If the US divided the world into Western-capitalist ‘free’ and Eastern-communist ‘close’ worlds during the Cold War to project itself as the champion of the ‘free’ world, the ‘Cold War 2.0’, too, uses the same axioms to designate China as the prime example of ‘close’ world that the QUAD countries, led by the US, must break through to establish a ‘free’ Indo-Pacific. Although Biden was emphatic when he recently said in his UNGA speech that the US is not seeking a Cold War, the anti-China alignment the US is seeking to build and militarise through such deals as the recently revealed AUKUS does signify a global posturing underpinned by a sort of global power competition that characterised the Cold War. By striking a powerful tone vis-à-vis China, the Biden-led USA appears to be devising a language that it can use to communicate with the ASEAN/Southeast Asia as well to enlist their support against China as US allies.
The joint statement issued by the QUAD says that the member countries commit themselves to “a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity—a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient”, adding that “together, we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
Addressing the ASEAN specifically, the statement says that “We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality and for ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and we underscore our dedication towards working with ASEAN and its member states—the heart of the Indo-Pacific region—in practical and inclusive ways.”
While the statement stopped short of directly mentioning China, the core focus of the QUAD on Southeast Asia shows how the group is seeking to counterbalance China more directly than has been the case so far.
More rhetoric than Action
Looking, however, more deeply into the QUAD, it is evident the so-called first “historic” meeting of the QUAD leaders failed to produce anything beyond very general assertions and commitment. The absence of any concrete steps not only continues to keep the QUAD as a group without any internal strategic unity, but also shows how the member countries, even though they have their own concerns vis-à-vis China, continue to shy away from jumping on the US bandwagon to settle their matters with China.
The only practical step that the statement shows that the QUAD has taken is “the Quad Fellowship”, an education programme that “will provide 100 graduate fellowships to leading science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduate students across our four countries.”
Beyond this fellowship, even a cursory look at the statement shows these countries’ rhetorical commitment to taking some steps in the future. For now, the QUAD happened and quickly replaced into hibernation, for most QUAD members do not share the US imperative to come up with a foreign policy to anchor itself in the world after a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. Therefore, there are not many states happy to let the US force them into an alliance that is not needed.
For instance, the reaction to the recently announced AUKUS is typically telling. Indonesia, which the Australians describe as their most important security partner, expressed deep concerns over the deal, saying that the country “is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday that “AUKUS could potentially provoke other powers to act more aggressively, especially within the South China Sea region.” Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stressed his nation’s stance of neutrality on AUKUS, saying that Manila wants to maintain good bilateral defense relations with all countries in the region.
Similarly, the lack of enthusiasm that we continue to see characterising the QUAD is not only because most countries do not want to become US partners in its ‘Cold War 2.0’, but also because the lack of vision has not allowed the member countries to imagine any potential, or real, benefits that the grouping can offer to them, as far as their own specific national interests are concerned.
Most of it is due to the fact that the US is trying to imagine and implement a bi-polar policy at a time when the world has already become multipolar. The European Union is increasingly making policies that do not align with that of the US. It has its own Strategy for Coopertaion in the Indo-Pacific, which means countries in the region have plenty of options to choose from to build their bridges. For them, the US is not the sole option. Apart from the EU, ASEAN has its own regional mechanisms as well as strong bi-lateral terms with China to resolve any matters of mutual interest, or conflict.
Another major reason for the member countries’ lack of interest in the QUAD is that the grouping lacks any plan to engage economically with the Indo-Pacific, let alone having a credible commitment. It emphasis on maintaining a “free” Indo-pacific emphasis a militaristic approach, a major contrast to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest trade deal ever signed in history. The US’ militarised approach, evident from the AUKUS, is hardly a deal that the ASEAN will be happy to buy to secure its interests, for whatever the nature of its ties with China, they are not facing any threat of a Chinese military attack. The ASEAN, as well as other countries like India, do not have overarching reasons to increase the temperature in the region by formally allying with a grouping that seeks to do just that: militarise the conflict.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.