- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
This September, Indonesia, one of the largest and most influential members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will host the ASEAN leaders’ summit. Building ASEAN’s footprint in the Asia-Pacific has been key to one of the central tenets of the organization—ASEAN centrality. As a consequence, some have argued that ASEAN members eye the grouping of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) with Australia, India, Japan and the United States as a competitor in the region. ASEAN centrality, or the idea that the institution of ASEAN should be the primary force behind any region-wide architecture built in the Asia-Pacific, is so important to the organization that it is enshrined in its charter. However, the interpretation of the principle of ASEAN centrality and how much it should be emphasized can vary depending on which ASEAN member is asked. More to the point, the structure and benefits of the Quad are very different from ASEAN and complement, not supplement it. This is important to realize because forging a solid Quad-ASEAN relationship is key to stability in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN comprises ten Southeast Asian nations—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Despite criticisms, ASEAN is often held up as an example of a successful institution—it has a strict principle of non-intervention in its member states’ affairs, making the costs of participation lower for countries such as Myanmar.
As a consequence, the grouping has played an important role in economically integrating the region, including negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement, and signing six free trade deals with other regional economies. But ASEAN has been constrained with regard to two factors—China, and the delivery of global public goods.
Even though ASEAN’s unstated goal is balancing China in the region—by banding together, these countries have much more clout than they each would individually with China—it has always been wary of any explicit containment. Partly, this is because China has forged closer relationships with some countries of ASEAN more than others—developing a unified response to territorial disputes in the South China Sea has been impossible, for example.
Yet surveys show that across the board in all ASEAN nations, China enjoys very little trust. When asked in 2022 if they were very confident that China would do the “right thing” to promote global peace, security, prosperity, and governance, only 9.4% of Thai and 0% of Burmese (Thailand and Myanmar are close to China) said they were. The whole raison d’être of the Quad, on the other hand, even if it is not an explicit alliance, is containing China in the Indo-Pacific.
Through joint military exercises and the sharing of intelligence and technologies, the four Quad countries are committed to the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific—that is, an Indo-Pacific in which China does not get to set or reinterpret the norms of maritime behavior.
This effectively offsets any burden on ASEAN and should align with the interests of all ASEAN countries. And while ASEAN remains justifiably concerned about the possibility of open great power conflict in the region, it needs to know that even Quad countries such as India also share this concern, acting as a check on Quad security cooperation.
Moreover, the Quad has begun to offer global public goods that should be of interest to ASEAN. The Quad expanded from its early days of offering humanitarian disaster relief to focusing on infrastructure and digital connectivity as well as public health. Underpinning these initiatives has been the idea that, in the wake of Covid-19, it is crucial to boost and build global supply-chain resilience. From critical technologies (such as semiconductors) to ensuring vaccine research, supply, and delivery in future pandemics, the Quad has been endeavoring to build resilient supply chain networks in the Indo-Pacific. This effort is designed not to supplant ASEAN but to enhance the Quad.
Since the Quad is not a security alliance, the way to boost its longevity is to build layers of cooperation in different areas. This arguably also opens up avenues of cooperation with ASEAN, particularly to those nations that may be wary of security cooperation with the Quad. In repeated statements, the Quad has been supportive of the principle of ASEAN centrality. Quad joint statements emphasize the grouping’s commitment to “ASEAN unity and centrality and for the practical implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.”
Other Quad members such as Australia have worked to reassure ASEAN that the Quad’s agenda primarily helps deliver public goods in the region and is not entirely focused on defense cooperation. But even otherwise, the Quad in its current iteration simply cannot offer the kind of region-wide economic integration that ASEAN provides. Nor is it necessarily in their collective interests to do so, which means that it would be unlikely to ever set the regional agenda despite the clout of its four members.
The most optimal outcome would be for ASEAN and the Quad to capitalize and work together on their common interests over and above China. Global health and the climate crisis present huge opportunities. One of the items on the health agenda of the Quad, for example, is pandemic preparation in the region—including training local health care workers on the ground to respond more effectively and quickly during a pandemic—which provides ample scope for cooperation with ASEAN.
Both institutions, the Quad and ASEAN, have their strengths and weaknesses. Given their commitment to the Indo-Pacific and their mutual interests, it would be a loss for the region if they compete instead of cooperate.