New Rules of Multilateralism: Minilateral and Multilateral Formats in the Indo-Pacific and Beyond

03 December 2020   ·   Michito Tsuruoka

Germany’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific has relied on bilateral efforts with major countries in the region. Such efforts should now be supplemented with flexible mini- and multilateral formats of cooperation centred around like-minded partners. The success or failure of these formats in the Indo-Pacific will be crucial for multilateralism beyond the region.

With its new policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific, released in September 2020 by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Germany seems to be joining a group of countries engaged in the region. Berlin’s willingness to expand its role in the Indo-Pacific is widely welcomed by its like-minded partners, particularly Japan and Australia. Strengthening bilateral ties with those and other countries in the region is no doubt important and Berlin has already tried to upgrade these strategic relationships. However, for the purpose of playing a substantial role and raising Germany’s political and security profile in the Indo-Pacific, those bilateral efforts need to be supplemented by minilateral – involving three, four or five countries – and broader multilateral formats of cooperation. These types of flexible formats can set an example for the ongoing debate on Germany’s White Paper on multilateralism.

The German policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific have attracted an unusually high level of attention in both Europe and the countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Australia, India, China and Japan as well as the United States, indicating high expectations. Yet, critics express concerns about Berlin’s still hesitant and economy-focused approach to the region, arguing that it does not yet match the reality on the ground where China has become a bigger and more substantial military challenge to the region and beyond. Also, differences between the respective approaches of Germany and France have caught attention: whereas Germany’s approach remains economy-focused, France’s is more security-oriented.

Germany’s Engagement in the Indo-Pacific Is Becoming More Strategic

Yet, a couple of new phenomena can be discerned, including in view of addressing the rise of China. First, Germany, though somewhat belatedly, has come up with a clearer idea of expanding the military aspect of its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Defence Minister, recently spoke to a webinar hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an Australian think tank, in which she said Berlin would deploy a naval vessel to the Indian Ocean in 2021 and put German liaison officers aboard Australian vessels. For those who expect Germany’s military engagement in the region, this is indeed good news, demonstrating that Berlin’s role is not limited to the economic domains. While Kramp-Karrenbauer has highlighted bilateral cooperation with Australia, it is obvious that once in the Indian Ocean, there will be opportunities to work with other countries’ navies for training and exercises. Going beyond sending liaison officers, Germany – or other countries for that matter – could also send its personnel, along with equipment, e.g. helicopters, on other countries’ vessels. This practice is called “cross-decking” and would enable a sort of German presence without independent deployment.

Second, the distinction between security and economy has blurred a lot, particularly in the context of addressing challenges from China. The US-China strategic competition is no doubt one over military superiority between the two superpowers. However, equally important is the fact that US-China tensions revolve around new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), data and 5G as well as intellectual property over these technologies; export control and investment rules. This is exactly why the EU and countries with strong economic and technological prowess like Japan play an increasingly vital role in addressing Chinese challenges. It is, therefore, natural that an incoming Biden administration of the US is likely to work more with allies and partners in both Europe and Asia. In other words, the fact that Germany is not supposed to play a major direct military role in the Indo-Pacific region should not belittle the vital contribution that the country could make to the region.

Flexible Minilateral Formats Are Key to Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

Given that the Indo-Pacific region is vast, stretching from the west coast of the mainland US to the east coast of the African continent, cooperation among multiple countries is indispensable. While various stakeholders in the region pronounce their own strategy, vision or policy guidelines, none can achieve their objectives alone. The bilateral relationships between Japan and the US, or Japanese-Australian cooperation are at the core of regional dynamics. To complement those bilateral relationships, there have been various attempts to organise minilateral frameworks involving three, four, or a few more countries. The most significant among those is something called the “Quad” – a cooperation framework among Australia, India, Japan and the United States. There are talks about institutionalising this framework and of strengthening its outreach to other countries like the UK, France and potentially the EU, the latter being called “Quad-plus.” In the meantime, an Australian-French-Indian trilateral dialogue has also been launched recently.

Europe’s own minilateral frameworks like the E3 – France, Germany, and the UK – could also be used for Germany’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, the three countries issued a joint statement on the South China Sea in August 2019. The E3 has some advantages. First, it is likely to be more efficient than involving all 27 member states of the EU. Second, the E3 framework could keep Britain involved in Europe-Indo-Pacific conversations following Brexit. London has historical links to various parts of the region and it remains in the EU’s overall interest to get Britain on board.

Other possible frameworks that could be made use of includes the Group of Seven – involving Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, as well as the EU – and what could be called D10 (10 democracies): the G7 plus Australia, India, and South Korea. Partnering with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also a key, as rightly highlighted in the German guidelines on the Indo-Pacific.

Multilateral Frameworks in the Indo-Pacific Are Crucial for the Future of Multilateralism

What is important above all is to maintain flexibility. Appropriate formats vary according to the topics to be addressed. Building a multilateral framework should never be pursued as an end in itself. Mission determines grouping: a framework suitable for joint military exercises may not necessarily be fit for export control cooperation. This is certainly not unique to the Indo-Pacific region. Yet, given the increasing weight of the region, the fate of multilateralism in the world will be heavily affected by its successes and failures in the Indo-Pacific region. Addressing the rise of China and navigating through US-China tensions will be an important test for multilateral formats.

Tokyo, under its banner of “free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” has been enhancing its engagement in the region, creating more opportunities for Japan-Europe cooperation. Japan’s policy toward Europe had long depended on the UK as the “gateway” to the EU, not just in trade and investment terms, but also in foreign and security policy terms. This now needs to change for the obvious reason of Brexit. Tokyo is in the process of establishing a new gateway. Berlin is one of the most obvious choices. This gives a new momentum for the development of Japan-Germany bilateral relationship. But for the two countries to take full advantage of the path they could jointly pursue, they need to involve other countries and actors in their endeavours, be it in minilateral or multilateral settings. This is a new rule of the game.

English Multilateralismus Indo-Pacific

Michito Tsuruoka

Michito Tsuruoka is an associate professor at Keio University, Japan. @MichitoTsuruoka