Since its inception, ASEAN has managed to steer clear of major conflicts and balance between contradicting powers. However, as circumstances change and power asymmetries prevail, it is imperative that roles and alliances be re-imagined. In this article, Moksha Pillai discusses the future of QUAD+ for regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and ASEAN’s central role in the process.
World Leaders pose at the 2022 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 12 November 2022. Picture by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.
The last decade has been one of the most exciting and eventful periods in the history of the Indo-Pacific. As an active theatre for the projection of geopolitical ambitions of its littoral states and extra-regional players, mounting instances of traditional and non-traditional security threats have re-awakened a sense of ‘collective consciousness’ amongst countries brushed by the tides of the Indo-Pacific. As a force with considerable strategic heft in the region, the role of QUAD (United States of America, Japan, Australia, and India) in rallying like-minded countries to uphold the “rules-based international order” and adhere to “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) cannot be overlooked.
While several ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries have displayed considerable reticence in embracing the QUAD as an ally to achieve “Security and Growth for All” (SAGAR) in the Indo-Pacific, since 2017; their growing ambivalence against the QUAD continues to be fanned by the inflammatory narratives perpetrated by the likes of China through it’s “Asian NATO” and “sea foam in the ocean” analogy, seeking to tip the balance of power in its favour and alter the geostrategic calculus to suit its great power aspirations (Milhiet, 2017).
Despite ASEAN’s continued neutrality and attempts at wanting to be excluded from the great game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, its bilateral agreements with QUAD member-states (Lakshmana, 2020) and its extended neighbourhood indicate the rise of ‘collaborations of convenience’; rooted in the ideological moorings of ‘tactical and selective co-operation’ in sectors of mutual interest. Rather than volunteering to declare an ‘all-weather’ friendship, ASEAN countries have chosen to cautiously tread through engagements with the latter through ‘sectoral need-based partnerships’; renewed on a case-by-case basis with initiatives like ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’, Humanitarian and Disaster Risk (HADR) efforts, among others. (Stromseth, 2021).
Given the changing realities and prevailing power asymmetries of the 21st century, ASEAN cannot afford to place all its bets on the Chinese Dragon alone (Chatterji, 2021). It is pertinent for the South-East Asian countries lying at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region to diversify their engagement portfolio and recalibrate their foreign policy toolkit to identify key areas of synergy with similarly aligned stakeholders; lest they be engulfed in disadvantageous debt traps (Alden, 2020), enmeshed in the vagaries of geopolitical contestations, and subsequently collapse into ‘failed states’.
Manifesting a geopolitical fairytale: Can marrying ASEAN’s outlook for FOIP with QUAD’s agenda lead to their ‘happily ever after’?
The rise of minilateralism across the Indo-Pacific is rapidly becoming the ‘new normal’ following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which nudged the countries to see renewed merit in pooling their scientific, financial, technological resources to achieve means to ends. This paradigm shift in approaches to sustainable collaborations urged like-minded actors to regroup and re-affirm their commitment to ‘diffused reciprocity’; where they “participate not because of ensuing rewards from specific actors, but in the interests of continuing satisfactory overall results for the group of which one is a part, as a whole” (Keohane, 1986, p.40). Indeed, the proposal of a QUAD+ arrangement certainly fits this pattern. As a mechanism for constructive deliberation and information exchange intended to facilitate improved policy coordination, this ‘conjectural alliance’ (comprising of QUAD member states and New Zealand, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries to name a few) might just be a ‘Dark Horse’ in the making; designed to bolster multi-party synchronisation and unify the Indo-Pacific against hard and soft-power manoeuvres driven by hegemonic regimes in the geopolitical mix.
Alleviating the persisting trust deficit among ASEAN countries must be the QUAD+ first order of business, for as opined by Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand” (Bible, Matthew, 12:25). The regional grouping’s growing anxiety surrounding the “Asian NATO” and “Anti-China” trope circling the QUAD can only be addressed if the latter acts as a “strategic filler” (Lakshmana, 2022); projecting QUAD+ as an endeavour to elevate existing ASEAN-led mechanisms and suggest new opportunities for partnership by determining common denominators for collaboration and examining innovative ventures for strengthening area-specific partnerships; wherever they are currently undefined or absent. QUAD+ could provide an augment its co-operative engagement in the defence sector, from joint exercises to training, in areas where activities of ASEAN-related institutions (such as ADMM+) remain nascent. Formulating institutionalised mechanisms to amplify ASEAN-led initiatives, based on a commitment to shared principles and offering a lucrative, strategic buy-in to ASEAN countries; must be the fulcrum of QUAD+ to ensure its ideological longevity and strategic viability.
ASEAN, to date, has continued to play safe by cocooning itself from major strategic rivalries (with the exception of the South China Sea issue) and thriving within its comfort zone; the operations of which are primarily directed by the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum and ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting+ to name a few. Thus, the role of said institutions cannot be discounted from any of QUAD+’s dealings with ASEAN; thereby necessitating the need for a formal distribution of responsibilities to instil a sense of ‘collective accountability’ and ‘differentiated responsibility’ within QUAD+ to give primacy to ASEAN’s role, instead of reducing it to a geopolitical marionette.
The perceived “othering” of the ASEAN members states (upon integration within the QUAD+ framework) vis-à-vis the fellow nations of the world order; coalescing with the intent to counter strides at belligerence in the Indo-Pacific instead of boosting the region’s strategic autonomy must be vehemently discouraged. In continuation with QUAD’s role as a net-security provider in the region, the QUAD+ with ASEAN in fray must assist littoral states and its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region by offering timely aid through HADR efforts, checking cases of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, building resilient supply-chains, ensuring the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the maritime commons, maintain respect for international law of the seas and boost interoperability between the respective Naval Commands through multilateral naval exercises.
Thus, the onus of manifesting this geopolitical fairytale lies in finding congruence, and between QUAD’s agenda for serving as a ‘force for global good’ (Mehra, 2022) and ASEAN’s Outlook on FOIP, which seeks to safeguard its centrality, prescribe to the principles of non-interference, prefer dialogue over rivalry and ensure development for all in the region to promote peace, freedom, and prosperity.
Thucydides Vs Kindleberger Trap: Is ASEAN’s neutrality undermining its centrality?
QUAD+ presents a unique opportunity to prevent the deepening of mistrust and patterns of behaviour based on a non-zero-sum game. However, diverging opinions, varying allegiances and fractured relations among the ASEAN countries stand a chance to impede QUAD+’s efforts at incubating an enabling environment to address joint challenges. These bottlenecks also stand to jeopardise their co-operation in priority areas like undertaking community-building measures and achieving global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets; to name a few.
ASEAN has often experienced a gridlock on its core interests (e.g., interpretation of the Nine-Dash Line, xenophobia, and military coup in Myanmar) owing to the absence of a unified front and the lack of political will. This induced stasis, triggered by the dearth of consensus to protect the strategic autonomy of the grouping, has often been mistaken for maintaining ‘neutrality’ by academics and foreign policy analysts alike.
The perceived non-alignment posture may have allowed ASEAN to swerve away from the geopolitical juggernaut that the Indo-Pacific grapples with; however, its ‘strategic silence’ and sustained policy paralysis on matters pertaining to its ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty’ continue to encourage the revanchist tendencies of aggressors in the region thereby undermining ASEAN’s centrality (Milhiet, 2017).
The ongoing China-U.S. trade war has further complicated the power dynamics in the international milieu by reigniting the debate on the “Thucydides Trap”, where, the attempt of a rising power to displace a ruling one most certainly ends in war. The COVID-19 pandemic, on the other hand, emphasised on the emergence of the “Kindleberger Trap”, that conceives China as a weaker power to provide public goods once it begins to lead the order that it put little to no effort to create (Panda, 2022).
Therefore, the vacuum created by these traps offers a rather significant prospect for QUAD+ to enhance economic and environmental resilience, as well as bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond by assuming the role of a leader for public good. This, however, might remain a pipedream unless the ASEAN willingly asserts its centrality by choosing inter-state solidarity over band-wagoning with China and volunteers with the QUAD+ to create a “continental connect” and “corridor of communication” amongst countries in the Asia-Pacific (Panda, 2022).
The way forward
The Indo-Pacific is currently in a state of strategic flux (Lakshmana, 2022). With rising great-power contestations in the region and the growing possibility of the emergence of a new bipolar world order, the unpredictability of geopolitical configurations has reiterated the need to keep multiple foreign policy options open, for “there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests” (Ratcliffe, 2017, p.1126).
While polarisation within ASEAN is inevitable, ameliorating its defences by joining forces with the QUAD+ framework and facilitating the adoption of substantive positions on key issues can result in a paradigm shift for the former espousing ‘centrality of substance’ over ‘centrality of goodwill’ (Surin, 2009). While centrality is a continuous process, rather than an end goal; the re-imagining QUAD+ shall also necessitate a reframing of the ‘ASEAN way’. Anchored on dynamic consultation and participative consensus, QUAD+ shall take the wheel on regional co-operation of the countries in the Indo-Pacific; complimented by the ASEAN’s realisation of its strategic utility and amplification of its existing initiatives to operationalise its ‘centrality and autonomy’.
Concerns surrounding the implications of ASEAN’s tango with the QUAD+ and its perceived tilt towards the USA aimed at rubbing China the wrong way might seem speculative and incendiary to optimists of minilateralism. These fears can be allayed by justifying ASEAN and QUAD+’s union as another ‘hedging tactic’ adopted by the former to balance the powers in the region. Stability in regional order ultimately depends on multilateral and collective efforts rather than unilateral power projections (Lakshmana, 2022). While prosperity and security are not mutually exclusive, no region should remain elusive from the fruits of co-operation and collaboration; especially when working towards attaining ‘inclusive and integrated growth’ for all in the Indo-Pacific.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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