Last week’s first virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – commonly known as the Quad – signified the growing cooperation among its four members: the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. After a period in which the idea of the Quad fell into abeyance, the new-look “Quad 2.0” is fast emerging as an important part of a novel global security architecture, raising pressing questions about the future role and centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Despite doubts about the possibility of deep and institutionalized collaborations among the Quad countries, the meeting indicated that the four powers are willing to cooperate on pressing issues of common concern, such as the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and the global impact of climate change, in addition to traditional security challenges. According to the joint statement issued at the close of the meeting, the four nations pledged to “redouble our commitment to the Quad engagement.”
This moment might well have been anticipated by China. The Chinese government has long viewed the Quad as an American-led attempt to contain and counter its global rise, and the grouping’s consolidation could well heighten further the tensions between the two superpowers. Despite the changeover of power in the U.S., President Joe Biden has so far given every indication that he would take a similar approach to China as his predecessor Donald Trump. Furthermore, the involvement of Australia, Japan, and India through the Quad could present a novel challenge for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This approach, which emphasizes close cooperation between the U.S. and its strategic partners, has been outlined by Biden since last year as the basis of his strategy toward China.
The spirit of multilateralism championed by Joe Biden during his election campaign is also reflected in his dedication to the Quad. Working together with partners and allies to deal with issues of common is a distinctive characteristic of his foreign policy outlook. Here he clearly differs from Trump, who preferred to engage directly with China by waging a unilateral “trade war” and a bitter competition over 5G technology. Even though the Quad reemerged in the middle of Trump’s presidency, it flew in the face of his administration’s general contempt for multilateralism, as evidenced by Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization and lack of interest in longstanding alliances. Therefore, relations between the U.S., China and, now, the Quad, are set to enter a new phase under the Biden administration.
In Southeast Asia, one of regions in which Sino-American contention is most apparent, the revival of the Quad is no doubt being watched closely. Southeast Asia has become the subject of strategic competition both great powers: To take just the most obvious instance, the South China Sea remains an ongoing flashpoint, in which the U.S. Navy is frequently challenging China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim over the vital waterway with frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations.
Through history, Southeast Asia has seen foreign interventions by external actors on many different occasions. European powers colonized the region for hundreds of years. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union fought over the region as part of the bipolar struggle during the Cold War. Even nowadays, Southeast Asia still attracts considerable global interest. It occupies the central position of the “Indo-Pacific,” a strategic concept that has become central to the foreign policies of many Western nations, including the U.S., Germany, and France.
Throughout its history as a regional organization, ASEAN has taken different approaches to prevent interference from external powers. In the middle of the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Eastern Bloc, the Association declared a framework called the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). The historic document was signed in 1971 and became a guideline with which the member states managed their relations with external powers.
With the resurrection of the Quad, there is a likelihood that strategic situation in the region will become more complicated and potentially affect Southeast Asia’s stance as a zone of neutrality, as outlined in ZOPFAN. In the South China Sea, as the most crucial flashpoint in the region, the U.S. has become actively involved in this territorial disputes by directly challenging the legality of China’s claims. On the other hand, China has taken serious actions in its maritime security sector, most recently with the announcement of a new Coast Guard Law.
Despite the four Quad powers having no territorial claims of their own in the area, they have taken an interest in the disputes as a matter of “promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” in the words of the joint statement issued at last week’s meeting. This possible scenario will surely increase regional tensions and caution ASEAN member states.
ASEAN centrality is another notion that might be challenged by Quad 2.0. This concept suggests that the grouping might usurp the central diplomatic role in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), established in 1994, is one of ASEAN’s initiatives to emphasize its centrality in the security field by providing a form for dialogue on political-security issues for 26 participants, including both the U.S. and China.
Another security dialogue constructed by the Quad and limited to its four members could displace the ARF from its position of centrality in the region’s security order. ASEAN’s attempt to get ARF participants sitting at the same table and discussing regional security concerns will not be easy when Indo-Pacific security architecture is dominated by the Quad, the members of which are powerful countries outside Southeast Asia. This has the potential to deemphasize the platform that has been maintained for 27 years by ASEAN on the basis of “dialogue and cooperation, featuring decision-making by consensus, non-interference, incremental progress and moving at a pace comfortable to all.”
Even though the Quad grouping has reassured ASEAN that it will respect the latter’s unity and centrality, on the basis of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific issued by the bloc in 2019, this statement should be evaluated on regular basis because increasing Sino-American tensions could change the Quad’s initial plans and transform Southeast Asia, once again, into a dangerous arena of great power competition.