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Minilateralism involves small groups of nations collaborating to tackle problems or pursue mutual goals. The relations become Informal, flexible, voluntary frameworks with varied situational interests, shared values and exploiting relevant capabilities.


In the pursuit of “effective multilateralism,” Europe has demonstrated a commitment to practical collaboration beyond traditional organizational structures. This approach resonates with the dynamic security landscape of the Indo-Pacific, where adaptability and diverse partnerships are essential. Both Europe and the EU recognize numerous avenues to advance their interests and translate strategic plans into actionable initiatives in the region. Aligning with Europe’s emphasis on tangible outcomes, partnerships with key Indo-Pacific players such as India, France, the UK, and the Netherlands have flourished across economic, security, and diplomatic domains. These collaborations extend beyond conventional alliances, encompassing trilateral engagements and discussions on nuclear considerations, reflecting the complexity and strategic significance of the region. 

Europe navigates the evolving power dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, and minilateral approaches emerge as pragmatic tools to navigate complexities and achieve concrete results. By leveraging flexible partnerships grounded in science diplomacy and international cooperation, Europe seeks to address shared challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities. 

Acknowledging China’s growing influence, European engagement adopts an inclusive stance, aiming to moderate assertive behaviours through normative power. This balanced approach underscores Europe’s role as a constructive partner in shaping regional dynamics. As the world observes closely, Europe’s evolving role in the Indo-Pacific offers insights into effective multilateralism in an interconnected world. By embracing science diplomacy and prioritizing international cooperation, Europe sets a precedent for collaborative engagement in a region critical to global peace and prosperity.

Minilateralism and Opportunities

The Indo-Pacific has experienced significant turbulence due to the ongoing competition between the United States and China. This rivalry had a profound impact, leading to the reinforcement of traditional alliances and partnerships on both sides, intensifying the divisive dynamics in the region. Moreover, the great power rivalry has given rise to an array of bilateral strategic partnerships, along with various formal and informal coalitions formed by smaller and mid-sized nations seeking to safeguard against its adverse consequences. Furthermore, we witness the emergence of numerous spontaneous cooperative arrangements aimed at addressing a wide range of security issues, including concerns related to maritime security, connectivity, and the security of supply chains. 

The rise of minilateral forums has experienced a notable surge in recent years, even though the concept of minilateralism has been present in a more subtle manner for a considerable period. The emergence of entities like the G7 in 1973 is commonly regarded as a distinct illustration of pure minilateralism that primarily focused on groups within larger multilateral organizations.1 As a result, even recent scholarly studies have sometimes portrayed minilateralism as just another version of multilateralism. However, scholars like Stewart Patrick termed it the “New Multilateralism.”2 Nonetheless, the term “minilateralism” is frequently used without a precise definition. It refers to the groupings of three to five nations aiming to coordinate their strategic goals to enhance practical cooperation in specific areas. 

It is important to note that the number of states required for a group to be classified as minilateral depends on the prevailing types of multilateralism in a particular region and time. For instance, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was considered a multilateral framework since its establishment in 1967, expanded from five members to ten by 1999. In Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), formed in 2001, comprises six states and is seen as a multilateral framework. On the other hand, the Five Power Defence Arrangements are perceived in different ways. They were historically seen as multilateral groupings but now some Entities view them as minilateral groups. 3In the context of the Indo-Pacific, any groups consisting of three to five members should be labelled as minilateral rather than multilateral. Minilateral setups allow for more streamlined and effective decision-making compared to larger multilateral structures. Given the intricacies of the Indo-Pacific region and the diverse interests of its stakeholders, minilateral groups can facilitate more focused discussions, quicker consensus-building, and more agile responses to dynamic challenges. This approach acknowledges the region’s unique characteristics and the advantages of fostering cooperation among a select number of key players. 

The differing approaches of the US and China have led to the formation of new security arrangements, visible through minilateral groupings. The shift from ‘Asia-Pacific’ to ‘Indo-Pacific’ has triggered new strategic alliances and developments in the region with countries like France and the UK taking on greater roles, and China deepening economic engagements. These include the Quad, focusing on setting norms to prevent China from unilateral rule-setting, and AUKUS, concentrating on bolstering military capabilities for regional stability. These changes reflect evolving geopolitical dynamics with significant strategic consequences. 

The rise of minilateralism was propelled by two key factors during the 2000s: the increasing importance of non-traditional security concerns and a rising China on the global stage. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, combating terrorism took centre stage in international security discourse, prompting the need for heightened global cooperation. Notably, the US was eager to forge international coalitions, exemplified by the formation of the Trilateral Security Dialogue4. China’s increasing economic and strategic influence had a significant impact on regional dynamics. 5In response, the United States aimed to create strategic alliances, notably with India, to counterbalance China. In the early 2010s, a new trend of minilateralism gained momentum in response to China’s assertiveness. The traditional security framework in Asia, involving U.S. alliances and ASEAN multilateralism, was deemed insufficient in dealing with China’s growing assertiveness. China’s territorial expansion, disregard for the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling in 2016, and increased pressure on India along disputed borders highlighted the need for a revised approach. China’s economic strength, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative, also challenged existing international norms. These factors led to the formation and institutionalization of minilateral groups to counter China’s expanding influence, giving rise to a more strategically focused Indo-Pacific minilateralism. 

However, during this period, minilateral frameworks were primarily established based on functional cooperation aimed at addressing non-traditional security issues. This approach was driven partly by the perception that increased formal coalitions may be interpreted as anti-China efforts aimed at encircling or containing China, which many governments were hesitant of. They did not want to be seen in the anti-China camp as the latter’s economic potential outweighed its perceived threats for some. This cautious stance grew stronger post the unsuccessful attempts in 2007 to establish an earlier version of the Quad. Initiated by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it experienced setbacks as Australia and India withdrew due to China’s expressed apprehensions about its strategic intent.6 

Trilateralism and Triangular Cooperation 

In the Indo-Pacific region, trilateralism is becoming increasingly significant due to regional security uncertainties, differentiating itself from multilateralism and unilateralism. It involves interactions among three entities, typically nation-states, to enhance security and connectivity through expanded and diversified relationships. Trilateral partnerships can significantly bolster infrastructure networks, economic growth, disaster response, and technological advancements. India, France, and the UAE: Recently, these countries discussed defence cooperation within a trilateral framework to strengthen efforts in the Indo-Pacific, complementing initiatives like the Quad and addressing China’s assertiveness.7 Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the United States: In August 2023, leaders from these nations held an unprecedented summit at Camp David, resulting in “The Spirit of Camp David” joint statement. This agreement includes increasing consultations, sophisticated joint military exercises, real-time missile warning data sharing on North Korea, economic security collaboration, and a pilot early warning system for stabilizing global supply chains. This trilateral coordination responds to the growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, aiming to revive and initiate maritime and aerial defence cooperation.8 

Triangular cooperation extends beyond trilateralism, involving governments, international organizations, and non-governmental actors. It encompasses a wider range of collaborative efforts, not limited to security and infrastructure, potentially including various forms of international cooperation. The trilateral efforts between Japan, South Korea, and the US highlight an ambitious defence cooperation agenda, addressing North Korean threats and enhancing joint military capabilities. On the other hand, if we look at global coordination then the overlap of Japan and South Korea as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council with the US demonstrates potential for expanded trilateral cooperation in global diplomatic activities, as seen in their coordinated response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.9 Therefore, the rise of trilateralism and triangular cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and beyond signifies a strategic shift towards more focused and diversified partnerships aimed at addressing regional and global challenges. 

Permanent Security Frameworks and Regional Impacts 

The contrast between the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic regions in terms of permanent security frameworks is notable. The Atlantic region benefits from NATO, a longstanding security alliance providing a collective defence framework. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific lacks a single dominant security framework, leading to the emergence of minilateral cooperation as a pragmatic solution. 

In the Atlantic region, NATO has provided security and stability and acts as a deterrent against potential aggressors. However, the Indo-Pacific’s complex dynamics, including the rise of China and territorial disputes, challenge the feasibility of replicating a NATO-like alliance in the region. Instead, minilateralism reflects the region’s diversity of interests and concerns. Small groupings, such as the Quad, the Malacca Strait Patrols, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, allow nations to address specific security challenges while maintaining flexibility and adaptability. 

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation 

Amidst these circumstances, the Chinese initiatives to establish the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) gain considerable importance. Unveiled in 2015, the LMC is a collaborative endeavour between China and its neighbouring Mekong region, spanning politico-security matters, economic concerns, social interactions, people-to-people connections, and sustainable development.10 This recent emphasis on the LMC underscores China’s strategic intention to bolster its presence and influence within the Mekong area. Particularly noteworthy is China’s inclusion of sustainable development in the LMC framework, signalling their intent to showcase an innovative model of hydro-diplomacy. Given its status as an upstream state along the Mekong River, China perceives the LMC as an avenue to improve the quality of life for people residing in the downstream area. 

ASEAN perceives the situation as China’s attempt to present the LMC as a distinct form of the “Asian Security and Development” structure, akin to that of SCO in Central Asia.11 ASEAN member states contend that the new minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific should not vie with ASEAN but rather supplement its efforts. In this context, India is gaining favourable acknowledgement for its approach, emphasizing that its vision of the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) both centre around ASEAN. Conversely, China, through the LMC, appears to deviate from this approach. Consequently, the Indo-Pacific landscape seems to be characterized by a blend of competitive and cooperative minilateral frameworks. 

Strategic and Developmental Minilateral Partnerships 

The Indo-Pacific has led to the rise of strategic and developmental alliances that shape its regional dynamics. European nations are participating in these alliances to demonstrate their dedication towards the region’s security and prosperity. Through coordinated strategies and cooperative development, these alliances have created a mutually beneficial environment for regional well-being. 

Strategic alliances like the India-France-Japan trilateral enhance geopolitical strategies, aligning efforts and bolstering collective influence. 12 Simultaneously, developmental alliances, exemplified by the Mekong-Japan Initiative, foster growth, infrastructure, and stability. These initiatives promote shared advancement, contributing to lasting peace and security in the region. Minilateral initiatives by the European powers in the region are actively contributing towards the strategic and developmental aspects. They find common ground with regional partners and align their interests to collectively address the challenges of maritime security, freedom of navigation, and an international rules-based order. 

Simultaneously, European countries are also embarking on developmental alliances aimed at fostering sustainable growth and connectivity in the region. Collaborative projects enhancing trade, infrastructure, and technological integration showcase their dedication towards the region’s holistic development. Countries like France, the UK, and Germany are leveraging their diplomatic and economic strengths to shape the evolving landscape. For instance, initiatives focusing on clean energy, digital connectivity, and sustainable development resonate well with the Indo-Pacific’s evolving needs. By contributing to the socio-economic progress of the region, European developmental alliances have created a solid foundation for enduring peace and stability. This cohesive approach ensures a shared commitment to upholding the norms of the Indo-Pacific, thereby ensuring stability. 

Science Diplomacy and Minilateralism 

Minilateral partnerships, involving a small number of states or entities, can be strategic and developmental, focusing on specific issues or regions. Science Diplomacy is integral to these partnerships, providing a platform for nations to collaborate on scientific endeavours that drive development and address shared challenges. Examples of such initiatives can be the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project13, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)14, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI)15, International Space Station (ISS), Human Genome Project (HGP)16, Arctic Circle and many more initiatives can rise in an optimistic direction with the hope of growth and security in the region. These initiatives exemplify how scientific collaboration can enhance capabilities and foster multilateral diplomatic efforts. 

In a globalizing world, the boundaries between science and diplomacy are increasingly blurred, giving rise to the concept of Science Diplomacy. This term refers to the use of scientific collaborations among nations to tackle common global challenges such as food security, water scarcity, energy needs, climate change, and public health. Science Diplomacy operates on the premise that many contemporary issues require international cooperation and technical or scientific solutions, beyond the capacity of any single state. The Indo-Pacific region illustrates the potential and challenges of Science Diplomacy. While the region faces significant threats such as climate change, Science Diplomacy has shown mixed results.17 LIke the SKA project demonstrates successful scientific collaboration, but efforts to leverage Science Diplomacy to address climate change have been less effective. The creation of the Ross Sea marine sanctuary highlights that Science Diplomacy can influence political decisions positively, but such successes are sporadic.18 The region’s reliance on traditional notions of state sovereignty often hampers more extensive collaboration. Europe has significant opportunities to leverage Science Diplomacy to enhance its role in global strategic and developmental partnerships. By engaging in minilateral initiatives, European nations can contribute to and benefit from scientific collaborations addressing global challenges. Europe’s involvement in projects like the ITER, ISS, and SKA and environmental initiatives like marine sanctuaries can serve as models for integrating scientific collaboration with diplomatic efforts. Additionally, Europe’s strong tradition of multilateralism positions it well to facilitate and participate in Science Diplomacy endeavours, promoting global stability and development. It is increasingly recognized as crucial for addressing global challenges that require international scientific solutions. Its role in strategic and developmental minilateral partnerships and minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific is evident, though its potential remains underutilized. Europe stands to benefit from and contribute significantly, fostering collaborations that can drive scientific progress and diplomatic relations. The mixed success of Science Diplomacy to date highlights the need for a more consistent and integrated approach to fully realize its potential in solving global issues. 

The European Engagement and Collaborative Possibilities 

Minilateralism offers the European Nations valuable pathways to propel their foreign policy goals in the Indo-Pacific. Unveiled in September 2021, the ‘EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ underscores flexible involvement and places a premium on addressing issues rather than rigid strategic conformity. This strategy resonates with ongoing patterns. Furthermore, several European nations, including France, the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany, had already crafted their Indo-Pacific strategies before the EU, highlighting their early recognition of the region’s significance.19 The EU has recently strengthened political and security cooperation with nations such as Japan, India, South Korea (ROK), Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. This expanding network of partnerships serves as a foundation for further cooperative efforts. Shared interests play a pivotal role in driving minilateral cooperation. Therefore, a logical starting point is to build on reinvigorated bilateral relations with key regional players, notably Japan, India, and Australia. 

France actively participates in both multilateral and minilateral mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s a founding member of the Pacific Community and engages in regional organizations like the Indian Ocean Commission and Pacific Islands Forum. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy involves dialogues with India, Australia, and the UAE, while also being part of the exclusive Pacific QUAD with the United States and New Zealand.20 

The EU-Japan partnership, marked by significant agreements in 2018 and 2019, underscores a commitment to democratic values and a rules-based global order. This collaboration paves the way for increased cooperation and potential alliances with like-minded nations, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, focusing on sustainable connectivity, quality infrastructure, and maritime capabilities. But recently the Council adopted a decision on the conclusion of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the European Union and its member states and Japan. The decision clears the path, on the EU side, for the entry into force of the agreement as soon as the parties have completed their internal procedure and notified their counterparts.21 

A trilateral partnership involving EU-Japan-Australia, all US allies sharing concerns about China, could potentially expand its framework to include the US, with a focus on maritime law enforcement and norms. Furthermore, an EU-Japan-India trilateral initiative could emphasize subtle security approaches, given India’s cautious stance toward China and its non-alignment policy. Despite potential differences between the US and China, progress remains feasible within this group. Importantly, EU-India relations have significantly improved, with a commitment to cooperation in various areas, including the maritime domain, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and sustainable connectivity. India’s strong relations with Japan offer opportunities to enhance collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region. Combining efforts with European countries in a minilateral approach can contribute to the prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific. This collaboration can extend its reach to involve additional partners in joint activities, especially in improving connectivity and governance in the Indian Ocean region. Minilateral engagement presents a unique advantage for the EU in its interactions with China. Dealing with a complex nation like China becomes more manageable in smaller group settings, as they facilitate open discussions and problem-solving. This approach can foster better cooperation between the EU and China on crucial issues. While China officially opposes minilateral cooperation, it recognizes the limitations of this approach and may consider participating to advance its interests or counter US influence from within. 

Moreover, the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy promotes inclusivity, recognizing China’s significance across various sectors such as trade, connectivity, health security, and global challenges like climate change. Collaborating with additional partners, including Indo-Pacific island nations, could help temper China’s assertiveness by leveraging the EU’s normative influence. The EU could explore minilateral formations with Indo-Pacific islands, especially considering China’s increasing influence over these small states and islands. This would allow the EU to work with these nations to counterbalance China’s growing presence in the region. Furthermore, the EU, along with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and potentially other like-minded nations, could form a minilateral or security dialogue akin to the Quad. Such an arrangement would enable these nations to work together toward common goals, particularly in countering China’s activities in the South China Sea. This collaborative effort could contribute to regional stability and security while addressing shared concerns about China’s actions in the region. 

The Path Ahead: Challenges and Prospects 

The evolving landscape of strategic minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific is a work in progress. Initiatives like the Quad and AUKUS share common goals such as enhancing regional security, fostering cooperation among like-minded nations, and promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, but a definitive military alignment is yet to materialize. Instead, they focus on bilateral military ties, such as India-France and India-UK partnerships, contributing to a multi-tiered security architecture. 

However, the two main challenges confronting minilateralism are as follows. Firstly, initiatives like Quad and AUKUS need support from ASEAN, a neutral player in major power dynamics. Overtly anti-China stances might cause regional instability and push ASEAN away, hindering regional order. Secondly, the proliferation of minilateral groupings complicates policy coordination. This complexity, coupled with diverse regional requirements, could strain diplomatic resources without yielding substantial outcomes. 

Minilateralism offers transformative potential for Indo-Pacific security dynamics, but it faces several roadblocks. Economic ties with China and differing US motivations pose challenges. The absence of strong economic incentives hinders comprehensive US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Its success depends on navigating diplomacy, gathering regional support, and streamlining coordination.

The EU’s involvement could enhance the effectiveness of minilateral groupings through its diplomacy, bringing in money and skills for projects, helping solve problems between countries, promoting good rules, sharing important information, making sure power is balanced, and knowing a lot about working together with many countries. All of these things together make minilateralism work better in shaping how safe the Indo-Pacific area is. Comparing European history to the Indo-Pacific, democratic alignment in NATO contrasts with diverse geopolitics. 


For the last twenty years, Europe has been dedicated to “effective multilateralism” in its foreign policy. This shows the Bloc wants to focus on working together practically rather than just through official organizations. In the Indo-Pacific area, which has a more adaptable and diverse security setup compared to Asia-Pacific, Both Europe and the EU see many ways to follow its interests and put its plans into action. The approach aligns well with Europe’s pursuit of concrete results and its desire to showcase its added value in both regional and global security matters. European countries such as France, the UK, and the Netherlands as well as the EU have emerged as crucial partners with India. They have established these partnerships in various contexts, including Technologies, economic cooperation, security collaborations, and diplomatic exchanges. India, in particular, is partnering with a range of countries, including those mentioned above, to strengthen its international relationships. The European engagement with these nations has witnessed dynamic developments, including trilateral collaborations that extend beyond traditional alliances. The integration of nuclear considerations adds another layer of complexity and strategic importance. This refers to discussions, negotiations, and collaborations related to nuclear weapons, disarmament, non-proliferation, and the role of nuclear capabilities in regional and global security. This could involve talks about nuclear arms control, deterrence strategies, and the potential impact of nuclear weapons on geopolitical dynamics. The Indo-Pacific region, with its intricate dynamics and evolving power balances, provides an ideal testing ground for the European minilateral approaches. The pursuit of minilateral cooperation aligns with its pragmatic ambition to navigate through this complex landscape, utilizing flexible partnerships that yield tangible outcomes. As China’s influence continues to grow in the region, the inclusive approach by European Countries acknowledges the importance of China’s role, even as it seeks to moderate Beijing’s assertiveness by leveraging its normative power. As the world watches closely, their evolving role in the Indo-Pacific could set a precedent for effective multilateralism in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Title Image Courtesy: Euro News

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies


1 Bhubhindar Singh and Sarah Teo, “Introduction: Minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific” in Minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, Routledge, 2020

2 Stewart Patrick, “The New ‘New Multilateralism’: Minilateral Cooperation, but at What Cost?”, Global Summitry, December 18, 2015 

3 Ralf Emmers, “The Role of the Five Power Defence Arrangements in the 

Southeast Asian Security Architecture” in Bilateralism, Multilateralism and Asia-Pacific Security: Contending Cooperation, Routledge, 2013 

4 William T. Tow, “The Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, Minilateralism, and Asia-Pacific Order Building” Stimson Center, JSTOR, 2015

5 Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia” International Security, 2016 

6 Kei Koga, “Quad 3.0: Japan, Indo-Pacific and Minilateralism” East Asian Policy, 20227 Shairee Malhotra and Thibault Fournol, “India-France Trilaterals in the Indo-Pacific: Imperatives, Interests, Initiatives” ORF, November 2023 

8 Lisa Curtis, Evan Wright, Hannah Kelley, “Forging a New Era of U.S.-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Cooperation” Centre for a New American Society, March 2024 

9 Dr. Tunchinmang Langel, “Japan and the ROK in the UNSC Push for Gaza Ceasefire” Indian Council Of World Affairs, April 2024 

10 Sovachana, Pou, and Bradley J. Murg, “The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism: Confronting New Realities in Cambodia and the Greater Mekong Subregion” REGIONAL SECURITY OUTLOOK, 2019.

11 Yanqiu Zheng, Guangshuo Yang, Amira Elsherif, “Asia-China Knowledge Networks: State of the Field” SSRC, December 2022 

12 John Nilsson-Wright, “Creative Minilateralism in a Changing Asia: Opportunities for Security Convergence and Cooperation Between Australia, India and Japan” Chatham House, July 201713“Square Kilometer Array(SKA project)” SARAO, September 2022 

14“International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor” 

15“Gavi (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization)” 

16“Human Genome Project (HGP)” 

17 Patman, Robert and Davis, Lloyd, “Science Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific Region: A Mixed but Promising Experience: SCIENCE DIPLOMACY IN THE INDO-PACIFIC” Politics & Policy, October 2017

18 Klaus Dodds and Cassandra Brooks. “Antarctic Geopolitics and the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area” E – International Relations, February 2018 

19 Karan Phular, “European Enagements in Indo Pacific” MP IDSA, 28 April 2023

20 Delphine Allès, Thibault Fournol, “Multilateralisms and minilateralisms in the Indo-Pacific. Articulations and convergences in a context of saturation of cooperative arrangements ” FONDATION pour la RECHERCHE STRATÉGIQUE, June 2023 

21 Press Release, “EU-Japan: Council endorses the conclusion of the strategic partnership agreement” European Council, April 2024 

By Karan Phular

Karan Phular is a postgraduate in Defence and Strategic Studies from HNBGU, Uttarakhand. Recently completed interning at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP IDSA), where he was associated with the Eurasia Centre and has authored articles on Europe's engagement in the Indo-Pacific. His academic and research pursuits extends to China and South Asia addressing the underlying complex geopolitical dynamics.