Maximising Australia’s Memberships: Recalibrating Australia’s engagement with Indo-Pacific groups

Maximising Australia’s Memberships: Recalibrating Australia’s engagement with Indo-Pacific groups

Executive summary

  • In recent years, the institutional landscape of the Indo-Pacific has become more crowded. Increased strategic competition between the US and China, waning confidence in older multilateral frameworks, and convergence of interests among like-minded countries have driven rapid growth in the number of regional institutions.
 
  • Australia now belongs to upwards of 20 separate Indo-Pacific institutions - half of which it joined in the last decade. Some regional groupings face declining relevance and utility, yet they continue to compete for attention and resources with new and more effective mechanisms.
 
  • Australia must adapt its engagement strategy with regional groupings to adjust to the new geostrategic realities of 2022 and beyond. Narrowing its memberships and placing participation within a hierarchy would focus scarce domestic attention and resources to the most important institutions. It would also signal deeper cooperative ambitions to primary, likeminded partners.
 
  • Four regional groupings hold the greatest potential for the realisation of Australia's ambitions. The East Asia Summit, the Quad, the Pacific Islands Forum and a reconfigured Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral to include South Korea could be critical to promoting Australia's strategic interests. 
 
  • Australia should make a clear-eyed reappraisal of its engagement with older and less effective institutions. Groups such as the Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia (MIKTA) arrangement, the Asia-Europe Meeting, and the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation now provide limited utility. Continuing to support these dialogues is misaligned with Australia's strategic intent.
 
  • Recalibrating Australia's regional engagement strategy would ensure it is configured to the geostrategic challenges and opportunities of today. Preferred groups can be strengthened by committing greater resources to them and encouraging partners to do the same. It would also send a stronger signal to the region regarding Australia's priorities and interests.

Introduction

In recent decades, a plethora of new multilateral and 'minilateral'a strategic groupings have formed among Indo-Pacific countries. Governments are building these groups for a variety of reasons, whether improving foreign and trade relations, increasing their strategic diversity, or jointly responding to challenges.

When well-designed and effective, these arrangements help governments translate their national interests into regional norms and practices. Consequently, absence from these institutions risks missed opportunities to influence important fora and creating vacuums for other actors to fill. However, membership of regional groupings is not intrinsically valuable.

The utility of these groups is variable, with some institutions designed in earlier eras no longer fit-for-purpose. The rapidly deteriorating strategic circumstances in the Indo-Pacific have put a premium on foreign engagements being as impactful as possible. Regional uncertainty could see yet more institutions formed in response to new challenges.

In the context of a deteriorating strategic environment and finite diplomatic resources being further constrained by the COVID pandemic, the policy of actively expanding groups and continued membership of all institutions is unsustainable. Australia needs to reset its engagement in the regional architecture by prioritising some groups and downgrading others.

The purpose of this report is not to evaluate the worth of face-to-face diplomacy. Nor does it seek to identify which Indo-Pacific groups are the most important to Australia. Rather, this report observes that Australia's resources are finite and its interests might be better served by increasing support to a smaller number of groups with greater potential over more limited alternatives. While some prioritisation of groups is already happening organically within the Australian bureaucracy and by other nations more broadly, this is not adequately reflected in their relative resourcing, necessitating a clear review.

This report takes stock of Australia's Indo-Pacific regional institutionb memberships, assessing their continued value given current geostrategic trends and resourcing realities. It explains how prioritising Australia's engagements could deliver stronger results and offers frameworks for how to focus engagement efforts.

Finally, it encourages Australia to work with allies and partners to elevate the same set of Indo-Pacific groups. Through navigating the labyrinth of Indo-Pacific groups and analysing their current worth and future potential, Australia and others can focus effort towards the most promising institutions.

Australia needs to reset its engagement in the regional architecture by prioritising some groups and downgrading others.

Australia's growing matrix of Indo-Pacific institutions

Since World War II (WWII) successive Australian governments have been strongly supportive of joining groups to remain regionally and globally integrated. Past Australian Prime Ministers have led the charge for the establishment of multilateral groups, such as Bob Hawke proposing the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 19891 and Kevin Rudd floating an "Asia Pacific Community" in 20082. While Rudd's proposal never materialised, APEC did, and provided large windfalls for regional economic integration and liberal trade policy3.

Cooperation in groups can have tangible benefits for Australia and, when executed effectively, can bolster regional security and stability. However, in recent years there has been a shift in the scale of regional institution-building efforts: from inclusive and region-wide multilateral bodies like APEC, to smaller and more exclusive 'minilateral' groupings of like-minded countries.

For Australia, this development poses a step change in the orientation of its regional engagement efforts, which now focus heavily on minilateral architectures (see Box 1). In June 2021, the Department of foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) explained the logic of these new minilateral groups for Australia's foreign policy:

Over the last decade, minilateral groupings have achieved significant new momentum and are now established as a key tool of Australian foreign policy. We derive significant value by working with and through regional architecture to advance our foreign, trade, economic and development objectives. We use regional architecture to facilitate constructive dialogue, reinforce rules and norms, and build cooperative responses to the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific4.

Several geostrategic developments have driven the creation of these minilateral groups. Increasing US-China great power competition5 and lack of an overarching Indo-Pacific security treaty, similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe, have motivated countries to form new networks.

Diminishing confidence in larger multilateral institutions in the region has seen these efforts take a minilateral form, amongst small coteries of friendly and likeminded countries. As Anuar and Hussain (2021) explain: "In contrast to the multiple interests of an expanding and diverse membership, as well as the geopoliticisation of governance issues stemming from escalating US-China tensions, minilaterals offer an edge vis-ˆ-vis informality, select membership, and a narrower issue-based focus"6.

Trilateral dialogues are a particularly common way to implement minilateralism. Australia is currently involved in six trilateral groups in the Indo-Pacific - five of which have been established since 2015. Among other benefits, one of trilateralism's unique attributes is in augmenting important bilateral relationships.

For instance, two countries may be more effective at lobbying a third party towards their interests in a trilateral, rather than bilateral, setting. For Australia, active participation in new minilateral institutions reflects a recognition that older multilateral bodies could not, on their own, serve changing national or regional needs.

Multilateral groups continue to serve a valuable purpose, but member states can benefit from the addition of smaller, minilateral structures that generate momentum along parallel tracks. DFAT has acknowledged the need to improve the effectiveness of existing frameworks and continue adapting its regional engagements over time:

In the face of geopolitical shifts and growing challenges to stability and prosperity - compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic - DFAT is working on strengthening the effectiveness of regional architecture. But as pressure on rules, norms and institutions intensifies, Australia will need to lean in even more strongly to reinforce institutions that tackle shared regional challenges in an inclusive and transparent way. Australia will need to remain agile in forging the right partnerships to meet the challenges of our time and find innovative ways to advance our interests.7

But while there is now a recognised imperative to reassess Australia's regional engagement, this has been limited to adding new mechanisms. Equally important is a re-evaluation of current engagements and their resourcing. It is difficult to de-emphasise previous diplomatic commitments due to institutional inertia and the perceived reputational costs of doing so. But as Australia's regional engagements have ballooned, it is necessary to evaluate how its resources are allocated across a growing suite of institutional mechanisms.

Box 1: Australia’s minilateral groups

What problem would prioritising Australia's regional engagements solve?

There are three major problems with maintaining the status quo of Australia's Indo-Pacific dialogues:
  • As DFAT's budget continues to shrink, Australia's capacity to contribute is reduced
  • Multiple groups duplicate effort and spread official resources too thinly for effect
  • There are opportunity costs as well as potential risks around failing to prioritise
Announced in the 2022 Federal Budget, DFAT's funding will continue to shrink, falling from $1.27 billion in 2022-23 to closer to $1.15 billion in 2025-268. These cuts follow decades of decline in DFAT's budget9.

Australia's worse strategic environment has been one of the key drivers of new security groupings - like AUKUS and the Quad Leaders' Summit. With less resources year-on-year, DFAT cannot continue to support an ever-increasing number of regional engagements.

As Indo-Pacific groups with overlapping areas of interest expand, effort is being duplicated. Take AUKUS, the Quad, Australia-US-Japan trilateral, and Five Eyes for example: each has similar streams for defence-related or critical technology development. Not only is effort being duplicated, Australia's scarce diplomatic and political resources are being spread more thinly.

Most of Australia's Indo-Pacific groups convene at multiple levels: leader, minister, senior official, and working level. Some also have associated "Track 1.5" (officials and non-officials) streams - not to mention stand-alone leader and minister-level forums like the Shangri-La Dialogue and Raisina Dialogue. Collectively, sustained over years, these engagements consume substantial time and resources. The flow-on effect is Australia has less bandwidth to fully capitalise on and leverage its participation in these groups.

Another factor is the opportunity costs and risks around failing to prioritise. Currently, Australia's diplomatic efforts are geared towards sustaining attendance across the spectrum of regional fora rather than targeting key meetings for additional strategic planning, pre-caucusing, and follow-through. The focus on meeting quantity requirements means Australia is potentially missing opportunities to derive more benefit from premier engagements as well as increasing the risk of diluting its impact.

Australia is at a tipping point: it can no longer support all its Indo-Pacific group memberships without diminishing value across the spectrum.

Irrespective of ongoing debates about the right size of Australia's foreign policy bureaucracy, resources are not infinite and the availability of senior and Cabinet-level officials for international engagements cannot be expanded.

Australia must be strategic in how it spends its diplomatic and political capital and that should start with prioritising our existing engagements. Australia must ask itself which forums allow it to do its most important diplomatic messaging and make its biggest foreign and security policy plays.

Snapshot of Australia's regional engagements

Australia's enthusiasm for building regional institutions is relatively new. Of the more than 20 regional institutions which Australia has joined since the post-WWII period, roughly half have been established since 2010.

Yet not all regional institutions are made equal. Due to differences in their membership, objectives and institutional design, some of the groupings have greater salience for Australia's foreign and strategic policy objectives than others. There is a hierarchy amongst these groups, demarcated by their importance for Australia in advancing its vision for the region.

The two of the most recent additions to the regional architecture - AUKUS and Quad Leaders' Summit - are of critical importance to Australia.

Established in 2021, AUKUS is an historic defence partnership between Australia, the UK and US10. While its final form remains a matter of ongoing negotiation, initial commitments indicate it will see the US share highly classified nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia and all three countries enhance cooperation on military and defence technology11. Perhaps the most important element is the prospect AUKUS will support Australia to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines, though this will be accompanied by technology-sharing arrangements across a wider suite of defence and defence-adjacent technical capabilities. Where AUKUS represents a 'hard security' arrangement, the Quad, involving Australia, the US, Japan and India, is shaping to be its 'soft security' counterpart.

Since its relaunch in 2017, the Quad has adopted a positive agenda of supplying regional public goods including COVID-19 vaccines, action on climate change, and new critical technologies, such as 5G. Membership of the Quad provides Australia several strategic benefits:
  • It positions Australia alongside three of the most powerful regional players and lays the foundations for a strategic counterweight to China, complicating Beijing's political and military calculations.
  • It allows Australia to pursue national interests it shares with Quad partners, leveraging individual strengths, streamlining resources, and - in some cases - expediating outcomes.
  • An additional benefit of the Quad is its capacity to shape the regional agenda and, therefore, bring greater attention and resources to issues Australia prioritises.
Complementary to AUKUS and the Quad, Australia participates in a number of trilateral arrangements.

The most well-known and effective is the Australia-US-Japan trilateral, which includes practical cooperation across multiple areas including defence, infrastructure, and information sharing.

There is also the Australia-Japan-India trilateral which is less developed but still highly reinforcing to the Quad. It allows members to discuss regional strategic concerns absent the US, which, as the Quad's most powerful member, can sometimes lead discussions.

Another trilateral is the Australia-India-Indonesia (AII) arrangement, which is in its infancy but a very interesting configuration - bringing together the three most powerful Indo-Pacific countries within the much larger Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Australia's new minilateral bodies in the Indo-Pacific entered an already crowded institutional landscape.

The Quad, AUKUS and recent trilaterals were not established in isolation: Australia remains engaged in a multitude of pre-existing regional institutions, created during earlier periods in the political history of the Indo-Pacific.

The regional architecture is often referred to as "ASEAN-centric", as it consists of several organisations built as extensions to the 10-member ASEAN grouping12. These include the 'ASEAN Plus Six' group of its main dialogue partners13, the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group for economic issues, the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for security issues, and the 18-member East Asia Summit (EAS) which convenes an annual Leaders' Summit.

Australia also plays a leading role in the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). A host of other ancillary dialogue and cooperation bodies augment this architecture in issue specific areas.

With new institutions being grafted on top of an established regional architecture, there is a pressing need to reappraise how this expanded architecture can be best utilised to achieve Australia's foreign policy goals.

Not all institutions are of equal utility and there is now some functional duplication as new institutions take on issues that were previously done by an older group. In a context of scarce diplomatic resourcing, Australia needs to find a way to deconflict and accord priority. Establishing a hierarchy amongst its regional engagements is one way this could be achieved.

Where should Australia's priorities now lie?

Figure 1 depicts an example of how Australia's Indo-Pacific institutions could form into a hierarchy. It is designed as a guide for future engagement and thus ranks regional institutions according to priorities for diplomatic engagement and resourcing. The hierarchy identifies which institutions should receive increased, maintained, or reduced resources, as well as groups to downgrade. The hierarchy does not rank based on an institution's value to Australia - some very important bodies are included in the 'maintain' category - but rather according to where future resource commitments should be allocated. Figure 1: A proposed hierarchy of Australia's regional engagementsc
With added investment, there are four organisations that could better serve Australian interests: the EAS, Quad, PIF and AII - particularly if the latter expanded to include South Korea.

This is not to say that AUKUS, Australia-US-Japan trilateral, and the CPTPP, for instance, are not critically important strategic groupings - they are. However, they currently receive adequate resources based on existing circumstances and their potential.

With additional investment in the EAS, Quad, PIF and an AII +, each could deliver more for Australia.

East Asia Summit: right players, right foundation

The EAS serves a crucial function as the region's principal platform for strategic dialogue, seeking to address political, security and economic challenges14. Not too big that it is unwieldy and not too small that it excludes important regional perspectives, the EAS membership forms the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific.

As an ASEAN dialogue construct, the EAS is hosted by the current ASEAN Chair and led at the leader level15. Champions of the dialogue, such as former DFAT Secretary, Peter Varghese, characterise the EAS as one of Australia's two most important multilateral groupings, alongside the G2016.

Critics, however, see it as just another ineffective talk-shop17, crippled by formality18. The dialogue has suffered in recent times because of meetings being forced online due to the pandemic, loss of relevance with the absence of the US President under Trump, and a rotating Chairmanship that makes its impact unreliable.

Despite these challenges however, there is much promise in the EAS for furthering Australia's interests. As an institution, it still holds the most potential of any Indo-Pacific group to bridge divides between the US and China, if not in major power sharing arrangements, at least in smaller, low-level confidence building measures (at the last meeting, the US and China proposed a Sustainable Recovery to COVID statement).

With ASEAN at the centre, the EAS carries the support of Southeast Asia, and this will help Australia defend itself against criticism it is cutting out important sub-regions through mechanisms like the Quad and AUKUS.

Although EAS participants might be stuck reading 'set-piece' statements at Summits, the work done in the margins by ministers and officials gains traction that exceeds other dialogues - partly because all layers of government are engaged and member countries prioritise this forum over others.

Like any group that includes multiple members with divergent interests and values, the EAS is unlikely to have a large impact on regional outcomes. But, within the EAS construct, Australia has the best chance of promoting its strategic interests in ways it cannot in other ASEAN fora or APEC.

Quad: capacity, willpower, purpose, potential

Rising like a phoenix, the Quad re-emerged in 2017 and is now an energised, action-oriented institution with long-term ambitions. Australia's Quad partners are large and consequential - geopolitically, militarily, and economically - giving them considerable capacity to shape the region.

The countries are likeminded on China and other challenges and willing to act both independently and collectively in response. The group has successfully transitioned from strategic dialogue to practical cooperation on region-wide issues, moving it from an introspective forum to one whose purpose is clearer to external observers.

Considering the Quad's cooperation areas require decades-long investment and its activities are being backed at senior levels, the group possesses great future potential.

Multiple factors have catapulted the Quad to the forefront of the regional architecture: now is the time to resource it to its level of ambition.

A longer track record of productive cooperation, coupled with a warming regional response could see the Quad become Australia's most valuable Indo-Pacific strategic grouping.

Pacific Islands Forum: winning influence and building Pacific resilience and stability

Involving mostly small, developing island nations and currently at risk of fracturing should five Micronesian states withdraw19, the PIF can be overlooked as having capacity to further Australia's national interests. In fact, Australia's relations with Pacific Island countries are increasingly strategically important and the PIF is the key platform to both engage and strengthen resilience within this sub-region.

One factor with the potential to undermine Pacific resilience and stability is China's strategic investments and influence within Pacific Island countries. Over the last two decades China has been building its influence in every Pacific Island country through both formal and informal channels.

Beijing has committed to spend more than US$1 billion in aid to the region and is within the top three lenders, having spent US$113 million20. Despite their relative size disparity and distance, President Xi Jinping holds bilateral meetings with Pacific Island leaders and China maintains a major strategic dialogue with the region21.

Additionally, in April 2022 China and the Solomon Islands sealed a defence pact that will allow Beijing to send military forces to the nation under certain circumstances22.

More concerning than a Chinese military presence, the Chinese government and state-owned companies have the capacity to weaken Pacific Island governance processes, generating instability with the potential to create failed states23. With China encroaching on Australia's traditional leadership role in the Pacific and accruing untoward influence, part of Canberra's countermeasures should be to reinvest in the PIF.

The PIF cannot directly counteract Chinese influence but it forms one tool in the toolbox for raising awareness of China's activities and keeping Pacific nations within Australia's orbit.

The PIF provides a mechanism for information sharing, shaping views, and consensus-building among Pacific countries. Should the PIF function more effectively, it could further benefit Canberra through providing early warning of strategic shifts among members - such as additional notice the Solomon Islands and China were considering a defence pact.

The Forum could also strengthen Pacific governance architecture and increase cohesion. Although the PIF does not currently operate as effectively as desired24, it is increasingly important Australia direct more resources to it in a period of heightened strategic competition and instability.

Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral: fresh configuration with potential and room to grow

The AII is special for two key reasons: firstly, it integrates Indonesia into the broader regional security network (beyond ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association) and secondly, it omits the United States - fostering regional cooperation outside of US allies and avoiding the perception of being inherently anti-China.

While this trilateral is currently limited to dialogue and is on tentative ground with Indonesia post the AUKUS announcement25, it has potential to become a genuinely cooperative partnership and expand impact beyond the sum of its parts.

Working trilaterally, Australia, India and Indonesia could make a tangible impact in common causes like maritime security, counterterrorism, and regional development.

Being outside of ASEAN, the AII could provide Indonesia with greater flexibility to expand its contributions to addressing regional security challenges. AII members could also work together to refine their approaches to Chinese aggression in ways that better serve their national interests.

More broadly, the AII could have a positive effect on regional strategic dynamics through acting as a balancer to US-China great-power competition26 and providing a positive model for other Southeast Asian nations to follow.

The AII is still in its infancy. With practical cooperation a future aspiration, in the interim there may be scope to expand this initiative to incorporate an additional member - South Korea. South Korea has warm and growing relations with all AII countries and is underrepresented in the regional tri- and minilateral architecture.

An added incentive could be the formation of a new kind of  'quad', separate to the Australia-US-Japan-India equivalent. Acknowledging the AIIs slow start, its unique membership, converging interests and potential for expansion make it an important forum for Australia to invest more time and attention.

Options for resource reallocation

Mexico-Indonesia-Korea-Turkey-Australia: passed its used-by date and potentially harmful to Australia's interests

The Mexico-Indonesia-Korea-Turkey-Australia (MIKTA) grouping is no longer a relevant dialogue. MIKTA brings together an unusual collection of countries from different regions - Mexico from South America, Turkey from the Middle East, and Indonesia, South Korea and Australia from the Indo-Pacific.

Around its creation in 2015, the group purported to be "like-minded on many of the global challenges of our time"27. It sought to play a bridging role between developed and developing worlds and initiate global governance reform.

MIKTA has significantly underdelivered and there are several contemporary factors that make this motley not only problematic but unworkable.

The most glaring problem with MIKTA is that Turkey has become authoritarian and no longer 'like-minded' with other members28. Where once Turkey was held up as the Middle East model for democratic reform, today it oppresses media and other freedom and prioritises nationalist concerns in its foreign policy29.

Turkey's previous political crackdowns and erosion of human rights30 is at odds with MIKTA's motto of 'fulfilling the role of a responsible middle power in the service of world peace'.

Another major drawback of MIKTA is its lacking focus coupled with intense meeting schedule - both of which are expanding. For obvious reasons, MIKTA's agenda is diverse, spreading effort and diluting purpose31. MIKTA Foreign Minister meetings and joint communiques cover the full spectrum of possible issues of its members and its joint statements diverge from global issues and can be parochial.

Joint statements have touched on national disasters within member states, the Olympics, and the downing of MH1732, while the last joint communique covered COVID-19, climate change, women and disability rights, nuclear non-proliferation, inter-Korean relations, youth engagement, and Myanmar's political instability33.

The result of a group interested in everything is lacking influence and impact, preventing MIKTA from achieving its goals within larger multilateral bodies, let alone on the global stage. Post Australia's Presidency in 2021, all indications are Australia wants to dive deeper into the MIKTA labyrinth. A MIKTA Leaders' Statement was issued describing the group's role as "never more important than it is now in a world challenged by increasing geopolitical competition and strained by a global pandemic"34.

In fact, the opposite is true - with geopolitical competition increasing and in the context of a global pandemic, Australia must prioritise strategically relevant groupings and consolidate its resources towards making an impact in these.

Asia-Europe Meeting and Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation: superseded, lacking purpose and sprawling

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is a relic of the 1990s, when Asia and Europe required more structured engagement to progress relations. ASEM was established to 'raise awareness' between the two regions, coordinate multilateral policies, and increase trade and investment opportunities.

A quarter century later and awareness raising between Europe and Asia seems less of a problem to be solved and more a fait accompli: China, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN are some of Europe's top trading partners.

ASEM shares some similarities with MIKTA: it promotes 'multi-dimensionality' (covering the full spectrum of international relations), convenes at the minister and senior official levels, and its dialogue fora have proliferated. These factors raise similar concerns to those of MIKTA around lacking structure and focus coupled with expanding participation requirements across levels of government.

DFAT continues to support ASEM as a mechanism to "coordinate responses to global challenges and strengthen our engagement and integration with ASEM partners"35. However, what ASEM offers Australia above and beyond its engagement in the UN and related fora, G20, OECD, APEC, WTO, and more, is not clear.

This is also true of the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC). FEALAC is largely unknown in Australian foreign policy circles, which reflects its lacking relevance.

FEALAC's purpose is to increase understanding, political and economic dialogue and cooperation between East Asia and Latin America. However, like ASEM, the rationale for maintaining FEALAC in the context of multiple, substantial international multilateral groupings carries little weight.

Coordinating with partners for strategic effect

Recalibrating Australia's own engagement with proliferating Indo-Pacific groups is an important first step. Equally important is encouraging regional allies and partners to do the same and persuade them of the merits of our prioritisation.

Successfully marshalling support for key groups - the EAS, Quad, PIF and AII Ð could significantly increase their utility.

Australia should encourage its US ally and strategic partners to strengthen the EAS through additional coordination and follow-through, more in-person engagement, and less formality during the Summit itself.

The COVID pandemic forced EAS attendance online, preventing progress in the margins, and years of physical non-attendance by the US during the Trump presidency reduced the dialogue's credibility. Australia should encourage the US to visibly reinvest, with the intension for President Biden to attend the 2022 EAS in person.

Historically, India's contribution to the EAS has also been limited and Australia should work with the US and Japan to elevate this forum in the eyes of Prime Minister Modi. Australia should also lobby 2022 EAS host, Cambodia, to adopt a more informal approach to enhance the meeting's effectiveness.

Quad members already strongly support this group but its expansive mandate is spreading effort across the four bureaucracies with varying degrees of progress. The Quad has 12 separate cooperation streams and in order to advance all of these beyond the dialogue phase, its members will need to allocate additional national resources.

Alternatively, Quad members could identify a smaller number of key objectives and redirect resources to those. For instance, Australia could encourage its Quad partners to prioritise their COVID-19 vaccine commitment, critical technologies development, regional infrastructure, and supply chain security36.

Quad credibility is linked with delivering on its commitments, so it needs to invest more resources if it is to demonstrate its effectiveness. In convincing partners to prioritise the PIF, Australia should seek to prevent the group from fracturing and reinvest in the Forum both diplomatically and politically.

Micronesia has threatened to withdraw from the PIF after it was overlooked during its turn to supply a Secretary General in the rotational structure37. Australia should make direct diplomatic representations to Micronesia to stay within the forum and appeal to the US to reiterate this message during its renegotiations of bilateral security compacts with Micronesian countries38.

Australia reinvesting diplomatically could include Canberra fulfilling its obligations in relation to PIF Declarations it has signed and creating more trusted relationships with Pacific Island countries. Where the AII trilateral is concerned, Australia must make a greater effort to convince India and Indonesia of the nascent value of this arrangement, outside of their respective Quad and ASEAN-Australia Summit engagements.

One way for Australia to achieve this could be to characterise the AII as a mechanism for coordinating and strategising in the lead up to a much larger multilateral organisation involving all three countries - the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) forum. IORA itself is well-established but underperforming given its area of focus and membership.

Another way Australia could highlight the opportunities presented by this grouping to India and Indonesia is its potential for expansion to include South Korea. Such a suggestion may make New Delhi and Jakarta see this initiative in a new light.

The whole Indo-Pacific region has entered what could be a prolonged period of rising strategic competition, limited or fully-fledged conflict, and overwhelming non-traditional challenges including the pandemic and climate change. At the same time, countries are eagerly entering into new minilateral arrangements while remaining committed to old regional mechanisms.

These factors, coupled with greater pressure on foreign agencies and budgets, strongly suggest Australia's approach to its regional engagements requires a rethink.

While there will be relationship costs to downgrading various groups, there are current costs and risks to maintaining the status quo. The far-reaching consequences of the COVID pandemic provide Australia and others with a unique opening to reshape their regional engagements in a much-changed Indo-Pacific.

Through prioritising and then re-allocating resources to key groupings, Australia can focus intently on strengthening higher-potential institutions and valued relationships while limiting the diversion of resources non-performers. Recalibrating Australia's engagements in the Indo-Pacific will help it target institutions that deliver more for its national interests and this approach could also assist other countries in the region as we face a more challenging strategic future.

Recommendations

  • Assess the current value and potential of Australia's Indo-Pacific strategic groups and identify duplication of effort
  • Conduct a mapping exercise of the national resources required to sustain Australia's group participation on an annual basis, factoring in the potential for additional memberships
  • Create a regional dialogue hierarchy and identify groups to increase, maintain, and reduce resources as well as downgrade and withdraw
o Special consideration should be given to allocating additional resources to the EAS, Quad, PIF and AII
  • Encourage regional allies and partners to prioritise Ð whether time, funding, new offerings, or innovations - Australia's preferred Indo-Pacific groups
Appendix. Australia's Indo-Pacific strategic group memberships

Report launch webinar

On 12 May 2022, the Perth USAsia Centre launched this report via webinar.
Report author Hayley Channer took stock of Australia’s regional multilateral engagement and discusses how it should adapt its engagement strategy to the new geostrategic realities of 2022 and beyond.

 


Speakers:

  • Hayley Channer, Senior Policy Fellow, Perth USAsia Centre
  • Richard Maude, Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute
  • Professor Gordon Flake, Chief Executive Officer, Perth USAsia Centre (moderator)
  • Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Director, Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub

Acknowledgements

The Perth USAsia Centre would like to thank the wide range of individuals who have supported the production of this report. Richard Maude, Susan Harris-Rimmer, Nicola Rosenblum, and William Stoltz all contributed to the research and editorial process. Many other individuals - across government and academia - kindly offered insights, information and feedback that have enriched the report. Nonetheless, the author is responsible for all content and arguments contained herein.


About the author

Hayley Channer is the Senior Policy Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre. Based in Canberra, Hayley produces analysis on foreign and defence policy in the Indo-Pacific, engages with key Australian Government agencies and other policy stakeholders, and builds and sustains the Centre's domestic and international network.

Hayley has led a diverse career across government, think tanks and the not-for-profit sector. She previously worked for the Department of Defence producing strategic policy guidance on defence capabilities and international engagement with the United States and Japan.

LinkedIn: Hayley Channer
Twitter: @hayleychanner


About the Perth USAsia Centre

The Perth USAsia Centre located at The University of Western Australia is a non-partisan, not-for-profit institution strengthening relationships and strategic thinking between Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the USA. The Centre is a leading think tank focusing on geopolitical issues, policy development and building a strategic affairs community across government, business and academia.

Since the Centre's inception in 2013, we have collaborated with over forty partners to convene more than four hundred programs across sixteen cities in eight countries, engaging a world-class community of over 10,000 strategic thinkers and policy leaders.


Disclaimer

This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in relation to the subject matter covered. It is provided on the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering any form of professional or other advice or services. No person should rely on the contents of this publication without first obtaining advice from a qualified professional individual or agency.


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Endnotes

a This paper defines multilateral groups as those inclusive and open to expanding membership and minilateral as exclusive, limited to like-minded countries.
b For the purpose of this study, Australia's Indo-Pacific groups are considered those with:
  1. the majority of group members located by geography or history in the Indo-Pacific;
  2. convening at the Senior Official level or above (excluding groups solely convened by the Australian Defence Forces) and;
  3. including a strategic rationale (excluding groups solely for humanitarian relief or environment issues, for instance).
c Groups with an asterisk indicate their associated diplomatic and strategic dialogue streams rather than core business.

1 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariate (2022), 'History, https://www.apec.org/about-us/about-apec/history
2 Frank Frost (2010), 'Australia's regional engagements in East Asia and the Asia Pacific', Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BriefingBook43p/regionalengagements
3 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) (2022), 'Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC)', https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/organisations/apec/asia-pacific-economic-cooperation-apec
4 Parliament of Australia (2021), 'Opportunities for advancing Australia's strategic interests through existing regional architecture', https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/RegionalArchitecture/Report
5 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (2021), 'Explaining the Rise of Minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific', Observer Research Foundation, https://www.orfonline.org/research/explaining-the-rise-of-minilaterals-in-the-indo-pacific/
6 Amalina Anuar and Nazia Hussain (2021), 'Minilateralism for Multilateralism in the post-COVID age', S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/PR210119_Minilateralism-For-Multilateralism-in-the-Post-COVID-Age.pdf
7 DFAT (2021), 'Current regional architecture', Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/RegionalArchitecture/Report/section?id=committees%2Freportsen%2F024687%2F77249
8 Mercedes Page (2022), 'A silver lining to DFAT's budgetary woes', Lowy Interpreter, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/silver-lining-dfat-s-budgetary-woes
9 Melissa Conley Tyler (2021), 'Australia has not just had a 'diplomacy fail' - it has been devaluing the profession for decades, The Conversation, November 15, https://theconversation.com/australia-has-not-just-had-a-diplomacy-fail-it-has-been-devaluing-the-profession-for-decades-171498
10 Prime Minister of Australia (2021), 'Australia to pursue nuclear powered submarines through new trilateral enhanced security partnership', 16 September, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/australia-pursue-nuclear-powered-submarines-through-new-trilateral-enhanced-security
11 Charbel Kadib (2021), 'AUKUS partners sign tech-sharing agreement', Defence Connect, 22 November, https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/key-enablers/9120-defence-signs-aukus-tech-sharing-treaty
12 Association of South East Asian Nations (2021), 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific', https://asean.org/asean2020/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf
13 The six 'ASEAN Plus' dialogue partners are Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.
14 Australian Mission to ASEAN (2022), 'East Asia Summit', https://asean.mission.gov.au/aesn/eastasiasummit.html
15 Melissa Conley Tyler and Rhiannon Arthur (2019), 'What can we expect from this year's East Asia Summit?', Asia Link, https://asialink.unimelb.edu.au/asialink-dialogues-and-applied-research/commentary-and-analysis/what-can-we-expect-from-this-years-east-asia-summit 16 DFAT (2013), 'Speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia', 20 May, https://www.dfat.gov.au/news/speeches/Pages/speech-to-the-committee-for-economic-development-of-australia
17 Singapore Institute of International Affairs (2014), 'Rethinking the East Asia Summit: Purpose, Processes and Agenda', http://www.siiaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/2014-10-Policy-Brief-Rethinking-the-East-Asia-Summit-Purpose-Processes-and-Agenda.pdf
18 Author's discussions with former senior Australian government officials.
19 Steven Ratuva (2021), '2021 in Review: Fractures from Within: Where to Now for the Pacific Islands Forum and Regionalism?', Australian Outlook, 23 December, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/fractures-from-within-where-to-now-for-the-pacific-islands-forum-and-regionalism/
20 Lowy Institute (2021), 'Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map', https://pacificaidmap.lowyinstitute.org
21 China.org.cn (2019), 'China, Pacific island countries hold 3rd economic development and cooperation forum', 22 October, http://www.china.org.cn/world/2019-10/22/content_75326135.htm
22 Bill Birtles, Stephen Dziedzic, and Evan Wasuka (2022), 'China and Solomon Islands sign security pact, Beijing says it is 'not directed at any third party' amid Pacific influence fears', ABC, 19 April https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-19/china-and-solomon-islands-sign-security-pact-says-chinese-foreig/101000530
23 Jonathan Pryke (2020), 'The risks of China's ambitions in the South Pacific', Brookings, 20 July, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-risks-of-chinas-ambitions-in-the-south-pacific/
24 Cleo Paskal (2021), 'How the Pacific Islands Forum Fell Apart', The Diplomat, 10 February, https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/how-the-pacific-islands-forum-fell-apart/
25 Author's interview with Australian Government officials.
26 Jagannath Panda (2021), 'The Australia-India-Indonesia Trilateral: Fostering Maritime Cooperation between Middle Powers', The National Bureau of Asian Research, 23 April, https://www.nbr.org/publication/the-australia-india-indonesia-trilateral-fostering-maritime-cooperation-between-middle-powers/
27 MIKTA (2015), 'Vision', http://mikta.org/about/vision/
28 Kemal Kirisci and Amanda Sloat (2019), 'The rise and fall of liberal democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West', Brookings, February, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-rise-and-fall-of-liberal-democracy-in-turkey-implications-for-the-west/
29 Ibid.
30 US Department of State (2020), '2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey', https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/turkey/
31 Jeffrey Robertson (2020), 'Where next for MIKTA?', Lowy Interpreter, 26 August, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/where-next-mikta
32 MIKTA (2022), 'Joint Statements', http://mikta.org/document-cat/joint-statements/
33 MIKTA (2022), 'Joint Communiques', http://mikta.org/document-cat/joint-communiques/
34 Prime Minister of Australia (2021), ÔMIKTA LeadersÕ StatementÕ, 22 September, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/mikta-leaders-statement y
35 DFAT (2020), 'Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)', https://www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/Pages/asia-europe-meeting-asem 36 Hayley Channer (2021), 'Roadmap to Quad Success: Practical recommendations for action and sustainability', Perth USAsia Centre, https://perthusasia.edu.au/getattachment/cab751b2-3379-4c67-91ef-11c741f71f63/PU-221-IPIS-V16-WEB.pdf.aspx?lang=en-AU
37 Gil Rickey (2022), 'Micronesia stays in the Pacific Islands Forum fold Ð for now', Lowy Interpreter, 24 February, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter2/micronesia-stays-pacific-islands-forum-fold-now
38 US Department of State (2022), 'Announcing the Special Presidential Envoy for Compact NegotiationsÕ, 22 March, https://www.state.gov/announcing-the-special-presidential-envoy-for-compact-negotiations/
By Hayley Channer on 19 May 2022

Indo-Pacific | International Relations