Quad embraces Asean spirit of cooperation
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US) initially sought to address non-traditional security challenges in the backdrop of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The present Quad engagement reflects ‘informal’ arrangement of these states with a scope of further expansion of actors as well as areas of cooperation. Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, after the India-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue on September 11, has strengthened this point by saying that Quad supports the Association of southeast Asian Nations (Asean)’s centrality. It provides for Asean principles of cooperation as a pivotal factor for Quad engagements in future. It is ‘informal’ in the sense that there are no formal agreements for Quad among the Quad states, and it is without a secretariat. Quad is an expansion and elevation of bilateral exchanges as in Australia-India relations, according to Marise Payne, which can bring together actors like Quad and other regional arrangements such as East Asian Summit and Asean Regional Forum.
It is worthwhile to mention that the Asean states would not want to turn themselves into an ‘outlier’ to Asean principle of ‘neutrality’ and ‘inclusivity’ because Asean plays a critical role in shaping an 'independent' voice and foreign policy. Thus, Asean’s centrality forms a yardstick for their foreign policies. Further, Asean’s ability to resolve contentious regional issues amicably without intervention of major powers is a remarkable feature which is exemplified by its continuous relevance to international politics despite economic and political differences among member-states.This is what Amitav Acharya of the American University calls ‘security community’ in Southeast Asia which is further envisioned in its Indo-Pacific outlook.
Embracing the Asean principle
The 2021 joint statement of ‘the Spirit of the Quad’ advocates Asean’s unity and centrality along with Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific. India and Australia have maintained that Quad is not a military ‘alliance’. External affairs minister S Jaishankar refuted China’s interpretation of it as ‘Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’, rather Quad involves cooperation on broad range of issues – humanitarian challenges such as the tsunami of 2004 and Covid-19 pandemic; and, regional and global concerns such as the climate crisis, critical technology, supply chains, counterterrorism and maritime security.
For a convergence on Indo-Pacific, it will take more than military-strategic cooperation. India has adopted a balanced approach to Quad as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy with the objective of promoting freedom and security of maritime trade routes through bilateral or joint military and naval exercises, for example, the first joint naval exercise of the four states in Malabar 2020, without necessarily provoking China. Japan’s foreign policy of ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific of 2016 is based on international rules which could be seen in its appeal to China to respect the ruling of Hague Arbitration Tribunal of 2016 and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over sea-water disputes. Its vision of Indo-Pacific is international cooperation for peace and stability avoiding military conflicts. The US, however, carries an obvious military calculation with it.
For Asean states, their common focus is working on community building processes. The Asean states are willing to work on ‘shared’ concerns, including tensions in the South China Sea but the Asean principle of inclusivity (with space for bringing China on board). The Southeast Asian states have been getting military aids from Australia, India, Japan and the US. Quad states, thus, have understood that a better form of cooperation is through ‘expansion’ of bilateral formal exchanges. Given these conditions, it is critical to comprehend whether Quad is an ‘alliance’ in terms of balance of power. Nonetheless, China has reacted sharply against the Quad group since its inception, saying it is an ‘alliance’ to counter China and its interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Strengthening of Quad in 2021
The Quad states have given their commitments to meet yearly at the foreign minister level and regularly at experts and senior official levels. Strengthening Quad in 2021 can be associated with a few factors. First, the Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened its global purpose. The September 24 Quad leaders’ Summit at the White House was the second meeting at the level of heads of government this year after its virtual meeting held on March 12. An important agenda discussed was to increase production of vaccines for timely and equitable global distribution and reduction of barriers to supply chains to that effect and strategies on maintaining a free, open, accessible, prosperous and diverse Indo-Pacific. Second, the Biden-Harris administration has given Quad cooperation a vital strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. Third, these are gradual steps towards consolidating Quad following the Chinese Coast Guard Law passed in January 2021 which allows its coast guard to use ‘all necessary means’ (including firing) to stop foreign vessels that pose threats to Chinese waters, thereby, reinforcing its sovereign claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The Law followed a restructuring of law enforcement agencies through the integration of various civilian and maritime law-enforcement institutions to establish the coast guard bureau. Quad sees this development as a challenge to freedom of navigation and freedom of sea. Soon after, their third Quad Foreign Ministers’ Virtual Meeting was held in February 2021. And in April 2021, India joined the French La Perouse naval exercise with Australia, France, Japan and the United States in the Indian Ocean.
Overall, Quad can be also described as a strategy for big powers to ‘test’ reactions of China as well as a political statement to remind China of a ‘possible’ alliance in future. It is increasingly seen in the context of changing world order with the rise of China and the consequential China-centred geo-strategic policy of the US whose presence makes it even more conspicuous in Quad naval diplomacy. Further, given Quad’s inclusion of ‘issue-based’ cooperation in areas of connectivity and infrastructure of critical health, technology and other goods and services, it may be regarded as a ‘response’, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, to China’s Belt and Road Initiative of 2013 in a ‘subtle’ form. But for it to take such a shape is a long way off, if at all. However, it is important for Quad to keep Asean in the loop for which it needs to ensure that addressing challenges to non-traditional security remains at the core of any Quad arrangement, even though it does not include China. Thus, Quad ‘cooperation’ rather than Quad ‘alliances’ explained in military terms is more appealing to Asean.