HOW SOUTHEAST ASIANS REALLY PERCEIVE THE QUADRILATERAL SECURITY DIALOGUE

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia (the Quad, sometimes referred to as the QSD) was created over a decade ago, but it has been given a new lease on life by more compelling strategic circumstances in the Indo-Pacific. Xi Jinping’s China actively challenges the existing order, while Donald Trump’s United States sends mixed signals on whether it even wants to maintain its de facto global leadership. More active participation by other major powers in Asia, joined with the United States, sounds like an uncontroversially good idea. But the debate about the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad 2.0, has been centered on the negatives: the harm it could cause, rather than what it can really contribute. Those assumptions are based on perceptions (or more correctly, misperceptions), whereby the Quad is seen as too confrontational towards China, and challenging or sidelining the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discussions of security in the Indo-Pacific. These misperceptions have been so strong, that more ink has been spilled explaining what the Quad is not and what it does not intend, rather than on what it is and what objectives it has.

Through my recent study, the first data-backed report on the perceptions of the Quad among Southeast Asian policy and analyst circles, one can see that disseminated views are not always accurate, and especially not the prevalent one. A majority opinion (57 percent) across ASEAN respondents supports the Quad initiative as playing a useful role in regional security. While some in Southeast Asia are more concerned about the Quad’s detrimental influence on ASEAN centrality, most survey respondents think that the Quad complements the ASEAN-centered regional framework. More specifically, the study found that that concern was highest among Indonesians and Singaporeans, while others in the region were decidedly more embracing of the Quad’s role in the region’s well-being. Among ASEAN citizens surveyed, 44 percent see the Quad as complementing the existing ASEAN frameworks, while 21 percent thought it challenges or sidelines ASEAN-led architecture. The biggest supporters of the Quad are those who see the most value in its place maintaining security and stability—by and large, the Vietnamese and Filipino respondents. Not coincidentally, they are the Southeast Asian countries with the greatest concern over the tensions in the South China Sea.

The greatest supposed argument against the Quad—the idea that Quad nations are “ganging-up against China”—also proves to carry less weight among the region’s experts. Most of the respondents (36 percent) see the Quad as an “anti-China bulwark” but consider that a necessity, while another 21 percent think that such an image was dangerous. Interestingly, none of the Vietnamese and Filipino respondents thought that being an “anti-China bulwark” was dangerous and creating a confrontational atmosphere in the region, but 50 percent of the Singaporeans and 37 percent of Thai respondents thought it was. It seems there is a value for some in the Quad’s engagement in regional security matters, even if it comes off as being confrontational towards China. Moreover, many have connected the Quad’s future prospects to China’s assertiveness, or even aggressiveness. Fifty-four percent of respondents overall thought that the Quad’s continuity would depend on how aggressive China becomes, both in general and specifically in the maritime domain.

Despite the vagueness of the Quad concept, Southeast Asians hold a lot of expectations for it. A decisive majority (69 percent) of respondents expressed their hopes that the Quad can contribute to enforcing the rules-based order, particularly in relation to the territorial and maritime disputes. These finding contradict popular narratives that the Quad, being so controversial and provocative, should restrict its activities to non-controversial activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But the study finds that the Southeast Asians clearly desire an entity to champion adherence to international law.

Southeast Asians are relatively clear-headed about the Quad. They generally do not think that balancing China is the Quad’s biggest challenge, and instead recognize that a lack of clear understanding of the Quad’s objectives among Quad members themselves presents the biggest concern for the formation’s future. Concerns of provoking China (22 percent of respondents) or garnering criticism from ASEAN (overall 2 percent) are secondary, given the concern about Quad members’ diverging interests and unclear mission (48 percent of respondents). Perhaps this is why another decisive majority is found in the question, “Should the Quad be expanded?” A median of 69 percent of respondents thought it a bad idea, as it could further dilute the already-tenuous convergence of interests and key objectives. Some of the respondents even pointed that the Quad should avoid becoming “another ASEAN”.

Based on these key perceptions, the Quad members and regional partners—including ASEAN members—should focus more on exploring beneficial outcomes of cooperation. The expectations and concerns that this study found need to be addressed adequately, if the policymakers of the Quad countries want the formation to be successful. More importantly, there is a need for appropriate communication of the positives over the negatives. To do so, the Quad nations need to come to an agreement on what their common objectives and actionable common goals are. They need to recognize that there is an appetite for a successful Quad collaboration, even aside from the Quad members, and the very fact that the countries were able to revive an agreement considered defunct testifies to the formation’s potential. But an ambivalent attitude towards the future of the Quad remains. That ambivalence largely comes from a lack of clarity on the Quad’s mission and intentions. Once that is clearly and effectively communicated, support for the Quad will grow.

The study explains that ASEAN should not see the Quad as a competitor, because neither its structure, organization, format, nor agenda are comparative, let alone competitive with ASEAN. Given that most ASEAN respondents think that the Quad is actually complementary with the ASEAN-centered architecture, ASEAN leaders should explore channels for cooperation and coordination, particularly in the areas identified by this study as unanimously agreeable across different national perspectives. After all, the region only needs more efforts for sustaining peace, stability and prosperity, not fewer. The Quad members have also time and again recognized the centrality of ASEAN, and have shown no institutional ambition to try to supplant it.

See Dr. Huong Le Thu’s full report here, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

About Huong Le Thu

Dr. Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Defence and Strategy Program. She works on issues related to power asymmetry, foreign policy in post-socialist countries, and multilateralism in Asia.

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