Asean and the Quad are forming closer ties, but cooperation needs to be about more than just holding off China.
'China versus the Quad" emerged as the theme of a recent panel discussion about the four-nation grouping and how it could shape its relations with other major players in the Indo-Pacific region.
"The Quad is one of the forums for the Indo-Pacific, but it is not the only forum. There are other forums as well for India to engage with the region," says Darshana M Baruah of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But participants also stressed that the group -- made up of the United States, Japan, India and Australia -- should have goals that go beyond security. As well, they said, it should place Asean at the centre of its strategy, complementing the relations each of the four members have with individual countries in the region.
After years of languishing in diplomatic limbo, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as the group is formally known, has acquired some fresh momentum of late. Leaders of the four countries are now preparing for their first in-person summit on Sept 24 in Washington, following a virtual gathering in March.
The March meeting offered a glimpse at the role the revived Quad sees itself playing. The leaders -- US President Joe Biden, Yoshihide Suga of Japan, Narendra Modi of India and Scott Morrison of Australia -- pledged collaboration to strengthen equitable coronavirus vaccine access for the Indo-Pacific, in close coordination with the World Health Organization and Covax. They also reaffirmed their "strong support for Asean's unity and centrality as well as the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific".
The leaders also said in a statement that they would redouble their commitment to Quad engagement with the region to advance those goals.
"We will combine our nations' medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing and delivery and development capabilities and establish a vaccine expert working group to implement our path-breaking commitment to safe and effective vaccine distribution," the statement said.
Those goals might have disappointed some diplomatic observers who expected the Quad to position itself as yet another attempt to create a buffer against growing Chinese influence in the region. They see the Quad serving as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).
But Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College (NSC) at Australian National University, believes the group has chosen a more promising path.
"The Quad is not presenting itself as a purely military arrangement. I think that's very good news," he said during a Nikkei Asia panel discussion entitled "Quad Over Troubled Waters" held in mid-August.
And while it is good news that the four countries are working more closely bilaterally or trilaterally in the military space, the most favourable developments from cooperation are not in the military domain, he said. He pointed to the leaders' emphasis on technology, the environment and vaccine distribution at their talks in March.
According to Mr Medcalf, those are the areas where the Quad could return to its origins as "a core group for providing public goods to the region and for defining, the protection of the interests of the many in this multipolar region".
The origins of the Quad can be traced back to shortly after the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed some 230,000 people, with Indonesia suffering the most, in late 2004.
Michael Green from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, said the then-admiral of US Seventh Fleet, who had close relations with his Japanese, Australian and Indian counterparts, proposed a task force to respond to the disaster and the group came together shortly.
But momentum ebbed in subsequent years for political and geopolitical reasons as the regional dynamic with China changed. There was also some ambivalence during the years of the Barack Obama administration "but it has become the centrepiece of President Biden in the Indo-Pacific strategy", said Mr Green, who is the senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chair at the CSIS.
"The Quad is clearly emerging as sort of where the cool kids hang out now. It is definitely one of the more important clubs in this complicated high school called the Indo-Pacific," he added.
"The Quad is clearly emerging as sort of where the cool kids hang out now," says Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
For India, the Quad is a useful platform for addressing many challenges that it has to deal with among its neighbours, said Darshana M Baruah, an associate fellow with the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
She said the Quad is "a very necessary vehicle" for India to address some of the concerns in the region because India's foreign policy has changed, along with its regional engagement strategy, political ambitions and diplomatic footprint.
But it will treat China very differently compared to the other three Quad members, given its geographic position and border disputes with China that have to be calculated in its stance.
"I do think that the Quad is here to stay but at the same time, it is also important to underline that the Quad is just one of the forums for the Indo-Pacific, but it is not the only forum. There are other forums as well for India to engage with the region," she said.
Mr Medcalf concurred with Ms Baruah, saying that India has embraced the Quad not because it sees itself as a regional power but because India is stretched from a diplomatic and security standpoint. The Quad, in his view, helps India address maritime issues so that it can focus more on the perennial problems alone its land border with China.
Ms Baruah also sees the possibility of individual Quad members engaging in more coordination on a bilateral basis with Asean countries, as they assess what their priorities should be and how they can be implemented at the bilateral level.
"The fact that each of the Quad members has put Asean centrality as a core piece of the Indo-Pacific approach, it already puts them on track," she said.
Mr Medcalf, meanwhile, pointed out that the Quad members as a grouping or individually, along with their European partners, should focus more on Indonesia over the next few years.
"It's not about aligning Indonesia, but it's about ensuring that Indonesia is not really leveraged by China into some sort of greater coercion on geo-economic issues, such as vaccine and infrastructure," he said, adding that the Quad could also play a big role in helping Indonesia to protect and monitor its maritime sea lanes.
"Let's see if the Biden administration is really doubling down on Indonesia. I think the promise of an India-Indonesia partnership -- the two really major democracies in Asia -- is yet to be fulfilled, but it's there. So I think I would put my effort into Indonesia," noted Mr Medcalf.
Evi Fitriani, a senior lecturer on international relations at the University of Indonesia, acknowledged that Indonesia would also engage with the Quad but on its own terms, as the country has shown by promoting the Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which positions Asean centrality at the core of the perceived competition between the Quad and China.
"We do not want to be caught in the middle of the competition, or be a bystander in our own region in the middle of the Indo-Pacific," she told Asia Focus. "We want to transform the competition atmosphere into a cooperation atmosphere. It is the Asean way to contain the conflict."
According to Ms Fitriani, Indonesia -- and Asean overall -- is well aware of the growing competition of the so-called like-minded countries of certain liberal democracies with western leanings that align themselves against communist China as a common enemy.
The challenge for Asean will be to maintain its centrality at the core of the Indo-Pacific game, she pointed out. "We set the rules of the game, with Asean at the centre, which welcomes everyone to participate and cooperate, including China. This is what we call a clash of cooperative cultures."
"The more China is becoming a bully, the more [Asean maritime states] come toward us … so we have to engage them," says Nobukatsu Kanehara, former assistant chief cabinet secretary to former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Nobukatsu Kanehara, a veteran Japanese diplomat who served as assistant chief cabinet secretary to former prime minister Shinzo Abe, offered a more blunt assessment. He described China as a regional "bully" in light of multiple intrusions, such as sending its coast guard vessels to Japan's Senkaku islands, with the most recent foray on Aug 30 when four Chinese ships sailed into Japanese waters near the islands.
"[China] is chasing our fishermen. This physical bullying is a big failure for China," said Mr Nobukatsu, who is a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
He added that it would be natural for Japan and India to stand together and for the Quad to serve as a basis for the maritime democracies in the region. It should engage other democracies in Asia and Europe as well because European countries, even though they do not share strategic interests with the Quad, they do share the same values as the four nations.
"We should also go to Asean," he added. "There are three maritime Asean nations that were never under Chinese influence: Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam."
However, questions have arisen about whether the Quad is helping Southeast Asian nations with their individual problems -- if any -- with China.
"Asean is not monolithic," Mr Nobukatsu said, citing Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam as leaning more toward Japan, especially Vietnam -- "They do not like China at all."
Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea remains a major concern in the region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all reject Chinese claims to their territorial waters, but Beijing continues to solidify its presence by building bases on contested islands.
While Indonesia says it has never had any territorial dispute with China in the strategic waterway, it acknowledges that the unilateral nine-dash line China uses to mark its territory in the southern part of the sea overlaps with part of the North Natuna Sea.
The continental Asean countries -- including Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos -- by tradition are closer to China, Mr Nobukatsu said.
"The more China is becoming a bully, the more [Asean maritime states] come toward us. The instinct [for us] is to be neutral, but because China is bullying everybody these days, the maritime states are coming toward us … so we have to engage them. We can't expect very much in terms of a military contribution but diplomatically, we have to engage them," he pointed out.
But the power politics in the Indo-Pacific is very much a China story, Mr Medcalf said. It is not simply a US-China rivalry although that is obviously at the heart of a lot of the strategic competition.
"It is also China's challenge to the interests and the values of many and that's where I think Japan, India and Australia have in recent years taken quite significant steps in mapping the contours of constraining Chinese power," he added.
However, Mr Medcalf cautioned that the newly revived Quad must be careful not to become a victim of its own success. It was only five years ago that the Chinese government dismissed the alliance as just "ocean foam", with commentators saying it was unrealistic.
"I think we now have to find that sweet spot of the Quad delivering but not over-promising, and I think to be fair, that is where the four governments are now aiming," he said.
"The Quad is not presenting itself as a purely military arrangement. I think that's very good news," says Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.