The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional grouping whose impact is very limited on many issues. It has no strategic vision and its leadership is weak.
China had felt comfortable with the divided ASEAN for the last three decades. It had enjoyed a free ride in ASEAN, pursuing its aggressive policies in the SCS and turning the region into its largest trading partner.
However, China will now face a formidable challenge from the newly established regional groups, which involve economic and military heavyweights.
The recent first ever in-person summit of leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in Washington on Sept. 24 was a bitter pill to swallow for Communist China and a welcome news for Southeast Asian countries.
The event was the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad Summit, which was attended by American President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“Together, we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” the four leaders said in a joint statement.
“We stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states”.
Origins of the Quad
Quad was originally formed in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Its main aim was to reconfigure the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. It was a response from these four countries, who used to participate in joint naval exercises called “Exercise Malabar” in India, to the increasing economic and military power of China.
Quad later became inactive until 2017 due to Australia’s withdrawal from the group. During the 12th East Asia Summit in Manila in November 2017, the leaders of these four countries met and decided to revive the Quad. Between 2017 to 2019, there were five Quad meetings, including the foreign ministers’ meeting in New York in September 2019. In March 2021, the leaders of Quad attended the first virtual summit and issued a joint communique.
At the beginning, China did not take Quad seriously and even described it as a “sea foam” which would evaporate soon. As the coalition grew stronger, so had China’s fears as Quad could pose serious challenges to Chinese global and regional ambitions in the years ahead.
The four countries of Quad are the world’s top democracies. India is the world’s biggest democracy, while the US is the second largest democracy.
In the economic field, the US is the world’s largest economy, while Japan is the third largest economy. India is the sixth largest economy and Australia is in the 12th position.
In terms of military strength, according to the Global Firepower 2021 report, the US ranks number one in the world. India is the world’s fourth biggest military power, while Japan and Australia are in the fifth and 19th position respectively.
Many people are in the wrong impression that Quad is a military alliance or forum. This may be due to China’s aggressive propaganda.
Last year, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Quad was an effort to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO” and Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy poses “a big underlying security risk to the region”. Chinese media condemned Quad as a “small clique” of countries trying to start a new Cold War.
China’s own mistake
The fundamental question is what are the factors that have led to the formation of Quad?
During President Hu Jintao’s period (2003 to 2013), China assured the world that China’s growing economic, political, and military power would not pose a threat to world peace and security. It was called China’s peaceful rise. However, this had all changed since President Xi Jinping took over the leadership of China in 2013. Under Xi’s leadership, China has shown expansionist and aggressive behaviour in the South and East China Seas and instigated fights with India over the border issue. It has been coercing and bullying its small Southeast Asian neighbours and Australia.
China suppressed the democratic movement in Hong Kong and wanted to take over Taiwan by force. It has been committing atrocities against Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. Media freedom is tightly controlled in China.
China wants to dominate the world through its hard power.
“The rise of China is not peaceful,” C. Raja Mohan, a top foreign policy expert from Singapore’s National University of Singapore, told the ThePrint recently.
According to Raja Mohan, the rise of China and India as well as real geopolitical contestation are in the Indo-Pacific region. That led to the emergence of Quad to create a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
It was China’s own mistake to shift from a peaceful rise to becoming an expansionist power.
China has considerable reasons to worry about Quad in the coming years.
“The worst case scenario from Beijing’s perspective is that the Quad could serve as the foundation of a broader global anti-Chinese coalition. If the Quad were to draw other Asian countries, the EU, and NATO into efforts to confront or undermine China’s international ambitions, it could, over time, swing the collective balance of power definitively against China,” Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, wrote an interesting article titled “Why the Quad Alarms China” in the Foreign Affairs magazine recently.
China never expected that its neighbour India would join Quad and expand ties with the US.
“It was India’s strategic pivot,” commented Raja Mohan in an article in the Foreign Policy journal recently.
Like Indonesia and Vietnam, India’s policy is not to join any military alliances. It was India that put the condition that Quad would not be a military forum. Finally, the US, which initially wanted to create a military alliance, agreed to India’s request.
Partnerships and cooperation
Since the Quad is not a military alliance, what it is?
Quad forges partnerships and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indian Prime Minister Modi said that Quad will be “a force for global good”.
“I am confident that our cooperation, under Quad, will ensure prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific and in the world,” Al Jazeera quoted Modi as saying in Washington recently.
Quad is good for Southeast Asia as its policies are in line with ASEAN’s objectives. Quad leaders have expressed their willingness to work with ASEAN.
“We commit to work together and with a range of partners. We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality and for ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and we underscore our dedication towards working with ASEAN and its member states – the heart of the Indo-Pacific region – in practical and inclusive ways,” Quad leaders said in the joint statement.
Quad leaders have the same views with their ASEAN counterparts. Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia want a rules-based regional architecture, freedom of navigation and the full application of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea.
“We will redouble our efforts to ensure that the Quad is a force for regional peace, stability, security, and prosperity. Towards that end, we will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas,” the Quad statement said.
It also called for the end of violence in Myanmar and early restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
ASEAN can work closely with Quad in many areas, like mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and critical and emerging technologies. Quad members have the resources, expertise, experience, and willingness to work with ASEAN countries.
Quad members are also active in the COVAX Facility program.
“In addition to doses financed through COVAX, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States have pledged to donate more than 1.2 billion doses globally of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines,” the statement said.
“And to date, we have delivered nearly 79 million safe, effective, and quality-assured vaccine doses to countries in the Indo-Pacific as part of those commitments”.
Australia will provide $212 million in grant aid to Southeast Asian and Pacific countries to buy vaccines. Japan will provide $3.3 billion loans for the same purpose. India will resume its vaccine exports to Southeast Asian countries in October.
In an effort to deal with the climate crisis, Quad members are ready to help countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Quad countries will work together to keep the Paris-aligned temperature limits within reach and will pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” Quad said.
In the technology field, Quad will take a leading role to help Southeast Asian countries.
“We have established cooperation on critical and emerging technologies to ensure the way in which technology is designed, developed, governed, and used is shaped by our shared values and respect for universal human rights,” Quad said.
“In partnership with industry, we are advancing the deployment of secure, open, and transparent 5G and beyond-5G networks, and working with a range of partners to foster innovation and promote trustworthy vendors and approaches”.
For ASEAN’s goals, Quad is good, unlike the AUKUS, a military alliance.
On Sept. 15, the Biden administration announced the establishment of the AUKUS, a trilateral military pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US. Under the pact, both the UK and US will provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as a deterrence against Chinese threat.