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The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs to Balance Minilateralism with Multilateralism

The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs to Balance Minilateralism with Multilateralism

A year has passed since the Department of Defense released the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR); however, we still lack future visions surrounding how best to truly earn the hearts and minds of our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific community. In the long run, America needs to institutionally convince the community that it is the endgame defender of the regionally shared common values from threats imposed by any revisionist, malign, and rogue states’ national interests.

The framework for the IPSR was explicated in the former Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s keynote speech during the 2019 Shangri-La security summit. Simply put, the IPSR could be understood as being a neorealist version of the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’  rhetoric. It reasserts America’s leadership role to safeguard regionally shared principles of “respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations,” “free, fair, and reciprocal trade,” “peaceful resolution of disputes,” and “adherence to international rules and norms” through neorealist visions’ preparedness, strategic partnerships, and promotion of a networked region. Strategically speaking, the IPSR is innovative to the extent that it inclusively extends the strategic geopolitical boundary of the region from Asia-Pacific to India-Pacific to reflect the changing strategic geopolitical landscape of the region. Nevertheless, it is more or less a protraction of the deterrence theory-based power through strength logic of balancing regional security order through minimalist reinforcement of America’s traditional hub-and-spoke-centered architecture. The latter aspect could be best exonerated as minilateralist alliance management efforts to efficiently strengthen the credibility of America’s deterrence capability against the declared antagonists’ increasing instances of breaching the rules of the game in the region. However, such an immoderately hawkish stance casts an implication on critics that America’s minilateralist management of its hub-and-spoke architecture is widening the threat perception gap between America’s pursuit of hard-hedge anti-China containment and middle/small power allies/partners’ pursuit of a soft-hedge strategy against China. Furthermore, its less-prioritized view of regional multilateralism underestimates the increasingly multidimensional nature of today’s landscape of strategic warfare that rather demands skillful peace through diplomacy, full spectrum diplomacy strategies.

Widening Threat Perception Gap Between America and Allies/Partners

For many ASEAN member countries, the IPSR signals a paradigmatic shift from prosperity to security, which might peripheralize their ASEAN centrality vision and revive the Cold War Hamlet enigma of tight-roping between ‘bandwagoning’ or balancing strategies. These concerns are apprehending not only ASEAN member countries but also the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue excluding America: Australia, India, and Japan. The four allies’ diplomatic/political willingness to hard-hedge against China is questionable due to the countries’ diverging national priorities. For instance, Japan’s growing thaw with China since the escalation of the U.S.-China trade war, the surfaced reality revealing the intensification of the country’s economic dependency on China over the last decade, implies that it is burdensome for Japan to adopt a political stance in favor of America’s radical policy shift to hard-hedging against China. Similarly, Australia’s establishment of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, an attempt to offset the fallouts from the U.S.-China trade war, alludes that the fallouts outweigh the country’s risk perception of China’s existential threats. For India, the IPSR’s sketch identification of the country’s security role in the region misleads the country to understand the IPSR as a complementary initiative to its regional economic policy, titled Act East.

Despite the widening threat perception gap between the Indo-Pacific community and America, the relegated importance of regional multilateralism under the Trump administration’s minilateralist pursuit of the America First doctrine has fostered a contingency-based, transactional, and top-down diplomatic culture that prioritizes practical, yet malign/revisionist partisan pursuit of national interests over sustainable regional norms or institutional mechanisms. The 2019 political rift between South Korean and Japanese elites that led to the Moon administration’s suspension of GISOMIA(General Security of Military Information Agreement) is a good example of how the spillover effects of Trumpism can boomerang to burden America. Since President Trump’s inauguration, both the Abe and Moon administrations have emulated Trumpism for their malign partisan maneuvering of the rift. Whereas the Abe administration has abused it to consolidate its right-wing nationalist supporter base, the Moon administration did the same for its left-wing nationalist supporter base. This diplomatic botch for America-led trilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia reveals the limits of the minilateralist hub-and-spoke alliance portfolio management.

Amidst the post-INF arms race climate, which beclouds the Indo-Pacific regional security order with uncertainty, adherents of deterrence theory often abuse the controversial Thucydides’ Trap as a good excuse to argue in favor of the restoration of the Cold War certainty. Their so-called ‘peace through strength’ emphasis, however, seems to disregard one of the most important Cold War lessons, in that the Soviet Union would have walked away from the negotiation table if NATO’s dual-track approach failed to successfully calibrate the risk perception gap between America, its European allies and, eventually, the Soviet Union. Given the absence of a collective security community like NATO in the Indo-Pacific, America needs an alternative form of alliance portfolio management that is viable in the long run. Such a strategy, on the one hand, ought to be instrumental for risk perception calibration between America and its allies so that we can come up with the positive creation of peaceful resolution strategies in the escalatory phases of U.S.-China conflicts. Conversely, it should also be normatively preparatory to gradually set the cornerstone conditions for the establishment of a NATO-like value-sharing security community in the region. The historical animosity and the tradition of need-based diplomatic gathering in the Indo-Pacific cannot simply be managed by Trumpist minilateralism. In order to better strategize the risk management of future security dilemmas/conflicts, America rather needs to accommodate the fluid network of what Victor Cha calls “Complex patchworks” or, indeed, bilateral, trilateral, and plurilateral institutions that connect America, China, and small/middle-power allies/partners.



Mark (Won Min) Seo

Mark (Won Min) Seo is a freelance writer who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He has an MA in Politics from New York University.