Pay attention to Asian minilateralism

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby

About the author

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is Associate Professor of International Studies at De La Salle University, Manila.


The Indo-Pacific “operating system” described by the Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi in “How America Can Shore up Asian Order” overlaps with many other descriptions of the regional order. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is the latest iteration of what was previously called Asia Pacific, and the Far East prior to that. The global order created in the aftermath of the Second World War has been described as “neoliberal” or “rules-based”, and has shaped the region.

These orders converge around the core principles of sovereignty, rules about movement (such as freedom of navigation), and norms regulating interdependence, chiefly cross-border trade. Campbell and Doshi correctly identify transparency as another important element of the regional order. It promotes a state’s credibility to honour agreements and treaties, signals trust, and can smooth cooperation on transnational challenges and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

However, their analysis of the Indo-Pacific operating system represents an external perspective on the region. International relations scholarship is biased towards great powers and they portray the region chiefly as a site of great power competition. In this sort of analysis, regional dynamics are typically assessed in terms of power transition and the balance of power. Rising US-China tensions in the South China Sea and geo-economic competition, such as that over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is the focus of this form of analysis.

For the regional order to be recognised as legitimate, its main tenets must be localised. What is missing is the view of Asia from Asia. Campbell and Doshi’s suggestions for restoring balance and legitimacy, and forging coalitions in the Indo-Pacific, would be stronger if they were anchored in an understanding of local dynamics that are unique to the region.

Many in Asia will agree that China’s assertive moves need to be checked. US re-engagement in the region and support for Southeast Asian states’ own asymmetric capabilities are indeed critical. But more attention to local capacity would have revealed that local militaries must first be modernised. Only then can new military-to-military partnerships be normalised, stabilised and institutionalised such that they can continue despite changes in leadership.

Understanding the local context helps make sense of the Philippines’ switches in alliance from the United States to China and back again. Although the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration found against China and in favour of the Philippines, Manila lacked the military capacity to act on the ruling. It could not present a minimum credible defence posture, let alone fortify the country’s position in the South China Sea disputes. The pandemic made clear that the Philippines needed the alliance with the United States to jumpstart modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to Manila managed to put the arrangement back on track.

More local knowledge can also improve understanding of geoeconomic competition in the region. Many in the Indo-Pacific would agree that China relies on economic strategies and tools to advance its interests. But those countries equally recognise their own limitations in providing material benefits to their people and so are attracted to the financing and technical assistance offered by the Belt and Road Initiative. They often become aware of the “debt trap” and the shortcomings in project delivery only after signing up, demonstrating a need to decouple supply chains from China. The United States should work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community (AEC) to shift supply chains towards local producers and contribute to the region’s overall growth.

Campbell and Doshi recommend the forging of coalitions to counter China, with an emphasis on smaller, issue-based ad hoc arrangements. They focus on groups such as the D-10, G7 and the Quad, none of which include Southeast Asian countries. They argue for expanding the Quad. But unless the Quad can address the misperception that it is an anti-China grouping, it will not gain further traction in the region.

Overlooked is the organically emerging trend towards minilateralism in Asia, including the development of small, functional, problem-centric arrangements such as the Lower Mekong Initiative. A key to the success of these coalitions is grassroots knowledge, which is why investing in human resources and holding track 1.5 and 2 dialogues are so essential.

From an outsider’s perspective, Asia may seem like it is simply hedging or bandwagoning. An insider view can account for domestic nuances that are grounded in language and grassroots knowledge of the region. Taking better consideration of local dynamics will be necessary to shore up the balance, legitimacy and coalitions of the “Indo-Pacific operating system”.

Challenge the expert

Ben Scott, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project, challenges Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby’s key arguments.

You write that “many in Asia will agree that China’s assertive moves need to be checked” and that there is agreement “that China relies on economic strategies and tools to advance its interests”. What is driving this view and how widespread is it?

The legitimacy and the longevity of the Indo-Pacific operating system is challenged by a rising – or a risen! – China. Its assertive moves in the South China Sea, which continue unabated despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 award in favour of the Philippines, defy the rules-based international order. In March 2021, the Philippines reported the presence of more than 200 Chinese militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, a maritime feature in the Spratly Islands and that falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In response, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin immediately filed a diplomatic protest with the Chinese Embassy in Manila, while Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana guaranteed that the country is ready to defend its “national sovereignty and protect the country’s marine resources of the Philippines.” The US-Philippine alliance may seem to flounder from time to time, but in instances such as this, Washington is quick to offer its support to the Philippines.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, China projected itself as the prototype for pandemic response and extended help to other countries via its mask and vaccine diplomacy. Private Chinese companies sent masks, medical gear, and personnel abroad to help curb the health emergency. China’s vaccine diplomacy was nowhere more apparent than in the Philippines, whose largest vaccine procurement is from Sinovac. While the humanitarian assistance has certainly been welcome, China’s “political calculus” in these efforts shone through, especially as it came to light that the medical paraphernalia and the vaccines were of subpar quality.

China’s coercive diplomacy has also been extended to several countries in the Indo-Pacific, with Australia the most recent target after it barred Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network, and called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China retaliated by banning and disrupting a wide range of Australian exports like coal, barley, and beef from entering the Chinese market. Actions like this raise the question of China’s credibility as a trade partner because such a pattern of economic coercion undermines the rules-based trading system.

Several studies conducted in the last couple of years show that Beijing’s assertive moves have strengthened the view that China needs to be checked. The State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey by the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute reveals that 61.5 percent of 1,032 respondents around the region choose to align with the United States, while only 38.5 percent prefer China. Similarly, the ARS 2020 study on Philippine perceptions on national security and priorities shows that of 663 respondents from the Filipino strategic community, 85.2 percent prefer the United States as a partner and only 27.6 percent prefer China. Perceptions on the Quad are along similar lines. In 2018, an ASPI study among strategic professionals in the 10 ASEAN countries indicated that 55 percent of 276 respondents viewed the Quad positively. This view is supported by another study conducted by the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress in 2019, the highlight of which is that Filipino respondents favour the Quad as a counterweight to China’s actions in the region.

How can the United States reconcile its focus on minilateral forums that do not include Southeast Asian countries, such as the Quad and AUKUS, with the trend that you identify towards minilateralism within Asia?

Many minilateral arrangements exclude the small Southeast Asian states. That is true of the he recently established AUKUS pact and the Quad, but also trilateral arrangements such as the Japan-China-Korea meetings. These alignments are further evidence that Southeast Asia occupies a space, as Elina Noor observes, between “jostling giants”.

In this context, one way for the United States to reconcile and reshape its focus on minilateralism to make it more inclusive of Southeast Asian nations is to harness Track 1.5 and Track 2 engagements. Investing in human resources and tapping into the people-to-people linkages can overcome the US focus on what Hong Thi Ha refers to as “ideological framings”.

An example is the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue, an annual initiative that brings practitioners, academics, and analysts together and is an integral component of Track 2 diplomacy. This can be replicated for other actors and issues. The South China Sea, for example, is not only a geopolitical issue. International platforms and mechanisms should be developed to protect the marine environment and to develop coastal areas. Action by states can be complemented by a Track 1.5 or Track 2 that includes and cultivates a network of grassroots stakeholders who can ensure the success of these efforts.

How do you expect US policy towards the region would change in practical terms if it paid more attention to “domestic nuances that are grounded in language and grassroots knowledge of the region”?

If US policy pays more attention to regional nuances, it will become more comprehensive. It would also likely transform into a policy that is more endogenous to the region, and therefore more sustainable.


Five essays from experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.