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Quad vs. ASEAN: The Conundrum in Southeast Asia

The Americans have been spearheading the Indo-Pacific policy efforts for a while. This is in view of the Chinese assertion along land and maritime boundary disagreements. Along with this factor, China’s overall challenge to the US’ position as a unipolar hegemon also got the Americans startled. The Trump administration began the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue efforts, keeping a counter-strategy in mind. With Biden’s ascent to power, not much had changed. He even called for the first (albeit virtual) meet of the Quad leaders. The in-person summit has been planned for later this year. Such proactive efforts mean a lot in terms of a collective warning to China for its Wolf Warrior games. However, the regional implications of such foreign interventions can be problematic. In a region that has primarily been deliberated upon by organizations and blocs like ASEAN and SAARC, when a new establishment or arrangement of power comes into being, there can be discontentment. In fact, the ASEAN countries haven’t exactly welcomed the formation of Quad. Even when the formalization of this dialogue hadn’t taken place, the reactions were somewhat contrary to what can be termed ‘warm’. 

Getting the ASEAN countries to clearly spell out opposition to the Chinese tactics of control will be a difficult task for players like the Quad members. China’s engagement with these nations has been robust. With the RCEP too being put in place, the trade connections have been strengthened. In more recent times, COVID-19 has enabled an integration of sorts for those countries in this region. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs even goes on to say that it “regards ASEAN as its primary partner in anti-pandemic cooperation”. The China-ASEAN vaccine friends platform and other measures appear to point directly against the Quad nations’ plan of action for immunisation. The Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, had remarked that “China will unswervingly expand its opening to the outside world, actively build a new development paradigm, and provide new opportunities for the world with its own new development, to bring new opportunities for and inject new momentum into China-ASEAN cooperation”. The prospects for closer cooperation seem to have been opened up with gestures and statements like these. The ASEAN, owing to its long-standing partnership with its neighbour in China, will be wary of taking sides. It has China as its second-largest trading partner – only second to the EU. The Chinese had also extended support financially for those countries like Thailand that went through crunches. ASEAN is certainly the Asian giant’s focus in building its own image as a builder of peace and prosperity in the region and beyond. As much as global powers would wish to discount the importance of aid in determining power equations, China has consistently succeeded on this account. This is the instrument that has given the country its best results and for that reason, it will be employed over and over. But even on political grounds, the ASEAN nations’ proximity to China drives its policymaking. 

The Southeast Asian countries’ neutrality in troubling geopolitical situations was also observed back during the Cold War – the product of this was ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality). Similar outlooks can be expected in the region’s approach towards evolving tensions between the US and China. That Biden’s display of condemnation isn’t as pronounced as Trump’s must be a relief with respect to the space this changed attitude provides for other stakeholder nations to test the waters. The US must be careful about overstepping the boundaries of interference that have been set up here. Even in the design of the new Indo-Pacific, removing the spotlight from ASEAN nations can be major trouble as this puts ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) in a fix, pushed to the periphery. Prior to Quad being institutionalized to some measure, the meetings of these countries’ leaders had taken place along with the platforms set by ASEAN. Steering away from this would also mark a dent in ASEAN centrality when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. The chances of political insecurity are precisely what China is going to try and tap into for stabilizing its image in Southeast Asia. While the Quad may still be in its stage of infancy, it isn’t entirely safe to rule out a possible eclipsing of the ASEAN structures by this relatively new grouping that has come up. The Southeast Asian countries are aware of this fact. 

In order to stress its pertinence in solving issues specific to the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN urged discussions to centre around territorial disputes and Taiwan, among other matters, at the ADMM-Plus nearly three months back. This appeared to be an emphasis on what the right forum for such closely connected issues would be. In the region’s apparent hostility towards the US, one can find hints of the Americans’ earlier aggression and the scars this left on the populace affected. The Vietnam War in particular has been a haunting political blot on the list of humanitarian stretches that the US has carried out. When the US’ role in Afghanistan is being questioned now for its utter futility and disorganized pattern, cursors are being drawn against the earlier lessons and mistakes that the Americans could’ve learned from their wars in Iraq and Vietnam. Machoism in politics likely keeps the US from opening its eyes to the bitter truths of its failure. Given the nature of historical engagements between America and Southeast Asia, it is only natural that the latter looks at the situation with scrutiny and suspicion. For the countries in this region, it’s easier to trust a neighbour than a foreign power that has repeatedly shown its aggressive and invasive iron-fistedness. No visits by VP Harris or Lloyd Austin can fully erase these traces. 

The key to a successful Indo-Pacific policy lies in understanding that regional problems can be solved only if the regional actors are taken on board. With a system like Quad, the issue is that it’s not completely inclusive of all stakeholders. Reducing the number of members to just four and carrying out any business within this close-knit network will prove to be harmful to the group’s own intentions. Taking in the confidence of ASEAN will be of most importance today for countries like the US. After all, for these nations, their centrality is of greater value when diplomatic relations are weighed. Chinese attention has been growing towards the ASEAN nations in search of possible allies for their defence against the West’s cornering of the Dragons. Given the volatile nature of equations here, the liberal West should not adopt its default approach that is distanced from ground realities.