Officials from the countries that make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – Australia, India, Japan and the US – held talks on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Singapore on November 14. The quadrilateral initiative was first proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, aiming to establish an alliance in the Asia-Pacific region in response to the rise of China. In 2017, after the Trump administration proposed the “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Quad was put forward again as the pillar of implementing the plan to constrain China’s increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The first Quad meeting was held during the East Asia Summit in Manila, Philippines, in November 2017, followed by the second in Singapore in June 2018. In spite of three meetings in just one year, this time, apart from repeated references to cliches like “free and open Indo-Pacific” and “shared commitment,” no official public documents have been issued. Originally aimed at China, the Quad has triggered concern and skepticism among ASEAN countries, resulting in not only vigilance against the alliance, but also doubts over the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The Quad undermines ASEAN’s leading role in regional cooperation. Due to the contradictions between China and Japan, as well as US opposition to East Asian integration, regional cooperation in East Asia has always been centered on ASEAN. Geographically, ASEAN is at the center of both Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific. Thus ASEAN expects to play the dominant role in both Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regional cooperation. If the Quad mechanism is taken as the pillar of the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” it will undoubtedly marginalize ASEAN in regional affairs. Indonesia, a major ASEAN country, emphasizes the need for an ASEAN-centered Indo-Pacific. ASEAN should have a voice rather than play second fiddle to big powers in regional security and economic order.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is proposed to counter the Belt and Road initiative, while ASEAN countries are glad to embrace the latter. In the meantime when the US put forward the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it tried to smear the Belt and Road initiative by calling it a “debt trap.” However, ASEAN countries generally believe that the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) will play a major role in the development of Southeast Asia. The benefits of the initiative are becoming increasingly apparent, while the goal of Indo-Pacific Strategy is still not clear.
When asked how ASEAN fits into the free and open Indo-Pacific concept, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan replied that the concept and the BRI, if properly envisioned and carried out, can coexist and benefit all in Southeast Asia. He stressed that “Southeast Asian countries do not want to be forced into making false choices or forced choices.”
Having invited Japan to join the US-India Malabar military exercise, Washington is also looking at adding Australia, thus holding the war games with the four sides participating. Besides, the US also proposed that the four countries conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. If the four nations form a military alliance, it not only implies the emergence of an “Asian NATO,” but will also result in a new cold war in Asia, with Southeast Asia becoming the frontier of the Sino-US confrontation. This will further lead to regional arms races, even proxy wars, and undermine development in Asia. ASEAN countries generally hope that disputes in the South China Sea will be settled by the parties concerned themselves through talks and oppose external interference, especially if it has a military dimension.
Last but not the least, the Quad will split both Indo-Pacific and ASEAN. Why were the ASEAN powers not invited to form the Quad? It is not only about national strength, but also for the “democracy” that the four countries share, which indicates that the US intends to take democracy as a standard in terms of its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The key to ASEAN’s achievement today lies largely in maintaining organizational unity without drawing a line between ideology and political system. Thus the Indo-Pacific Strategy proposed by the US in this way will not only split the Indo-Pacific region, but also create a rift among ASEAN countries.