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Minilateralism: Weighing the Prospects for Cooperation and Governance

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    6th Sep, 2021


The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) held in early August in Colombo, Sri Lanka led to the discussion between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives on security cooperation across “four pillars” including maritime security, human trafficking, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity.

CSC has hinted towards the idea of ‘minilaterals’


  • The idea of minilaterals is not new: bilateralism, multilateralism and minilateralism have co-existed in global governance since 1945. 
  • Notably, the multilateral institutions that were created in the post-war era were negotiated through “disguised” minilateralism, pursued between the United States (US) and other Atlantic powers. 
  • For instance, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1947 (GATT) can be traced to bilateral or minilateral negotiations between major trading powers, which were subsequently “multilateralised” by including other countries in the discussions. 
  • Nonetheless, it was in the more recent years that there has been a steady proliferation of minilateral initiatives in the areas of trade, security, finance, and climate change.


What is Minilaterals?

  • Minilaterals (or plurilateral, as referred to in trade policy jargon) refer to informal and more targeted initiatives intended to address a “specific threat, contingency or security issue with fewer states (usually three or four) sharing the same interest for resolving it within a finite period of time.” 
  • It focuses on gathering the “critical mass” of members necessary for a specific purpose, in contrast to the broad and inclusive approach associated with multilaterals. 
    • For illustration,
      • Multilateral: the WTO would be a multilateral framework for international trade regulation
      • Minilateral: a minilateral would be the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—a free trade agreement among Asia-Pacific countries


  • In contrast, multilateralism is defined as a “formal effort by three or more states to build trust and avoid conflict by identifying, institutionalizing and observing rules and norms for a common vision of regional or international order.” 

What are the major features of minilaterals? 

  • Certain features are frequently associated with minilaterals:
    • they have a small number of participants
    • they are ad hoc
    • their outcomes and commitments are voluntary in nature

How minilateral cooperation is being witnessed nowadays?

  • Minilateral cooperation is being witnessed on all vital themes for international cooperation, such as climate change, economic cooperation, trade, connectivity, financial regulation, and security.
  • The growth of regional clubs for international economic cooperation are supplanting “global” multilateralism, such as:
    • European Union (EU)
    • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
    • G20
    • G7

Why this concept is significant?

  • Achieving of specified goal: The creation of the smallest group necessary to achieve a particular goal.
  • Soft mechanism: It is a turn from formal treaties to non-binding accords and other soft-law mechanisms.

For regulating financial markets, regulators and countries now lean towards informal mechanisms such as the Basel Committee and the Financial Stability Board, which tend to adopt “soft law” methods.

  • Easy & simple: It is associated with ease and simplicity. 
  • Voluntary arrangement: These arrangements are voluntary, and follow a bottom-up approach.
  • Better decision making and coordination: With a smaller membership, they can expedite decision-making and facilitate policy coordination on important focus areas.

Disadvantages of multilateralism

  • Large organisations with formal institutional structure, international bureaucracies, and heterogenous membership, can face hurdles that impede prompt decision-making.
  • Too many frameworks can lead to:
    • fragmentation of action
    • dilute outcomes
    • weaken cooperation on global issues

Why shifting towards minilateralism is beneficial for India?

  • There is growing importance of strategic alliances over global cooperation. These initiatives can facilitate the creation of issue-specific partnerships between like-minded countries.
  • For instance, minilaterals can provide a forum to strengthen defence and security cooperation in new regional theatres, such as the Indo-Pacific.
  • Because of the importance of security cooperation in this region, a range of minilaterals have been created to advance the interests of like-minded countries, such as
    • the Quad
    • the India-Japan-US trilateral
    • the India-France-Australia trilateral
  • They also provide an avenue for participation of countries like India, who lack a similar decision-making capacity in forums like the UN Security Council.


The evolving global order and the changing nature of threats are posing difficult questions on the continued relevance of multilateral frameworks. Minilaterals can help in framing targeted partnerships that can focus energies on shared interests and concerns. 


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