On 12 March, the leaders of the US, Japan, Australia, and India held a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting via video conference, marking the group’s first leaders’ summit. Amid the current tension and uncertainty in China-US relations, the focus is on whether this was a summit against China, and whether the Quad is a key tool for the Biden administration to rally the US’s Asian allies in response to China, which it has tagged as its only strategic competitor.
Many commentaries express concern that this mechanism might become a military alliance and Asian “mini NATO” aimed at containing China. However, since the mechanism has just started, any speculation or conclusion is unreliable. We can only turn to history for answers. A look at the post-war history of Asia’s multilateralism will help us understand the Quad mechanism.
Compared to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia has relatively much more experience with attempts at multilateralism.
The tough road to Asian multilateralism: SEATO’s failure and ASEAN’s success
After the First Opium War (1839-1842), the China-centric East Asian order gradually broke down. Asian countries became colonies of Western powers and lost bilateral contact with each other; Asia as a region headed towards fragmentation.
In the early 20th century, Japan tried and failed to reunify Asia by force. In the 1940s and 1950s after World War II, many East Asian countries gained independence amid the decolonisation movement, and there was a chance to rebuild the region. Unfortunately, the Korean War caused a split in Northeast Asia, while the US established military alliances with Japan and South Korea, setting up a face-off with so-called “mainland” Asia. Until today, Northeast Asia as defined by a split Korean peninsula does not have a multilateral framework — one might say Northeast Asia severely lacks experience with multilateralism.
Compared to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia has relatively much more experience with attempts at multilateralism. After World War II, the US tried to build a military alliance in Asia similar to NATO. In 1955, the US built on the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty (Manila Pact) and established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). However, from the start, this regional organisation that served the interests of the US Cold War strategy was structurally unsound; it was called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, but in fact, only two Southeast Asian countries were involved — the Philippines and Thailand. The other six members were Australia, the UK, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, and the US.
The Vietnam War put paid to any possibility of the US taking the lead in establishing multilateralism, with the US carrying out military operations mainly by relying on its own military strength while making use of Asian allies’ bases. SEATO never performed its function and was formally dissolved in 1977, following the end of the Vietnam War.
ASEAN’s founding members saw the horrors of the Vietnam War and wanted to avoid becoming a venue of geopolitical competition between big countries, and this called for stability and growth internally, and regional strategic autonomy externally.
Interestingly, while the Vietnam War was raging, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established on 8 August 1967. At the time, a lot of international media said ASEAN would be yet another short-lived multilateral group for Asia, but it has survived and is a miracle of success in small countries pushing for multilateralism in international politics.
Following ASEAN’s establishment, members have maintained peaceful and friendly relations among themselves with no wars, while maintaining good relations with big countries in the region. Even more commendable is that they have come up with a complete ASEAN-centred Asian regional system and framework.
One of the aims of setting up ASEAN was to guard against communism. However, more importantly, ASEAN’s founding members saw the horrors of the Vietnam War and wanted to avoid becoming a venue of geopolitical competition between big countries, and this called for stability and growth internally, and regional strategic autonomy externally. ASEAN’s strategy of not taking sides in big country politics, as well as its ASEAN-centred model of open, non-military regional multilateralism has been proven to work.
...multilateral military alliances have never worked in the Asian region. Such efforts did not succeed during the Cold War and are even less likely in today’s age of globalisation.
Quad needs to be tested in practice
From the perspective of regional multilateral development, we can take the Quad as a fresh attempt at multilateralism. Of course, taken together, the Quad members clearly have a common awareness and consensus of the need to respond to the geopolitical changes resulting from China’s rise. However, looking at history, taking action just to respond to China is difficult to sustain. For the Quad to survive and grow, ultimately it will need to find a wider policy agenda and common interests, and be open, like other regional multilateral arrangements.
First, during the summit, the US highlighted vaccine cooperation and also economic alignment between the four countries, rather than focusing only on security. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan also stressed that this system will not become a military alliance. Of course, China has reason to doubt if the US’s strategic intentions are truly as such, but from the history laid out above, multilateral military alliances have never worked in the Asian region. Such efforts did not succeed during the Cold War and are even less likely in today’s age of globalisation. And so, the US’s statements are also a summary of past experience.
Second, India will not change its strategy of non-alliance and self-identity as a neutral and independent big country that does not want to become a pawn in China-US geopolitics. While there have been difficulties between China and India since last year due to border issues, there has been no break in diplomatic efforts. The Quad leaders’ summit was held following military disengagement of Chinese and Indian border troops; there were also media reports that summit topics were set to accommodate India’s concerns, with a broad agenda including economic, environmental, and pandemic issues. For India, it is important to avoid giving China the impression that it wants to use this platform to encircle and contain China, as this would reduce India’s room for diplomacy. For both India and China, the essence of their bilateral relationship is in managing relations between the two largest developing countries in the world who happen to be neighbours.
Third, Japan is one of the more active Quad members, but one also cannot think that Japan wants to turn this group into a multilateral alliance against China. Since 2017, China-Japan relations have generally improved, which has not come easy. For Japan, stable China-Japan relations are not just a matter of expediency, but a strategic choice. As the global situation undergoes major changes, it is a strategic necessity for Japan to develop stable relations with China, while upholding its alliance with the US.
On 12 September 2020, while answering queries during his announcement for candidacy as Liberal Democratic Party leader, current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed disapproval of an “Asian NATO”, because this would create the idea of an anti-China network, adding that Japan needs to build stable relations with its neighbours, first of all China. And after Suga was elected on 16 September, Chinese leaders immediately sent congratulations, while Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to Suga on the phone on 25 September.
ASEAN’s success proves that only an inclusive, open, and cooperative multilateralism can last.
Fourth, as a leader of Asian regionalism, ASEAN has always been wary of any multilateral group led by big countries possibly marginalising ASEAN or making them pick sides. This means that the Quad has to consider the small and medium countries in this region. After the Cold War, ASEAN expanded to include the possibly problematic Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, becoming a rare success story of regionalism involving developing small and medium countries. If the Quad were to become a China-focused military alliance, this would exert strategic pressure on ASEAN to pick sides.
Looking at the origins of the Quad, its earliest predecessor was established out of cooperation during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — that is to say, multilateral humanitarian cooperation. As a new attempt at regionalism, its staying power and growth outlook will be tested in its cooperation and healthy competition with the current regional framework. For China, there must be strategic vigilance about this new mechanism, but there should not be excessive strategic anxiety. ASEAN’s success proves that only an inclusive, open, and cooperative multilateralism can last.
Related: Containing China: Will the Quad become an Asian mini-NATO? | Quad: Containing China should not be the raison d’être for any grouping | India in the Indo-Pacific: Reining in China in the new theatre of great power rivalry