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A different kind of Asia Pacific minilateralism is now needed

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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, poses for a photo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida before their meeting at Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo, Tuesday 27 September 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Pool/Hiro Komae).

In Brief

There’s no question that the risks of political and economic fragmentation that come with great power rivalry in Asia make the task of re-energising Asia Pacific regionalism an urgent priority.


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What requires more concerted thinking is where to find the new political coalitions capable of providing the leadership that a renewed regional effort will need — and how to define and articulate the interests that will be key to binding those coalitions in a common purpose.

In this week’s lead article, Andrew Levidis makes an historically-informed contribution to this discussion, arguing that the time may be ripe to revisit the idea of a strengthened Indonesia–Japan–Australia trilateral grouping to meet the current geopolitical challenges in Asia. ‘Despite the differences in political, historical and cultural geographies,’ he writes, ‘there are clear precedents for a Tokyo–Jakarta–Canberra alignment grounded in decades of shared struggles for economic modernisation in a decolonised Asia.’

Indonesia’s New Order regime worried about Japan’s thaw in relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s and China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia — a product of its own turbulent genesis as well as its geo-strategic circumstance. Then President Suharto sought to draw Japan and Australia into a trilateral grouping that could limit what Jakarta perceived as their drift towards Beijing. ‘But the proposal was rebuffed by Tokyo and Canberra which viewed the trilateral framework as a complication to diplomatic normalisation with the PRC.’

Half a century later, ‘the logic of triangular diplomatic coordination’ among the Indonesia–Japan–Australia trilateral grouping is once again ‘compelling’, Levidis argues. ‘The three powers represent a combined population of over 400 million and wield influential voices in key institutions of global governance, most prominently the G20.’

There’s been a wholesale shift in the role that China’s spectre has played in motivating closer ties between the three countries. Whereas Indonesia’s enthusiasm for trilateral ties was closely linked to Suharto-era anxieties about PRC influence, today it is ‘expanding Sino–Indonesian diplomatic and economic ties that [blunt] the impulse toward a new minilateralism.’ Japan and Australia are now the parties with a greater interest in offering Indonesia an opportunity to build a suite of minilateral entanglements to counterbalance its China relationship but without the baggage that US-anchored groupings like the Quad might bring.

‘A regionalism both autonomous and compatible with the US alliance offers advantages’, Levidis argues. ‘For Canberra, a new compact with Tokyo and Jakarta could simultaneously bolster collaboration between Australia and ASEAN and reinvigorate Indonesian leadership in Southeast Asia’ — an interest also shared by Japan.

Indonesia’s potential for regional leadership and institution building has sometimes been used to great effect, such as in its initiation of RCEP while it chaired ASEAN in 2011. President Joko Widodo, set to leave office in 2024, has belatedly realised the diplomatic influence he holds and has used it constructively to help rescue the G20 from paralysis and drive a calculatedly tough stance on Myanmar’s junta within ASEAN. But Indonesia’s own economic policy settings, for example — as we saw with recent export bans of key commodities — speak to its ambivalence about the international leadership role to which it has now dared to aspire.

Australia’s problem of strategic imagination is palpable. Canberra’s worries about the rise of China have seen many politicians and policymakers lean unreservedly into the US alliance while Australia remains a relative spectator and non-strategic player in regional multilateralism, where most of its core economic and political security interests now reside. As Levidis puts it, ‘[f]or Australia, the Tokyo­–Jakarta–Canberra alignment requires the recovery of older visions of Asian regionalism alongside new modes of thinking about the past, present and future.’ Australia’s recently-elected Labor government is getting the rhetoric right on ASEAN and multilateralism, but so far these areas have seen nothing like the investment of bureaucratic resources and political capital bestowed on minilateral initiatives such as the Quad and AUKUS.

Japan is in a similar predicament. It faces a crucial test of its policymaking dexterity in finding a sustainable line between its key alliance relationship with the United States and its objective interest in preventing the retreat from multilateralism on which its postwar security was equally built. The fragmentation of the global tech and electronics industries that the US ‘decoupling’ agenda has now imposed upon Japan, South Korea and Europe, and Japan’s own limited attempts at ‘onshoring’, speak loudly to Tokyo’s need to find another course.

The takeaway is that the opportunities for fresh thinking and new configurations of the smaller regional powers — whether within the existing ASEAN-based architecture or looser complementary groupings like the trilateral that Levidis suggests — would be greatly expanded if Australia and Japan could embrace the need to venture out from the safe intellectual territory of their US alliances without risking them in any way.

When we think of minilateralism in the Asia Pacific we usually think of the Quad and AUKUS. Despite the attempts to add on public-goods bells and whistles, the Quad, like AUKUS, is essentially a coalition of countries concerned with cooperating to provide a military counterweight to China. They might be adequate vehicles for achieving that aim, but minilateralism can and should also be harnessed in service of regional norm and institution building — as essential as any military deterrent in keeping the peace in the region we inhabit.

In a perfect world, multilateral projects would be midwifed multilaterally. But if minilateralism of the kind that Levidis proposes serves the Asian regionalism agenda — especially one tightly interwoven with the existing ASEAN-based regional architecture — then the region (and the United States) should welcome the political momentum of that agenda wherever it comes from.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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