The Macquarie Dictionary recently released its word(s) of the year for 2020: doomscrolling and rona. When it comes to international relations, however, the winning candidate surely must go to that plucky Latin phrase ad hoc. In the last twelve to eighteen months it has become increasingly common to see arguments that “the future of multilateralism will likely be more ad hoc arrangements among like-minded states”. Such “ad hoc, inclusive coalitions” are expected to “develop on a case-by-case basis to tackle specific issues” as a consequence of the “complex, fluid, and multilayered” nature of an Indo-Pacific region shaped by Sino-American rivalry.

Australia’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong has advocated for “cultivat[ing] new, informal associations of countries with common interests, forming compacts on pressing issues where global consensus is elusive”. Professor Hugh White has gone as far as to say that the “long-term, stable, all-encompassing” model of alliances “will be of little use in preparing Australia for the challenges unfolding in Asia”. White argues that “relationships should be looser and more fluid, more like the temporary alignments between European powers in the turbulent power politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”.

French scholar François Heisbourg declared that we have now entered “the post-Alliance era”, which will see “coalitions and partnerships between the nations of the West” as “conditional, task-oriented and transient” by nature. In his recent address to the Lowy Institute, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also remarked that “the world we have now incurred is far more, I would say, ad hoc and far more customised than it used to be”. We should not expect international institutions to remain static in the face of changing geopolitical realities, or to merely reprise the approach of previous eras, and nor should we ignore the resilience of existing multilateral frameworks.

To the extent that US-China strategic competition will not be a reprise of the Cold War with two large, distinct blocs, I entirely concur with the judgements above. Leaders in Southeast Asia and the Pacific have been very clear on this; consistently voicing their opposition to new military alliances in the region, or being forced to choose between the United States and China.

Though it is questionable whether such a stance will continue to be viable in ten-or twenty-years’ time, for now hedging remains the dominant strategic option for most smaller states in Asia.

Combined with the emerging multipolar balance of power in the region, it follows that the international political environment and its related multilateral arrangements will be more complex.

However, I am sceptical that truly ad hoc, temporary, fluid, transient (choose your adjective) arrangements will become the multilateral tool of choice. If this were true, we should anticipate the de-prioritisation of existing multilateral institutions so that states can ensure greater freedom of action. In reality, the opposite is occurring. Member states are actively seeking to evolve the scope of established multilateral security arrangements in order to meet the new challenges of the mid-21st century, and world leaders are proposing new, wide-ranging alignments.

For example, NATO’s recently released strategic review sets out numerous recommendations on how to strengthen the role and cohesion of the organisation to meet emerging threats, including “purposefully upgrad[ing]” the alliance to better incorporate environmental, cyber, space, energy, and health security measures. Closer to home, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network has been progressively expanding its remit to include coordination meetings for Five Eyes attorneys-general, as well as law enforcement, border control, immigration, and passport-issuing authorities. Additionally, treasury ministers joined their foreign affairs and defence colleagues at the most recent Five Eyes meeting in October.

Another example of resilient, multilateral cooperation is the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), comprising Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. At the recent FPDA Defence Ministers Meeting, the participants affirmed the continual evolution of the group over its forty nine year history: “introduc[ing] elements of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maritime security into FPDA exercises and discussions whilst retaining its core focus on conventional warfare”, which “has enabled FPDA to retain its relevance in an increasingly complex contemporary security environment”.

Not only do many states have an interest in maintaining and evolving existing institutions, but some temporary, issues-based partnerships have since evolved into broader, permanent arrangements embedded into the regional security order. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) is a case in point. Having emerged out of the coordinated efforts of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to respond to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the original formulation was a truly ad hoc arrangement that addressed a specific issue. Subsequently, this experience led to the first quadripartite working-level discussions in 2007.

‘Quad 1.0’ came to a premature end in 2008 (though the particular reasons for this are contested) before ‘Quad 2.0’ was re-established in 2017. In October 2020 the Quad held its first ministerial-level foreign ministers meeting, and after years of lobbying Australia has also been once again invited to participate in Exercise Malabar alongside its Quad partners. Some scholars and analysts have raised concerns about the Quad, particularly given recent remarks by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but there is much room for this grouping to continue to expand its scope and contribute positively to the regional security environment.

The Quad was also a significant topic of discussion at the Griffith Asia Institute Australia-Japan-India Trilateral roundtable (November 2020). Participants identified several areas of importance and future growth for the trilateral and Quad, including: coordination on infrastructure projects and funding, supply chain resilience, sub-regional and burden-sharing initiatives, digital governance, and intelligence sharing. Noting the wariness of ASEAN members vis-à-vis the Quad, participants also discussed the prospect of returning to the roots of the institution and embracing a broader vision of security tasks, such as activities in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Doing so, it was argued, would provide a more balanced and durable basis for quadripartite cooperation, and counteract some international and domestic political concerns over the group’s long-term objectives.

While it may have been an ad hoc arrangement once, the Quad is now a recognised piece of the Indo-Pacific multilateral pantheon, and looks set to stay. 

Overall, while temporary or ad hoc arrangements may become more prolific in the years ahead, there remains a strong appetite for states to maintain—indeed reinforce—existing multilateral security frameworks. In general, institutions reduce the transaction costs of continued multilateral engagement between states. They require shared interests, norms, and identities to function effectively, but there is considerable benefit in upholding multilateral partnerships and responding to crises from an established foundation. I daresay reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.


David Andrews is a PhD candidate in international relations at La Trobe University, and previously held roles in military strategy, strategic policy, and export control in the Department of Defence. You can follow him on Twitter @dmandrews13

The author attended the Griffith Asia Institute Australia-Japan-India Roundtable themed strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific in a post-COVID world (November 2020). This was the fourth trilateral discussion hosted by the Institute, with generous support from the Japanese Consulate-General (Brisbane) and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.