People, Person, Adult, Male, Man, Clothing, Formal Wear, Suit, Crowd, Face, Head, Accessories, Tie, Narendra Modi, Fumio Kishida, Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden

Minilateralism: A Trend in Regional Diplomacy

Published on 30 March 2023
Updated on 04 April 2024

This occasional blog is by one that spent 35 years in the Indian Foreign Service. Subsequently taught diplomatic practice (22 years with DiploFoundation). I began as a student of the Chinese language, and thereafter, four years in Beijing on two assignments. That fascination with China has persisted, but let me address a broader theme — trends in small group regional diplomacy. 

We now see the emergence of small clusters of states, often four or five countries, using common interests to pursue specific objectives, which usually also produces closer cooperation in other fields.

Examples of minilateralism


Australia, India, Japan and the US have gradually moved forward on their shared interests following a 2007 initiative by Japan PM Abe. Their objective: a ‘rule-based’, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region. An unstated aim: to blunt China’s moves in East Asia, including its’ militarization of small islands and reefs in the East China Sea, which endows Beijing with stronger military capacity, plus long reach into the Indo-Pacific region. Australia and India have overcome their initial hesitation; this group has taken shape after head of government and foreign ministers meetings. Three of them are defence allies; India does not identify itself against any other power. Beijing of course, takes a different perspective.


After a July 2022 meeting of the foreign ministers of India, Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, these four announced this new cluster. For them its’ an ‘ad-hoc, informal, issue-specific and geoeconomic initiative’. Their ambitious agenda: ‘to mobilise private sector capital and expertise to modernise infrastructure, advance low carbon development industries, improve public health and access to vaccines, advance physical connectivity, create new solutions for waste treatment…and promote the development of critical emerging and green technologies’. Political congruence underpins this technology orientation.


This 3-country cluster, Australia, the UK and US, is an extension of their alliance, announced in September 2021, focused on the Indo-Pacific region. A joint submarine program is an immediate aim. China is the unstated adversary.

Pacific Alliance

Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru created a full regional group (RG) in 2011, based on congruent policies, including a strong orientation towards Asia. Their goal is to pursue a strategic agenda, including free trade among the four states. Several other states now want to join; it outshines many RGs in performance. 

Common elements

First, small clusters are easier to manage than large ones. Second, informal methods work well within such groups. Third, success hinges on the careful selection of partners, plus clarity of intention. Finally, the method may suit small states, provided they do not have a dominant large neighbour who may see this as a hostile move. Comments welcome.

4 replies
  1. Hassan Talib
    Hassan Talib says:

    The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a living example of this theory. Unfortunately, in the case of small states usually a regional hegemon who is attached to a supreme power will dictate its word on the less powerful, especially when geopolitik plays strategic role. Despite that such political integration can guarantee sovereign benefits in areas of foreign policy, collective security, defense and economics.

    • Kishan S Rana
      Kishan S Rana says:

      Many thanks, Hassan.
      May I offer another perspective?
      Yes, regional hegemons may dislike the ‘mini-lateral’. But in today’s complex world, they too must adjust to other states — neighboring biggies, and global powers. We live in a world of multipolarity….The name of the game: try to include the regional hegemon.
      That is exactly what has happened with another minilateral, BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal). Thanks to persistent, gentle pushing by the Asian Dev Bank, these 4 countries are now cooperating to build transport connectivity of a kind that never existed earlier, esp. the use of rivers for navigation, oil pipelines, and shared electricity grids. And remember, India was supposed to be the ‘regional hegemon’!!
      India now sees the benefits of working together, to bring real benefit to ALL the people of the eastern part of the subcontinent. Consequently, bilateral ties — esp. for India — have seen dramatic improvement, esp. with Bangladesh and Nepal. India-Bhutan links have always been solid.
      Moral: we are limited only by our imagination in what can be done.
      Good wishes, Kishan

  2. Ginger Paque
    Ginger Paque says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight–I find it intriguing. You allude to the importance of the balance among parties when you say ‘Finally, the method may suit small states, provided they do not have a dominant large neighbour who may see this as a hostile move.’ But you don’t specifically address nuances of differences in power and standing among the members of a minilateral group. How important is this? Second, is there a possibility of forming minilateral groups that can be a source of positive diplomatic action, levelling the playing field for small states when discussing (negotiating) approaches to global topics? Is there a way for larger states to perceive this as a positive contribution to discussions rather than a challenge (which I assume you meant as a possible conflict of interests)?

    Perhaps tangential to your point, can this process be carried on remotely (e-diplomacy), perhaps adding an element of distance to ameliorate possible conflict, enhancing the informal tone of these discussions?

    • Kishan S Rana
      Kishan S Rana says:

      Thank you, Ginger. Three points:

      1. To be honest, right up to about 1990, India dealt with each neighbour separately. That changed thereafter, with evolving thinking in New Delhi. The Asian Development Bank helped in creating what is today the BBIN network, as explained to Hassan in the reply above. Its’ a work in progress, satisfies all.
      2. Coordinated diplomacy among such groups? I only know of regular meetings between Austrian and Swiss MFAs for such coordination. I don’t know if the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) has tried this.
      3. Cooperation via e-diplomacy? Well, every Zoom or video meeting is an example, but I don’t know how much mini-groups have gone beyond this.

      Warm regards, Kishan


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog