The Quad and AUKUS strengthen Australia’s hand in a contested Indo-Pacific
1 Jun 2022|

With Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s attendance at the Quad summit in Tokyo hot on the heels of an in-flight phone conversation with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding AUKUS, it appears that small-group configurations—‘minilaterals’—have acquired a central place in Australia’s approach to regional security. The new PM’s race to the Quad leaders’ summit only hours after his election victory demonstrates the paramount importance he, like his predecessor Scott Morrison, attaches to such cooperative mechanisms.

The terms ‘Quad’ and ‘AUKUS’ are now highly familiar to any follower of international affairs.

Defining ‘minilaterals’ defies a single or simple answer. To reduce them to their essence: they are small-group (typically 3-6 members) configurations that bring together ‘like-minded’ partners in alignment to work on practical solutions to shared policy challenges.

Exclusive minilateral groups typically unite around a common purpose that brings their members into alignment. This distinguishes them from much larger pan-regional multilateral forums aimed at simply bringing states into dialogue (such as the East Asian Summit or ASEAN Regional Forum). The latter are more inclusive, but encompass too many states to form easy consensus, and often contain antagonistic parties.

Minilaterals may be functionally specific, designed to focus on one issue area such as economics or security, or may adopt a more multi-faceted and comprehensive common agenda.

Even security-orientated minilaterals are no longer confined to ‘traditional’ security issues but increasingly focus on ‘security’ writ large to facilitate collaboration on economic, environmental and health (pandemic) and other non-traditional security challenges.

As relatively informal institutions, they are aimed at retaining flexibility and adaptability, and generally lack a developed organisational apparatus and/or infrastructure. Nor are they bound by mutual defence treaties, as found in military alliances.

Minilaterals are set apart from larger multilateral security institutions like ASEAN-plus but exist in a state of dynamic tension with them. For example, the Quad pays due deference to ASEAN ‘centrality’ in is official statements, including linkage with the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, while—so far—AUKUS has not referenced ASEAN, and is viewed with scepticism by the Southeast Asian grouping.

Minilaterals are open-ended groupings in that they are potentially amenable to deepening or widening the field of cooperation or expanding their membership—provided the candidate state shares the core mission and values of the minilateral. Ill-considered admission of new members, or too many new members, would undermine these, effectively transforming them into multilaterals.

There are, of course, caveats to this general formula, and every minilateral will be unique. For example, the former six-party talks (2003-2009) did bring together the US, Japan and South Korea with North Korea, China and Russia for the (nominally) common purpose of denuclearising the peninsula, but the divergent interests of the assembled parties were ultimately irreconcilable, finally leading to North Korea’s withdrawal.

Australia’s deep investment in minilateral formations is relatively easy to account for. The country’s formidable array of defence networks includes its pivotal alliance with the US and its special strategic partnership with Japan, and extends to trilateral and quadrilateral cooperation, and beyond. As a geostrategically located ‘middle power’ Australia is deeply affected by the swirling currents of competition in the Indo-Pacific but lacks the indigenous resource base and capabilities to provide for its security independently. Allies, partners and minilateral alignments are therefore a strategic necessity to safeguard Australian national interests (often in tandem with its values). Several minilaterals such as the Quad, AUKUS and others are also ‘networked’ into the US ‘hub-and spokes’ alliance system in the Indo-Pacific; the greater edifice upon which Australia depends to ensure its national security and uphold the regional rules-based order.

Despite being overshadowed by the larger powers of the US, Japan, India and the UK, Australia’s contributions to the Quad and AUKUS are viewed positively by its partners. It brings assets such as its geostrategic location (training grounds and facilities, especially in the Northern Territory), diplomatic influence (especially in the increasingly crucial South Pacific), a small but capable military, (with ambitious plans for modernisation) and a ‘can-do’ attitude. In return it intensifies its interaction with these major powers, gains access to advanced defence technologies and acquires a more influential voice in shaping the regional security environment. This becomes a ‘virtuous circle’ as the major powers assist Australia develop its engagement and capabilities, the country’s appeal as a valued partner increases commensurately.

Though the Quad and AUKUS have dominated discussion of Australia’s minilateral activities, the practise of minilateralism to supplement (and reinforce) the US alliance and the broader ASEAN-led regional architecture did not begin or end with these two examples. Several other minilateral configurations remain important to Australian strategic policy.

In particular, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) process with the US and Japan, initiated in 2001, holds high potential and is overdue for a renewal, having last met in 2019. The TSD unites Australia and Japan as the two most proactive of America’s allies—and ‘special strategic partners’—into a closely knit and potentially highly effective mechanism, especially when it comes to addressing more traditional military threats. With shared adhesion to Washington’s’ Indo-Pacific strategy, the military forces of the three powers are complementary and interoperable, and, unlike the Quad, are less subject to equivocations over strategic signalling, as witnessed recently though India’s divergent response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Likewise, the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangements involving Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, is an often overlooked relationship, yet it remains an important facilitator of defence cooperation in peninsular Southeast Asia, creating synergies with AUKUS and Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ policy.

The list goes on. One could mention the Australia–India–Japan trilateral, but this would seem of relatively less utility than the Quad itself, or the Australia–India–France trilateral, again of lesser import and utility, and recently tainted by the diplomatic travails between Canberra and Paris over AUKUS. Not all minilaterals acquire the profile and relevance of the Quad or AUKUS.

Of course, the diplomatic landscape is littered with defunct or otherwise moribund minilaterals such as the six-party talks, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the Trilateral Cooperation and Oversight Group and the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat. Each and any minilateral is subject to dissolution, but certain configurations appear to be going from strength to strength with both political endorsement and strategic analyses taking optimistic views on the Quad and AUKUS.

There is good reason for Canberra to support greater integration within its most prominent minilateral mechanisms as they provide valuable intersections with—or alternatives to—both the US alliance and the multilateral regional architecture. In this respect they add another powerful instrument to Canberra’s diplomatic and strategic toolkit as Australia faces unprecedented challenges to its national security.