- The evolution of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue into new areas of cooperation at this week’s summit has important implications for the delicate balance of political and economic relations across Asia. For Japan, the Quad represents an important component in a gradual tilt towards an economic security posture.
- India has little interest in a military pact or continental containment strategy but sees economic payoffs from participating in non-traditional security and maritime initiatives, while other South Asian nations are unlikely to back an explicitly anti-China grouping given the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other ties to Beijing.
- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members will be open to cooperation that supports near-term concerns so long as it complements existing regional structures, while China itself is deeply discomfited but may struggle to criticize Quad countries for non-traditional security initiatives that mirror its own.
The first in-person summit at the White House on 24 September underlined how rapidly the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is now being institutionalized and expanding its scope beyond traditional security concerns to become a major vehicle for US engagement in Asia. With the new AUKUS compact augmenting the Five Eyes network on the traditional security front, the Quad seems to be increasingly reorienting towards non-traditional and economic security dimensions. Whereas the online meeting in March focused mainly on vaccine production and diplomacy, some climate change targets, and cooperation to secure rare earth metals supply chains, this week’s summit between US President Joe Biden, outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison added significant new dimensions to the’dialogue,’ specifically in terms of cooperation on science and technology development and standards, supply chain security for critical technologies like semiconductors, cybersecurity, and regional infrastructure investment.
Any mention of China was carefully omitted from the post-summit statement, but references to a “free, open, rules-based order,” the rule of law, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) left no doubt as to whom these new measures were inspired by, if not explicitly targeted at. Though there is no near-term prospect of a new Bamboo Curtain descending across the continent, the Quad’s ongoing evolution has implications for the delicate balance of political and economic relations in Asia.
For Japan, the Quad represents an important component of its growing economic security agenda. Long a mercantile power with an economy-first foreign policy, Japan’s strategy in recent years had been to promote high-quality trade frameworks such at the (CP)TPP and RCEP while carefully balancing stable relations with its two most important trade partners, China and the United States. But Beijing’s activities around the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan, and in the South China Sea have been causing growing alarm within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Incoming prime minister Fumio Kishida is promising a tougher stance towards China, an increase in defense spending above the current 1% of GDP threshold, and new strike-capable hardware such as land- based intermediate-range missiles to add to the two Izumo-class’helicopter destroyers’ that Japan is currently retrofitting as fixed-wing aircraft carriers. In terms of economic security, the government has already decided to phase out Huawei and ZTE technologies from its procurement channels and is giving subsidies for firms to shift some production out of China. Kishida also favors a new economic security ministry, an international human rights advisor, and a Magnitsky Act-type legislation to sanction human rights violators abroad. Any of these steps would mark a further ratcheting up of policy, and all are clearly aimed at Beijing. The Quad’s focus on non- traditional security issues dovetails well with these trends towards a more muscular defense posture and economic security concerns.
South and Southeast Asia
The calculations are different for India, for whom the Quad is essentially a non-military grouping that offers important opportunities to pursue key economic interests. India has never been party to any military pact since gaining independence in 1947, and it is unlikely to change that now. Chief of Defence Staff of the Indian Armed Forces General Bipin Rawat has stated categorically that for New Delhi the Indo-Pacific is a maritime concept. The Quad is not seen as prefiguring a continental containment strategy against China. Indeed, given the ongoing land border dispute, India, as the only Quad member that shares a land border with China, wants to tread carefully and not send threatening signals over the Himalayas. At the same time, cooperation with advanced economies like the United States, Japan, and Australia in areas such as vaccine production, supply chain restructuring, and infrastructure investment make it an appealing forum for pursing India’s own economic interests.
Other states in South Asia are more cautious still. While Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal have historically been much more engaged with New Delhi, Beijing has become an important political and economic partner for each of them, and all in the region bar India and Bhutan have signed on to the BRI. As such, few of these states would want to endorse a grouping that defined itself in terms of containing China. To the extent that it is focused on non-traditional security issues, these states could feel more able to engage with the Quad, but if it became an obvious avatar for strategic competition, most would likely revert to a neutral stance.
Southeast Asian nations, who have generally sought multi-polarity in the region, will broadly support the emergence of the Quad, especially with an agenda that aligns with ASEAN’s near-term interests such as pandemic response and supply chain resilience. One concern, however, is whether the Quad will seek to complement or supplement the existing regional frameworks and architectures built up over five decades. Thus, to assuage ASEAN– and particularly Jakarta–the Quad will need to work with the frameworks already in place where possible and avoid framing initiatives in terms of a great- power competition.
China itself is obviously discomfited as the implicit target of the Quad’s agenda, but to the extent that the group acts outside the traditional security sphere, Beijing may struggle to articulate a coherent critique. The foreign ministry criticized the 24 September meeting as “a closed, exclusive clique targeting other countries” and said the effort was “doomed to fail,” but many of the Quad’s new initiatives directly mirror Chinese efforts already in progress. For example, in terms of vaccine diplomacy, China has delivered 1.1bn doses to 100 countries including contributions to COVAX and aims to raise that figure to 2bn before the end of the year. On technology, the Digital Silk Road is designed to promote the use of Chinese technology around the world and prevent a US-led alliance from excluding Chinese-made hardware and software from global supply chains. Last year, the foreign ministry also announced a new Global Data Security Initiative to promote multilateral rules on cybersecurity and data governance, though it is unclear if this has achieved any concrete results. Regarding climate change, President Xi Jinping pledged just last week to halt all Chinese financing for international coal power plants. Meanwhile, although China’s global infrastructure lending through the BRI has slowed in recent years, it is likely to pick up again after the financial stresses of the pandemic subside.