Squad And The Rise Of Minilateralism In The Indo-Pacific – Analysis


By Sayantan Haldar and Abhishek Sharma

The Indo-Pacific security landscape has emerged as a critical flashpoint for geopolitical contests. Growing Chinese naval aggression in the South China Sea (SCS) has long been a major concern for countries with strategic stakes in the region. The United States (US) and other like-minded countries have increasingly looked to bolster efforts to counter the imminent threats posed by China’s increased naval activities.

Much of the Chinese aggression in recent months has been targeted at the Philippines, a US treaty ally, which is confronting Beijing’s maritime misconduct in the SCS on a regular basis. Therefore to further strengthen the Philippines’ maritime security, the Defense Ministers of the US, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines met in Hawaii to discuss ways of advancing and continuing maritime cooperation. As per media reports, this grouping of four has been named ‘Squad’ by Pentagon officials.

Squad, security, and South China Sea  

Beijing’s continued efforts to reclaim contested maritime spaces through aggressive naval posturing in the SCS have been instrumental in intensifying the geopolitical contest in the region. In recent times, tensions between China and the Philippines have been the focal point of conversations about the evolving geopolitics in the SCS. The West Philippine Sea, which Manila claims to have jurisdiction over, has emerged as the hotbed of the Sino-Filipino contest.

However, confrontation between China and the Philippines is not new. In 2016, Manila moved to the Permanent Court of Arbitration against Beijing, challenging its historical claims over the nine-dash line—a critical maritime passage—key to Chinese maritime interests for the free flow of trade and resources. Tensions peaked earlier in March, in the aftermath of a physical confrontation between Chinese and Philippine soldiers which injured Manila’s soldiers and damaged their vessels. This prompted Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to pledge to initiate countermeasures proportional to Chinese aggressions in the contested waterways.

President Marcos Jr., who assumed office in 2022, appears to have brought a shift in Manila’s strategy to deal with China. Marcos Jr. has further aligned with the US in its efforts to counter China. Amidst the ongoing tensions, Manila appeared to indicate its willingness to pursue a robust approach to dealing with China by way of joining the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral in 2024, which held its first leader’s summit in Washington on 11 April 2024.

Furthermore, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, on May 03, 2024, convened a meeting with his counterparts from Australia, Japan, and the Philippines emphasising their collective commitment to advance collaboration to counter Chinese conduct of obstructing the Philippines’ freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The coming together of this grouping has been popularised as the formation of ‘Squad’. Nonetheless, the second meeting between the Defense Ministers of the Squad countries followed the first meeting which was held on 3 June 2023, where they discussed the same issue.

Besides Squad, the other minilateral and bilateral groupings feature in the maritime security thinking of the Philippines. These include the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral, and the Philippines’ bilateral defence relations with the US and Japan. Australia’s addition stops short of going beyond just holding joint military exercises, or what it called, maritime cooperative activity.

Thus, Squad’s emergence should be seen in two contexts, first is the failure of multilateral institutions like ASEAN in the region and the unwillingness of many ASEAN members to condemn Chinese coercive action outrightly; second, by way of establishing new complementary frameworks to strengthen the maritime security in West Philippine Sea through a mesh of a viable security arrangement, both bilateral and trilateral. Squad’s role in the present context is limited in scope and space as compared to other frameworks that exist.

Minilateralism and the logic of maritime security 

The formation of this new minilateral grouping has prompted some important questions.  Why are such configurations emerging in the Indo-Pacific? What explains the rise of minilaterals in the region? Further, with US, Japan, and Australia involved in this grouping, and being named ‘Squad’, naturally, references have been drawn to the already existing Quad.

Firstly, it would be inaccurate to view the emergence of the Squad as an outcome at the cost of the already existing Quad. Needless to mention, the leadership at Washington, Canberra. Tokyo and New Delhi continue to highlight the importance of the Quad, and no indication in contrast to this has emerged yet. The synergy among the Quad countries is directed towards fostering a secure and stable Indo-Pacific.

On the other hand, the Squad should be seen in the context of the specific contests that have characterized the SCSregion, and even more specifically the West Philippine Sea. India, and by extension, Quad’s role in the SCS, though relevant, remains limited in this specific sub-geography. The operational focus of any minilateral grouping is grounded on the geographies of their collective interests. For its part, the Quad has made promising progress in expanding realms of cooperation for maritime security. This is further evidenced by the joint naval cooperation—the Malabar Exercise, which has been conducted by the navies of the Quad countries routinely in important geographies in the Indo-Pacific.

Secondly, the question of rising minilaterals merits critical attention. The Indo-Pacific is a vast maritime geography. In this context, it is only natural that several countries are likely to have a varied focus on specific sub-regions which is determined by several factors. First, the geographical location is a key variable that shapes the contours of the strategic focus of various countries. Second, the geographies of strategic partnerships that a country pursues are a major variable. Third, interests in global trade, energy security, and marine resources also tend to dictate the specific subregions in which a country chooses to remain active. This is evident in the case of the Indo-Pacific as well. For example, the US has directed most of its focus towards the subregions in the Indo-Pacific towards the Pacific.

On the other hand, for India, the Indian Ocean, including the Western Indian Ocean has been its primary theatre of security interests. Australia appears to be expanding its focus towards the Indian Ocean under the Indo-Pacific rubric. Likewise, for the Philippines, its immediate maritime periphery, the SCS has been at the centre of its maritime security thinking in the Indo-Pacific context. Moreover, in the case of the Squad, like AUKUS, all the countries involved are largely security treaty partners of the US. Therefore, a security-oriented arrangement with a specific focus on a subregion is likely to emerge.

Further, due to the limited geographic scope of operations, minilateral groupings require a specific focus with less number of players involved. In a minilateral grouping, all the players involved are likely to be equally committed to cooperation and collaboration due to the similar nature of threat perception. These serve as an important foundation for players in minilateral initiatives to bolster cooperation due to their shared goals. In many ways, this explains the rise of minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific, in the place of a broader multilateral grouping involving players who have varied geographies of strategic and security interest. Additionally, minilateralism has also emerged as an important medium of bolstering cooperation for small and developing countries, who often are mindful of not positioning themselves at the crossroads of great-power contests. In this way, minilaterals are also useful in the construction of security architectures in specific subregions sensitive to the maritime security interests of players involved in the region.

The rise of Squad has, among other things, prompted a much-required debate on the rise of minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific. The proliferation of such groupings has come as a boon to several players involved in the broader geopolitics ensuing in the region. Minilateral groupings are seen as helpful as they aid in the making of maritime security architectures based on the strategic and security compulsions of the players involved in the region providing them with more space and agency to manoeuvre the complex challenges at sea. This is a natural outcome of the very nature in which geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific has evolved, involving maritime spaces with varied strategic environments, and countries with wide-ranging interests.

About the authors:

  • Sayantan Haldar is a Research Assistant with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Abhishek Sharma is a Research Assistant with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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