Image: Strategy Bridge
By Ivy Kwek
Last month, the leaders of the Quad – the United States, Japan, India and Australia, came together and met for the first time. Promising to strive for a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”, the Quad countries launched a vaccine partnership and promised to deliver 1 billion vaccines to countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Among other things, the summit also discussed climate change, critical technologies, cyber space, counter-terrorism, maritime security and humanitarian assistances.
The virtual summit was significant because it is the first time the leaders of the four countries met at a leader-level. It also came after the change of administration of two countries – the Biden administration in the US, who has been sworn in January this year, and the Suga administration in Japan which took over in September 2020.
Most importantly, it is significant because it comes at a time when geopolitics of the region is in an unprecedented state of uncertainty and volatility. At the centre of this, though unspoken, was undeniably the increasing concern over China’s rise in influence in the Indo-Pacific region. While in the past, Quad member countries had their fair share of reservations and have been careful not to overplay their hand and risk antagonizing China, recent developments might have pushed the countries closer towards the Quad.
Unlike the previous administration, the Biden administration employed less antagonistic languages and prefers multilateral arrangements. This is reflected in the language employed by this Quad meeting. The summit portrayed a positive agenda, emphasising on cooperation across the issues of great and valid concerns to the region. The 1 billion vaccines pledge, of which Southeast Asia will be main recipients, is not a small feat, and direct match-up of China’s hitherto lead in vaccines diplomacy.
Most importantly, this summit clearly seeks to address one of the biggest concerns from Southeast Asian countries about the Quad, that it focuses too much on security rather than cooperation on more practical, immediate concerns. Given that the Quad’s main concern revolves around China, there were worries that the Quad would securitise the region by becoming the “Asian NATO” . Most certainly, the Quad is retaining its languages on upholding the rule-based order and democratic values. This might not sit well with some governments in the region, even as they pay lip services to it.
Over such backdrop, it is understandable why Southeast Asia’s response towards the Quad has been muted. With China being the largest trade partner of ASEAN, ASEAN countries are cautious, for fear of pushback from China. Despite the Quad clarifying that they are not an alliance nor has the intention to be one, it is still not well received by China.
By focusing on more practical cooperation, the Quad has in some way allowed Southeast Asia a good entry point for cooperation. Increasingly, a “twin chessboard scenario” is being formed in the region, where great powers are competing at two levels – the strategic and resources level. For the latter, we can see a race to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in the likes of Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, Australia’s Partnership for Infrastructure (P4I) and the US-led Blue Dot Network.
Logically, having more options for Southeast Asia is not a bad thing. Cooperation on technology, climate change and vaccines are much needed by Southeast Asian countries, and is certainly in our benefit to work with the best on offer. Working with more than one partner can reduce over-reliance and encourage better quality investment. This is in line with our hedging strategy – of course, other non-political considerations must take precedence, such as the safety of the vaccines.
Having received so much attention from great powers can be a blessing or a curse. Southeast Asia has been careful in not choosing sides, insisting on ASEAN centrality in any regional cooperation. Mere refusal not to choose side might not be an option for long. If there is one thing for sure, is that great powers’ competition is intensifying, and ASEAN’s strategic calculation must adapt to deal with it accordingly. Instead, what ASEAN must do in order to retain centrality would perhaps be to foster the ability to work indiscriminately with all, despite occasional pressure from the other side, while being able to integrate both in ASEAN mechanisms. As it stands, ASEAN has published the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, giving the lexicon an affirmative nod while offering its own iteration of the concept.
Having said that, it is not always helpful to see the world in such binary terms. All four Quad countries have had deep footprints in Southeast Asia and good ties with many Southeast Asia n countries. It is important to bear in mind that even if Southeast Asian countries are not ready to openly endorse the Quad as a whole, it has not hindered the strengthening of cooperation with Quad countries. A good example would be Malaysia’s approach in the South China Sea. While choosing quiet diplomacy by not publicly clashing with China, Malaysia has also taken less publicised steps to strengthen its maritime security with other partners, including under the Maritime Security Initiative with the US, as well as the submission of the continental shelf delineation to the UN in Dec 2019.
Meanwhile, it must be noted that many non-Quad countries are also increasingly adopting the Indo-Pacific term in their strategic documents. This includes the United Kingdom, whose recent integrated strategic review signalled an Indo-Pacific “tilt”, as well as France, Germany and the Netherlands. These countries whilst expressing concerns over the regional security of the Indo-Pacific, also hold a more nuanced view about working with China. Even Quad countries particularly Japan have also been trying to step up cooperation with China on infrastructure projects, through the third countries cooperation arrangement.
Going forward, more assurance is needed that this is not an Asian NATO to assuage the deep-seated fear of Southeast Asian countries of upsetting China. After all, economic interests aside, China will forever be its big neighbour – a geographical fact that will not change. Southeast Asia will also be watching closely, to see if the Quad shows its seriousness to live up to the promise of more regular engagements and realisation of the initial commitments. Given that there are no ASEAN member states among the Quad members, a question to ponder would be how engagement between the Quad and ASEAN would take shape, should it happen in the near future. At the moment, we’ve seen Vietnam being courted as a Quad-plus country. How ASEAN countries, particularly the maritime states, perceive their “China threat” will certainly be a key factor in getting them closer or further away from the Quad.
On Southeast Asia’s part, how should we respond? How can we leverage these dynamics to the best of our interests? Southeast Asia countries will be weighing many pull and push factors in coming up with a response strategy. We ought to have one quick. With nimble diplomacy, we might chart a path that can navigate these competitions, perhaps emerge with much to gain. The alternative to this would either be a hegemony or unmanaged conflicts with detrimental results. All eyes are on us now.
An edited version of this article first appeared on The Interpreter, Lowy Institute.