Over the past decade, as China’s might and assertiveness have grown, countries around the Indo-Pacific have increasingly embraced informal partnerships, or minilateral groupings, to deepen international policy action and defense coordination. Two prominent examples of the minilateral model are the Quad, which comprises Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and AUKUS, which includes Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, deterring China with minilateral groupings is more complex than traditional deterrence theory might suggest. Can minilateral groupings deter coercion and aggression in the Indo-Pacific, and if so, under what conditions?
A collection of essays in a new Asia Policy roundtable tackles this question. Shorenstein APARC South Asia Research Scholar Arzan Tarapore is a co-editor of the roundtable. Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro is the author of the first essay in the collection.
The roundtable brings together six leading security experts to explore the nexus between deterrence and minilateralism in Indo-Pacific security politics. The motivation for this endeavor, Tarpore and co-editor Brendan Taylor of the Australian National University explain in the roundtable introductory essay, is to fill the gap in the existing literature, which has largely not addressed the possible convergence between these two increasingly dominant trends in the region.
The roundtable opens with Mastro's essay, in which she identifies the unique characteristics of the China challenge and considers how minilateral groupings can best enhance deterrence in these circumstances. First, she explains why minilaterals, such as the Quad, could address some of the challenges of “deterrence by punishment.” This traditional form of deterrence employs the threat of severe penalties — ranging from economic sanctions to nuclear retaliation — to prevent attacks by an adversary. Here, Mastro says, “economic or political costs may have greater deterrent value against Beijing than military costs, thus creating an opportunity for the Quad.”
Next is the category of “deterrence by denial,” which includes strategies that prevent or limit aggressive actions of an adversary by creating the perception that they will not succeed. Such denial-based strategies are more effective than punishment-based ones in circumstances where China could blunt U.S. attempts at punishment or choose to incur the costs. But the United States, Mastro says, “does not have the regional force posture to deny China its objectives.”
Mastro then considers a third, less analyzed category, “deterrence by resilience,” where the goal is to encourage the perception that disruptive events such as military operations will not be effective in attaining the adversary’s objectives. Here, “resiliency is about signaling to China that the benefits of a particular action are less than China believes them to be.” By building resiliency, smaller countries can push back against Chinese coercion to abide by China's interests. Countries in minilateral groupings should therefore prioritize this form of deterrence as they consider ways to cooperate, Mastro concludes.