Trans-Pacific View

The Quad, Vietnam, and the Role of Democratic Values

What is the ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ without concern for its normative basis?

The Quad, Vietnam, and the Role of Democratic Values
Credit: Flickr / White House

Since its revival of the sidelines of APEC last November, scholarship regarding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has addressed the various obstacles to the realization of its greater potential. Several contributions in the May issue of The Diplomat magazine underscored how the Quad’s incapacity to dispel perceptions of its “China containment” endgame have cast doubt in the minds of potential regional partners as to the merits of associating with the so-called “Democratic Security Diamond.” For example, one article noted that ASEAN’s agnostic outlook on the Quad is motivated in large part by the underdevelopment of the “Indo-Pacific” concept espoused by the dialogue’s members.

Interestingly, another article cited one Chinese scholar’s comments regarding the Quad’s apparent normative basis, bringing to light an aspect of the dialogue on which discussion has been relatively limited. Jin Canrong argued that while an emerging Japan-India-Australia-Vietnam alignment was predicated on geopolitics, the Quad remained rooted in democratic values.

However, the extent to which these continue to underpin the Quad’s regional engagement deserves far greater scrutiny, for public expressions of concern for the deterioration of democratic values and institutions in the region have been noticeably absent from recent interactions between the Quad and other states. Rather, it would seem that the Quad’s regional engagement is driven primarily by strategic rather than normative considerations. Recent engagement with Vietnam is a case in point. While most Southeast Asian states have refrained from engaging with the Quad for fear of stoking China’s strategic sensitivities, Vietnam has seemingly embraced the Dialogue precisely because of its utility as a counterweight to Beijing. In turn, a common perception of Vietnam’s own strategic utility as a forward-leaning counter-claimant to China in the South China Sea has motivated the Quad to gradually draw Hanoi into the fold. In recent times, the Quad’s members have each striven to upgrade bilateral strategic relations with Vietnam through conducting joint military exercises, port visits, extending lines of defense credit, and donating or selling naval assets to improve Hanoi’s maritime security capacity. Some observers have even highlighted the possibility for an expanded “Quint.”

The idea of an expanded the Quad is not new. If anything, as Rory Medcalf and David Brewster noted for The Diplomat, there is “nothing magical about the number four,” and encompassing “outsiders” will be essential for the Quad to evolve into a viable mechanism for regional cooperation. Yet analysts have tended to focus on the potential for other regional democracies such as South Korea to partner with the Quad, rather than states of other political creeds. This is what makes the Vietnam case so interesting. However, it also raise important questions about the long-term role of norms in the Quad’s regional vision. Subsuming non-democracies, or even nominal democracies with deteriorating human rights records, into the fold could risk undermining the Quad’s normative basis. Recent engagement with Vietnam arguably highlights the diminishing role of values in the Quad’s regional strategy, given that greater scrutiny of Vietnam’s poor political rights record has not complemented burgeoning security ties. Should the Quad continue to trade values diplomacy for strategic expediency, the erosion of its normative credibility will only accelerate.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the Quad has already decided that values are a second-tier consideration to strategic imperatives, at least for now. Washington has largely discarded human rights issues as a foreign policy pursuit outside of a co-nationalist/co-religionist purview. Indeed, U.S. President Donald Trump declined to publicly raise rights issues with the leaders of many ASEAN states — including Vietnam — during his November trip, even praising certain leaders for initiatives that amount to human rights violations. Japan has similarly courted ASEAN states with deteriorating human rights records, with analysts highlighting Tokyo’s “ambivalent support for international law and democratic values” in the government’s broader foreign policy initiatives. In hosting the ASEAN-Australia special summit earlier this year, the Australian prime minister played down criticisms of the region’s deteriorating human rights record as “sweeping generalizations,” and was quickly criticized for making moral compromises in the interests of economic and strategic pushback against China. India also recently hosted ASEAN leaders in January, yet the joint declaration that materialized barely mentioned human rights among “shared values” or as part of a “common destiny.” It would thus appear that the Quad’s members are perfectly content for Vietnam’s “quiet human rights crisis” to remain as such, as long as the strategic partnership continues to develop.

Of course, the courting of Vietnam could also be interpreted positively as a sign that the Quad is not exclusively predicated on ideological similarity, but on a vision for common peace and prosperity. In this view, the growing Quad-Vietnam relationship could be a major step forward in the Dialogue’s transformation from an exclusive club of “like minds” into a more inclusive mechanism for regional cooperation. However, there is no small irony in the Quad’s courting of non-democracies with poor human rights records. In claiming to uphold the existing liberal international order — presumably including human rights — the Quad may have to overlook partners’ violations of certain principles lest expressions of concern be interpreted as undue domestic interference, ultimately deterring other states from partnering with the Quad. Security cooperation with non-democracies or known human rights violators could provide a platform from which to launch more comprehensive discussions on values issues at a later date, but post-facto alterations to engagement conditions would tarnish the Quad’s reputability as a fair and reliable partner. Thus, while initiating Vietnam as a “junior” Quad partner may help break down perceived ideological barriers, doing so without any concern for “democratic values” whatsoever contradicts the Quad’s own normative commitment to the very order it seeks to uphold. Furthermore, in the absence of a comprehensive alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, without a clear and sustained normative basis the Quad will only undermine its potential to become anything other than what it claims not to be — a China containment vessel.

History shows that normative aspirations and strategic imperatives do not always go hand in hand, but at a time when the Quad is struggling to forge an identity and a common purpose, for its members to compromise on core democratic values in their diplomacy with potential partners will only undermine the Dialogue’s long-term normative viability. Discarding values for short-term strategic gains only confirms the containment narrative that the Quad seeks to refute, undermines its democratic billing, and highlights the normative bankruptcy of members’ claims of respect for international law broadly considered aside from those regulations with geostrategic utility (e.g. Freedom of Navigation). Without a serious recalibration of the role of values in the Quad’s regional strategy, the supposed “democratic” identifier for the Indo-Pacific’s “Security Diamond” will only become an empty claim.

Tom Corben is an Asian Studies and International Relations graduate (Hons) from the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He currently interns with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the aforementioned institutions.