In the past, the “Quad” of Australia, India, Japan and the United States has been unable to offer ASEAN anything concrete to back up its alleged aim of building a rules-based international order. As the forum rapidly becomes an anti-China block, it may push ASEAN further away.
By Umair Jamal
On October 6, top diplomats from Australia, India, Japan and the United States assembled in Tokyo for the second meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or “Quad”.
The forum mainly discussed China’s transgressions in the Asia-Pacific region. This was the first time that the foreign ministers of the Quad countries held a standalone meeting where ASEAN was not present in any capacity.
There have been discussions among analysts and policy makers about expanding the “Quad” into a “Quad-plus” grouping to include ASEAN states. However, this is unlikely to happen as the Quad still does not have much to offer ASEAN.
In fact, without Southeast Asian membership, the grouping weakens ASEAN centrality—the principle that Southeast Asian governments must be central to regional institutions and processes—which remains the pillar of the regional block.
Why is the Quad interested in adding ASEAN to the forum?
The Quad’s main focus has been to build alliances in the Indo-Pacific to challenge China’s illegal activities. China described the first Quad meeting as a US project, “an axis of democracies”, a “security diamond” and a way to contain Beijing. The Beijing government demanded the participating countries explain their purpose.
The recent meeting of Quad foreign ministers focused on China’s so-called aggressive posturing; the timing of the summit—in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—shows the participants believe China poses urgent threats.
All four countries have serious differences with China on security, trade and maritime affairs. India’s recent military standoff with China may have aligned it closer with the Quad’s aim of containing China. During this month’s Quad meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”
One of the Quad’s key goals has been to expand the group to add more countries from the Indo-Pacific. Expansion to include Southeast Asia has been on the table since the group’s inauguration but ASEAN states have been reluctant to join openly or become a part of the grouping’s anti-China stance.
Why is Southeast Asia cautious about joining the Quad?
There has been little enthusiasm for the current Quad among the leadership of ASEAN itself or among Southeast Asian countries. For the majority of the region, without any ASEAN states as members, the Quad is merely another extension of great power rivalries at the expense of ASEAN interests.
The group’s anti-China stance deters ASEAN countries from formally extending their support. Quad countries and ASEAN states have a record of cooperation and the Quad expects this to translate into a willingness to work with the forum and push its agenda in the region. For ASEAN, joining a forum that talks about a rules-based international order while also securing ASEAN centrality could be a win-win situation.
But ASEAN’s exclusion from the Quad could undermine the forum’s significance and should be cause for concern among Southeast Asian nations. For a long time, ASEAN states have been sensitive to being overshadowed by big power rivalries—the Quad’s anti-China rhetoric only adds problems for Southeast Asian states attempting to remain neutral.
The Quad’s sustainability hinges on the responses and support of its partners—especially ASEAN states. The region’s geographical and geopolitical role in the South China Sea and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains important for Quad members.
The Quad arguably has yet to make an impact on ASEAN despite its objectives of a regional security architecture and a rules-based order. ASEAN has several of its own working forums in the political and security arenas. For instance, the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) are setup to protect the maritime and navigation interests of Southeast Asian countries.
The Quad hasn’t offered much to ASEAN in the past and with its anti-China agenda, it may push the region’s governments further away. The Quad must offer something concrete that can solidify ASEAN’s centrality in its processes and show a commitment to unity, peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific; if not, Southeast Asia will continue to show little interest in the Quad.