The “Quad” countries are showing interest in connectivity projects in Southeast Asia by getting involved in two initiatives across the region. Does it hint at further formalization of the coalition and what impact, if any, does it have on existing initiatives in the region?
Australia, India, Japan and the US—the four countries comprising the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue-or “Quad”—are showing interest in developing connectivity infrastructure across Southeast Asia, although not as a four-strong coalition but in two different projects.
India and Japan will construct a bridge over the Brahmaputra river connecting Bhutan with Vietnam. Meanwhile, Australia, India and the US have taken an interest in developing Thailand’s Kra canal.
The Brahmaputra bridge initiative will combine the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway India is building with the East-West Economic Corridor being developed by Japan in partnership with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
This project will link Bhutan and the northeastern states of India with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It will give these landlocked regions access to the sea other than via Indian ports.
The Kra canal project would connect the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea and create an alternative transit route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, enabling ships to avoid the increasingly busy Strait of Malacca.
How significant are these projects for the Quad?
These two projects indicate the Quad’s growing engagement with Southeast Asia even if not collectively. The Quad is yet to assume a formal and institutional shape despite its idea being conceived in 2007. It was only in 2017 that the Quad concept was revived on the sidelines of that year’s ASEAN Summit. The Quad’s momentum has been growing since 2019 when meetings were upgraded to ministerial level.
The past three months have seen increased activity among the Quad countries. Their respective foreign ministers met in Tokyo in October. In November, they held naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of India.
There are three main factors driving the Quad countries’ involvement in these connectivity projects. Firstly, infrastructure construction in ASEAN countries should be considered as another step towards the formalization of the Quad. Until now, the Quad’s activities have been restricted to holding meetings with officials.
The recent naval exercises and now involvement in connectivity projects could further define the Quad. For that to happen, the Quad countries must expand their scope beyond military exercises. Infrastructure projects are one way of doing that.
Diversifying its areas of cooperation ensures India’s participation. According to Dr. C. Raja Mohan of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, the recent naval activity is a step towards institutionalization of the Quad. He argued that the US is already seeking to expand the scope of the Quad beyond defense into economic, technological and intelligence-sharing domains.
The Quad as a regional counterpoint to Chinese aggression
Secondly, the Quad has hitherto focused on Southeast Asia in general and on the South China Sea in particular. The Quad has been gaining momentum in recent years parallel to China’s growing assertion in the South China Sea. After formulating the idea of the Quad in 2007, the proposed member countries were mindful of China’s concerns and so the idea did not go forward. But China’s militarization of South China Sea and claims over its energy-rich waters has led to disputes with Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“The first time the Quadrilateral grouping was proposed, it was a far more tentative partnership. Australia in particular was sceptical of the need for a Quad and it was wary of upsetting diplomatic relations with China. That’s why the initial iteration fell apart,” said Herve Lemahieu, director of the power and diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute, Australia.
“Since then, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards China among all the Quadrilateral partners. And in that sense, Beijing has been its own worst enemy,” he added.
The concepts of a rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific region have primarily revolved around navigation in and out of the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. These two connectivity projects should provide the Quad countries with additional transportation and navigation options across Southeast Asian countries.
Thirdly, each of the Quad countries are extra-regional powers with economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia. These projects allow them to engage more closely with ASEAN nations. China has challenged the US’s influence in Southeast Asia to the extent that ASEAN is now a bigger trading partner for China than the US.
ASEAN is equally important for the other three Quad countries due to their trade volumes with the region. On average, around 10-15% of trade (imports and exports) Australia, India and Japan carries out is with ASEAN. Better coordination with ASEAN countries could help the Quad countries to forward their interests in a better manner.
Will these projects challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative?
Along with Australia, India and the US, China has also shown interest in developing the Kra canal. Beijing is keen for an alternative route to end its Malacca Dilemma. Around 80% of China’s oil and other trade passes through the Straits of Malacca. Should there be a blockade of this route, it could severely impact China’s trade.
China’s vision for the Kra canal was that of an escape route to prevent choking in the Strait of Malacca. Recently, however, Thailand has pushed back against Beijing. As well as abandoning the Kra canal project with China, Thailand also delayed the purchase of two submarines from China costing US$724 million. With Thailand now potentially due to benefit from Quad involvement in infrastructure projects within its borders, is this a sign of things to come?
How and to what extent these connectivity projects might challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains to be seen. China’s growing presence in Southeast Asia has gone hand in hand with the development of similar infrastructure projects. Increased engagement from the Quad countries with ASEAN through infrastructure development could provide other options.
Although the Quad countries are yet to collectively participate in any project or even provide a formal alternative to the BRI these two projects could be considered a worthwhile starting point. If the Quad countries can build upon this base Southeast Asia might reap the benefits.