By Sarah Teo*
With their fourth leaders’ meeting in May 2022, the Quad has come a long way since senior officials from Australia, India, Japan and the United States first convened on the sidelines of ASEAN-led summits five years ago. Early doubts about the Quad’s sustainability should surely now give way to firmer beliefs that the arrangement is set to be a persistent element of the region’s security architecture.
While concerns remain about the Quad’s potential to raise tensions vis-a-vis China and its possible challenge to ASEAN centrality, ASEAN seems to have become slightly more supportive of the grouping over the last couple of years. This is perhaps due to the Quad’s constant pledges of support for ASEAN, as well as its shifting focus over the past year to include softer security issues such as health security and climate change. For instance, the Joint Vision Statement from the ASEAN–US Special Summit welcomed the Quad Vaccine Partnership.
Beyond the offer to provide public goods, the Quad also serves as a platform to keep the United States committed to the region. For ASEAN and its member states, strong US engagement in the region, alongside the presence of other regional powers, continues to be of value. Enmeshing the United States and other key players in the regional architecture is also a primary objective of ASEAN-led platforms such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
Viewed in this way, the Quad and ASEAN share a common interest in ensuring US presence in the region and building the capacity of regional countries to address non-traditional security challenges. But the difference lies in their respective forms of cooperation. ASEAN pursues inclusivity, while the Quad is premised more on exclusive cooperation. Although the Quad may eventually extend its partnerships, these are likely to involve only US allies and close partners.
But the best defence against regional tensions and uncertainty continues to lie in the existence of an inclusive multilateral order. This is ASEAN’s model, which has not only helped ensure that smaller countries get a say in regional decision making, but also that competing regional powers have a neutral avenue for dialogue and engagement.
Certainly, ASEAN and ASEAN-led platforms have come under fire in recent years for not being able to address regional challenges, including the instability caused by major power dynamics. The emergence of the Quad itself could be read as a response towards ASEAN’s failure to effectively temper rising tensions amid geostrategic shifts in the region.
But in a region with a broad range of political, ideological and economic diversity, and as divisions increasingly attract more attention than commonalities, there is arguably no better alternative to maintaining stability and reducing tensions than an inclusive multilateral order. Without such an order, the region is more likely to fragment into camps led by major powers, which countries would be expected to choose and align with.
This would predictably narrow their space for strategic manoeuvre. It also suggests that at the broader level, regional cooperative arrangements would be restricted to respective groups of ‘like-minded’ states with very little channels for communication and interaction between them. This would deepen and sustain regional divisions.
To avoid such a scenario, it may be useful for the Quad — even as it continues to develop institutionally — to further integrate into a regional architecture centred around ASEAN. This would help to enhance ASEAN’s value as the least controversial convenor and agenda setter in the region. On ASEAN’s part, it should also be open to engaging with the Quad. Admittedly, some ASEAN member states may require more convincing than others, but being completely closed to the idea of collaborating with the Quad would risk ASEAN being sidelined in the regional architecture.
There are a few ways in which the Quad and ASEAN could strengthen engagement. For one, similarities in the institutional agendas of both platforms present opportunities to hold exchanges at the practical level. Such issues include maritime cooperation, climate change and connectivity and infrastructure development. This would support ASEAN’s capacity-building objectives and assist in addressing challenges to the lives and livelihoods of those in the region.
Another suggestion would be for the Quad to invite the presiding ASEAN chair to be an observer to some of its working group activities. This may help facilitate dialogue between the two platforms on areas in which they share an interest and will further reassure ASEAN that the Quad does not aim to supplant its central place in regional multilateralism. It would also add a concrete dimension to the Quad’s expression of ‘unwavering support for ASEAN unity and centrality’.
The Quad may have emerged in response to ASEAN’s perceived ineffectiveness in dealing with regional challenges, but there are opportunities for both arrangements to leverage their respective strengths and collaborate in functional areas. Given the increasing potential for regional instability as well as the presence of transnational threats that regional countries urgently need to address, the Quad and ASEAN should work together and ensure that the regional multilateral order remains conducive for open and inclusive cooperation.
*About the author: Sarah Teo is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum