How the Quad can become more than an anti-China grouping

To be strategically successful, the Quad needs buy-in from the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, notably from Southeast Asia. It needs to persuade the region that it ‘stands for something and not just against something’, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said.

This is a challenge for a number of reasons, including Beijing’s economic influence in the region, the varying preferences of individual Southeast Asian states, and lingering scepticism about the Quad’s underlying purpose, with many regional states likely seeing the group’s main purpose as being to counter the rise of China.

That’s why it’s vital that the Quad leaders focus on securing greater consensus and support by streamlining the group’s engagement mechanisms with Southeast Asia on issues where there is strategic complementarity and where it can efficiently deliver.

The Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US has many things going for it. Scepticism notwithstanding, attitudes across Southeast Asia to the Quad are generally more positive than those towards AUKUS—in part because the Quad is more than a security and defence-technology-sharing arrangement and, in part, because it promises to offer much-needed public goods for regional prosperity like vaccines during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2017, when the Quad was reborn, it was clear that it wanted to build resilience in the Indo-Pacific by working with existing regional mechanisms. To its credit, it has tried to go about that in many ways. For example, since their 2020 statement, Quad leaders have reaffirmed support for ‘ASEAN centrality, ASEAN-led architecture and the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ to promote a stable and resilient Indo-Pacific.

It has looked for areas of practical cooperation, such as through the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which aimed to donate 1.2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022 (though the initiative underperformed due to domestic shortages).

On maritime capacity building in Southeast Asia, the Quad has agreed to support Southeast Asian states through the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, which will connect regional partners and allies with technologies to provide greater maritime situational awareness in real time. This is a much-needed initiative; while most Southeast Asian states are littoral, their navies and coastguards struggle to monitor their seas and respond to seaborn challenges. These initiatives show the breadth of the ways in which the Quad can play a meaningful role in ensuring Southeast Asia builds resilience. Indeed, there are talks about covering other issues, such as climate change.

That said, greater cooperation between Quad countries is clearly needed to ensure that these initiatives are implemented and managed effectively. To begin with, Quad countries should form a separate working committee to coordinate engagement activities in Southeast Asia (as well as perhaps for the Pacific—a key part of the region in which building support is vital). This could help make the necessary regional engagement more routine at the practical level of officials and help make sure it is geared towards a common purpose.

This committee should focus on Quad-specific engagement while also monitoring how individual Quad countries are working with Southeast Asian states. Given that some Southeast Asian states may not feel comfortable engaging with the Quad as an institution, bilateral engagements are still likely to be important means of providing resilience-building support.

The Quad should also consider working more with existing ASEAN initiatives. Given that the Quad has stated its commitment to ASEAN centrality, it is important that ASEAN as an institution not be sidelined. For all its limitations, a stronger ASEAN ensures that Southeast Asian states are afforded greater strategic space.

It’s important to ensure that the interests and needs of Southeast Asian countries are front of mind in any support that the Quad provides to the region. This needs to be the backbone of the positive agenda the Quad has tried to project. While many Southeast Asian states have concerns about the negative implications of China’s rise, scepticism will grow if the Quad’s regional engagement adopts an overtly anti-China approach.

Of course, the Quad has many things going for it. For a start, it is not proselytising a bipolar world order; rather, it demonstrates the growing reality of a multipolar one. Half its membership is Asian, and it is 100% Indo-Pacific. Through its actions and words, it should champion strategic choice and agency for Southeast Asian and other Indo-Pacific nations. It should promote a regional vision in which all capitals get to choose how they engage with a rising power in their neighbourhood.

Greater strategic collaboration by the Quad with Southeast Asia’s established mechanisms, and a strong focus on its priorities, could make a big difference by helping to strengthen resilience and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.