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Is the Asia-Pacific big enough for ASEAN and the Quad?

Representatives from India, Japan, Australia and the US wearing masks, standing between the Indian, Japanese, Australian and US flags
Source: Kantei/Tiwtter.

Iain D. Johnson

Since Australia, India, Japan, and the United States held the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum meeting in 2007, the Quad has faced significant scrutiny from detractors. It has been derided as an Asian NATO, a neo-containment strategy directed at China, a regional disruption that will supplant the centrality of ASEAN, and an antagonistic grouping of states with disparate strategic interests threatening to escalate geopolitical tensions. These concerns have led onlookers to question if there is room in the Asia-Pacific for the Quad at all. The members of the Quad have denied such allegations, insisting that the dialogue exists simply to explore mutual interests and avenues of cooperation. Given the informal nature of the security framework and the absence of a unified declaration, it is easy to see why such views persist.

Following the latest Quad meeting, attention is again focused on the future prospects of the alliance. Unlike in 2007 when decisionmakers could alleviate concerns by describing the Quad as an “informal meeting,” the grouping is now taking its first steps to formalisation and the region is watching. On October 6 2020, the Quad held its second formal ministerial meeting, which unlike the first and the numerous working meetings that have followed, notably, was the first stand-alone, high-level meeting between the four states. With physical ASEAN meetings on hold due to COVID-19 and an agreement from the foreign ministers to hold regular ministerial meetings going forward, it is likely that future meetings will also be standalone.

At present, ASEAN is the premier forum for regional affairs in the Asia-Pacific, and other major regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) fulfil complementary roles and are either descendants of or enjoy the full support of ASEAN. Consequently, the formalisation of a new security-focused, membership-exclusive regional organisation appears out of step with the existing ASEAN-central status quo. Questions have arisen about how the Quad and ASEAN might co-exist in a region already deeply enmeshed with multilateral fora.

The answer may be that the Quad is not as incompatible with ASEAN’s interests as presumed. Though ASEAN has had an interest in its members’ security since inception, over time its attention progressively turned outwards seeking to shape regional affairs. From the post-Cold War establishment of the ARF to the crown jewel of Asia-Pacific security, the EAS, the changing geopolitical milieu has seen an increasing ASEAN focus on broader strategic dialogue.

Yet despite the establishment of the “Indo-Pacific’s premier forum for strategic dialogue”, the EAS has been criticised as a “talk shop” without teeth that lacks the ability to advance a collaborative agenda. Given the increasing focus on security in a region mired by geopolitical uncertainty, the emergence of a security bloc with limited membership, unified goals and a pre-existing military partnership could be considered a logical step forward. This would allow the formalisation of a framework to uphold the rules-based order so consistently emphasised in regional security dialogues. However, how the Quad might establish itself as a legitimate and valuable member of the regional fora remains unanswered.

According to survey data, integration may not be such a challenge after all. Although the Quad has a tightly circumscribed membership and troublesome reputation, it would be incorrect to assume that the Quad does not enjoy widespread support. In 2018, a comprehensive report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that although Southeast Asian perceptions of the Quad are diverse, 57 per cent of ASEAN respondents support the initiative and a further 39 per cent would support it if it successfully materialised. Additionally, when asked if the Quad posed a risk to other regional entities, less than 20 per cent of respondents answered that the Quad challenged or sidelined the existing regional framework. Within the Quad states themselves, there are high levels of domestic support among citizens. The Lowy Institute recently found that 88 per cent of Australians are in favour of the Quad and similarly in the US, Americans have also indicated strong support. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the Quad’s future, there is broad support among “strategic elites.” In a 2019 survey by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, respondents overwhelmingly indicated support for an annual standing meeting of the Quad heads of government.

Furthermore, a closer look at official readouts published by the Quad members and ASEAN reveals substantial convergence on issues of regional security with significant potential for cooperation. A comparison of member readouts from the October 6 meeting and recently published statements from leading Asia-Pacific fora provide some insight.

The above data is taken from the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the ARF Ha Noi Action Plan II, the Chairman’s Statement of the 10th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and the Australian, Indian, Japanese, and United States readouts of the Quad Foreign Ministers’ meeting on October 6. To be included in the above chart, issue areas had to be mentioned specifically by more than one of the chosen sources. (* ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook predates the COVID-19 pandemic.)

While maritime security is the clearest area of convergence, counterterrorism, disaster relief and cybersecurity feature prominently. Further, it is important to note that all Quad members clearly asserted that ASEAN centrality remains critical in the region moving forward. Similarly, the Indo-Pacific Outlook states that ASEAN “recognizes the potential for cooperation with other regional mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions on issues of common interests,” a statement which may be interpreted as tacit support of Quad activities to the extent that they align with ASEAN interests.

Unlike other multilateral groupings of the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN’s success is underpinned by a unified agenda and broad support from both ASEAN-external states and other multilateral fora. If such qualities provide the roadmap to success for other Asia-Pacific multilateral groupings, then the Quad is here to stay. The Quad also enjoys coordination across areas of interest and is increasingly finding support from ASEAN members and strategic elites alike. Provided the Quad continues to be supported by ASEAN and respects its centrality, it will continue to materialise into a permanent institution in the Asia-Pacific regional architecture.


Iain D. Johnson is a MEXT scholar undertaking his MA at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science with a focus in Indo-Pacific regional affairs. He holds a BA in International Relations & Politics from Monash University where he has worked as a researcher and teaching associate since graduating with honours.