Minilateral groups cannot patch up cracks in US’ Asia-Pacific partnership
Published: Oct 28, 2023 07:49 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

As the US' alliance and its partnership network in the Asia-Pacific region face a growing number of cracks, Washington has made all efforts to put patches on them. In particular, its solution is to build up more minilateral groups that, in its opinion, can coordinate better on concrete issues. But this approach only exposes more problems in the US' already shaky partnership framework in the region.

Camille P. Dawson, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council on Friday that since the release of its Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2021, the US has been working to create new minilateral partnerships and frameworks that are intended to complement the existing architecture. "Our shared efforts in the Indo-Pacific have proven the capacity of minilateral groupings to bring the resources and necessary cooperation to bear on key economic and security challenges," she added.

While minilateral groups themselves are nothing new in the region, they have been under the spotlight during the Biden administration. During his remarks to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken detailed the concept of "diplomatic variable geometry" - that is, to "assemble the group of partners that's the right size and the right shape to address the problem." Apparently, many US-led minilateral groups in the Indo-Pacific region, ranging from the Quad, AUKUS, Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), to the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral partnership, are the results of the realization of such strategy.

Judging from Washington's current strategic layout and capacity, turning to a more "variable" approach in foreign affairs seems to be a reasonable stopgap for an increasingly fragile and troubled US. As its hegemonic power starts to shrink and domestic problems emerge, the once-world-police has to worry about how to use its gradually limited strategic resources in places that need them most. As a result, globally, Washington's focus has largely shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, where the strategic planning and implementation revolves mainly around China.

Many US officials have denied that their country is targeting China, while packaging the US-led minilateral groupings as mechanisms to realize a vision of the region shared by the members. However, facts prove that its true intention is to form coteries against China to contain its development, and the danger of Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy has brought more instability to the region.

Furthermore, it is worried that the ultimate goal of the US is to weave its minilateral mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific region into a US-led multilateral alliance - an Asia-Pacific version of NATO. Such a result will, for sure, become a nightmare for all regional countries that pursue peace and prosperity instead of confrontation and turbulence.

The US tries to weave more layers of minilateral partnerships in the region, but the more "patches" it needs, the more it proves how significant the divergence between it and its Asia-Pacific partners over various issues has become. In Europe, the US always talks about "common values" with its European allies; but in Asia-Pacific, since many, if not most countries don't necessarily share the same value system with Washington, now the US is fond of using terms such as "common interests" or "common challenges" to cover up such a difference.

And there is more. On one hand, the US has been attempting to rope Asia-Pacific countries into its anti-China cliques by smearing China, hyping up "China threat" stories and even coercion, but most of these nations don't desire to take sides between Beijing and Washington. On the other, the variability in US' diplomatic approach, in fact, means disposability. Washington seeks to engage with Asia-Pacific countries in the manner of playing with toy blocks. In other words, a block in the US' game will immediately be discarded once it loses its ability to play a certain part in the architecture of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. All these are issues that require the attention and concern of regional countries while participating in US-led groups.

While the US highlights exclusiveness and competition in its Asia-Pacific minilateral groupings, China pushes for openness and win-win cooperation with its neighbors in the region and beyond. Accomplishments of the development of relations between China and neighboring countries are summarized in the "Outlook on China's Foreign Policy on Its Neighborhood in the New Era" released on Tuesday, while the future of Asia's development is visualized. "The right choice for Asia should be openness, solidarity, cooperation, justice and harmony rather than isolation, division, confrontation, hegemony and zero-sum approach," reads the document. It is certain that these words will find more echo in Asia-Pacific which desperately needs common development.