, no AUKUS state controls territory in Southeast Asia. As a result of their geographical distance, the stakes are low and AUKUS members could make risky decisions to increase or decrease their regional military commitments at will, regardless of how China responds [10].


Lastly, the Quad (consisting of Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S.) serves a similar purpose to AUKUS. Despite its broad reach, the Quad has come under significant fire from China. Not only has China President Xi Jinping characterized the Quad as “multilateralism as a pretext to form small cliques or stir up ideological confrontation,” but his government has also attempted to drive the Quad apart by targeting the Australian economy with import restrictions [11]. Further provocation by the U.S. could incentivize Chinese counterbalancing, which may include increased military spending or a closer military partnership with Russia [12].


Each U.S. alliance seems to have done a better job aggravating than containing China. Amidst China’s rise, containing the country as a whole is an ineffective strategy for reconciling differences in values and goals for the world order [13]. However, a complete withdrawal from the region would be a mistake. For instance, China’s overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) with several Southeast and East Asian states creates a valid cause for concern. Beijing has on multiple occasions initiated disputes and harassed ships passing through the SCS [14], creating the need for an improved regional security environment with robust checks against escalation [15]. Nevertheless, these disputes need not be blown out of proportion or be taken as indicators of greater hegemonic ambitions, as they have not significantly escalated. 


China’s alternative worldview—one that rejects ideological blocs and promotes global development—does not entail the U.S. and China treat each other as rivals [16]. In fact, excessive rhetoric from either side only serves to exacerbate animosity between the two powers [17]. Rhetoric paired with military provocation risks the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where labeling China as an “enemy” creates the incentive for retaliation on their part [18]. Some foreign policy analysts have suggested that the U.S. consolidate its alliance network as opposed to increasing its military presence because militarization would be perceived as escalatory [19]. However, there is arguably an even better option.


In addition to the individual pitfalls of each aforementioned security partnership, they also ignore the fact that U.S.-China tensions have an economic dimension: China is expanding its influence globally via the Belt and Road Initiative, and it currently stands as the largest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) [20]. Southeast Asian states would be less divided if they had an economic superpower to consistently rely on [21]. Currently, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are more closely aligned with China, while other Southeast Asian states tend to side with the U.S. out of concern about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea [22]. However, in the future, the economy will become a focal point for the formation of regional blocs. Analysts predict that countries in the region will start turning to China out of necessity [23] because the U.S.’ economic ties are insufficient to prevent nations from moving closer to China [24]. Despite their proposed security support, AUKUS and the Quad do little to satisfy those economic needs.


ASEAN addresses this pitfall, as well as the other drawbacks of U.S.-based minilateral networks. ASEAN is a grouping of ten nations in Southeast Asia that aims to promote economic integration and development, mutual assistance, and regional stability [25]. While not strictly a military alliance, ASEAN does have the capacity to serve as a third-party platform for dialogue, giving it the ability to mediate future U.S.-China conflicts through the ASEAN Regional Forum [26]. Previous negotiations between ASEAN and China have yielded a South China Sea Code of Conduct, though there are remaining questions with regard to its scope and nonbinding nature [27]. Despite the fact that each Southeast Asian state may individually have stronger ties to either the U.S. or China, ASEAN as an organization prioritizes maintaining the regional balance of power and neutrality between the great powers. As such, it also maintains its distance from alliances like the Quad and AUKUS [28]. ASEAN’s commitment to neutrality helps cool China’s fears of U.S. interference in the region, and its formality ensures it will remain reliable in the case of an escalating crisis [29]. Given the advantages it holds over minilaterals, ASEAN needs to be recognized by great powers as a beacon of stability in the region. 


ASEAN’s diplomatic capabilities, though, may be inhibited insofar as its centrality is under attack. The ASEAN Charter places centrality—the ability to lead and drive regional cooperation—at the forefront. The organization’s pursuit of centrality therefore emphasizes the magnitude of influence it hopes to exert over the Indo-Pacific [30]. Presently, that centrality is threatened both by external powers whose influence is outpacing that of ASEAN itself and unresolved internal conflicts, such as Myanmar’s ongoing civil war [31]. Should the U.S. step back from pursuing regional security arrangements independent of ASEAN and instead prioritize engagement with the organization directly, ASEAN may then begin to build the legitimacy it needs to become an effective middle power. 


The United States has misdiagnosed China’s intentions, causing its strategy to counter the PRC to become counterproductive. With exclusive minilateral alliance networks like JAPHUS, AUKUS, and the Quad, there is a greater risk of increasing tensions than deterring China. As such, U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific ought to pivot towards engagement with ASEAN, a neutral platform for mediating great-power dialogue with the potential to create lasting regional stability. 


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[2] Myers, Lucas. “Filling in the Indo-Pacific Latticework in Southeast Asia – The US-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Summit.” Wilson Center. April 4th, 2024.

[3] Global Times, “China blasts US-Japan-Philippines summit.”

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[7] “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration.” Association of Southeast Asian Nations. November 27th, 1971.

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[12] Rudd, “Why the Quad Alarms China.”

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[19] O’Hanlon, “Getting China right.”

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[22] Kurlantzick, Joshua. “The U.S.-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Was a Success, but Other Southeast Asian States Are Unlikely to Follow.” Council on Foreign Relations. April 12th, 2024.

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[25] “What We Do.” Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

[26] Mahbubani, Kishore. “The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani, Jeffery Sng.” Voice of Mankind. January 21st, 2024.

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[28] Rudd, “Why the Quad Alarms China.”

[29] Taylor, Brendan. “Asia’s Middle Powers Can Help Reduce the Risk of War.” Foreign Policy. October 24th, 2023.

[30] “The ASEAN Charter.” Association of Southeast Asian Nations. February 2015.

[31] Chang, Felix. “ASEAN’s Centrality in Southeast” Foreign Policy Research Institute. December 20th, 2023.