The idea of an Asian Quad – comprising of Japan, India, Vietnam and Indonesia – would help to narrow the growing mistrust between China and the US, and would create an edifice acceptable to both. Hence, these two major powers need to subscribe to this idea of an Asian Quad.
The international strategic community has been discussing and debating about the geographic expanse and subscription to China-sponsored One Belt One Road (OBOR). There’s also discussion and debate going on about how the Trump administration has very recently instituted a new agency, the US International Development Finance Corporation, to give loans, insurance and loan guarantee to companies willing to work on projects as well as oversee its implementation in developing regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Trump administration’s endorsement of US $60 billion fund is relatively minuscule in comparison to the multi trillion-dollar blueprint that China has projected through its OBOR and Maritime Silk Road projects.
The OBOR, also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has challenged the US suzerainty in the region of Asia. Chinese inroads in the Pacific islands – through assistance package to Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu and Fiji – has forced Trump administration to undertaken corrective measures with regard to aid and assistance packages.
The rather relaxed approach with regard to countering OBOR has left the US far behind in addressing Chinese charm-offensive supported by infrastructure and liberal financing of select projects. Though, most of the Chinese loans are locked loans — something that makes the Chinese companies, labour and entrepreneurs the biggest beneficiaries. Nevertheless, the US-funded projects might be more acceptable than the Chinese-sponsored and -implemented OBOR.
Already questions have been raised by Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and few countries in Africa about the viability of such [Chinese] projects and the balance sheet in terms of cost benefit analysis is already being done in the recipient states. Sri Lanka is already languishing under the Chinese debt in terms of repayment schedules and interest rates, while the new Pakistani establishment is evaluating the real benefits of these Chinese projects particularly China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The OBOR and Maritime Silk road have an intrinsic strategic blueprint because of stress on highways, ports and related infrastructure, leading to confusion and mistrust. This strategic cacophony between use and utility of OBOR and Quad can be addressed through an Asian Quad which would help to narrow the growing mistrust between the two major powers and create an edifice acceptable to both.
However, there are questions about the composition, objectives and utility of an Asian Quad. How this formula would work?
It would be pertinent to look back into post-colonial history of Southeast Asia to get convincing answers. In the post-colonial narrative, the erstwhile colonies of Britain – particularly Malaysia, Pakistan, the US-Japan alliance, Australia and South Korea – worked towards getting their support to protect themselves from the new power centres. The formation of Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA), SEATO and ANZUS was meant to keep the allies and strategic partners together under various plans such as Marshall Plan and also ASEAN (1967) which galvanized newly independent nations under the anti-communist structure.
These edifices – with the exception of ASEAN and ANZUS – lost traction when Non-Aligned Movement (1961) gained subscription and momentum in Asia and Africa. The US engaged regimes in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia and maintained its grip in the Southeast Asia. However, Taiwan, Korea and Japan remained as the primary security responsibilities for the US, with an occasional assurance to the minions in the Southeast Asia.
The China-influenced regimes in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia technically drawing the invisible fault lines between Chinese and US influence zones. Therefore, to address these, the Asian Quad is meant to include the major stakeholders in the region which have best of relations with the two major powers — US and China. The possible core could comprise of Japan, India, Vietnam and Indonesia (JIVI) with other institutions and countries getting on the bandwagon to meet their security objectives. This Asian Quad would not raise heckles with both China and the US, as the so called anti-US alliance or anti-China narrative would not get incubated within this edifice.
The query might emerge that what would the Asian Quad achieve in terms of building regional peace and security, and why these four countries are selected for the formation of the Asian Quad. The core criteria for selection is strategic sea-lanes, economic growth, technology and military wherewithal. In terms of economic growth, Vietnam and Indonesia are the two emerging economies of Southeast Asia, while India and Japan rank among the top ten global economies. Vietnam and India have one of the largest standing armies in Southern Asia, while in terms of maritime security and naval assets, India and Japan fit the bill.
Indonesia in this whole scheme gets the important role as a country that sits astride the vital Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in Southeast Asia, including Malacca Straits, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar Straits. For both US and China, the SLOCs are of critical importance. In fact, China’s Maritime Silk Road Strategy was meant to address its vulnerabilities related to its maritime trade and crude oil imports. The security and assurance about the safety in these sea lanes would help in averting direct confrontation between the two major powers.
Further, India and Japan have initiated Asia-Africa Growth Corridor that would help the littoral countries in the Indian Ocean to develop infrastructure capabilities and also training of their personnel so that these underdeveloped economies – infested with political frictions – can develop the economic structure that would provide food and security to millions.
The new economic order spanning the regions of Africa and Asia need to be calibrated in such a way that there is growth for all underdeveloped and developing countries rather than development prerogative to only one economic centre. Indonesia and Vietnam are also going to develop as low cost manufacturing centres. Technology super power Japan would add value to the development agenda, while India is developing as a services hub and a knowledge centre. Hence, there are immense complementarities that exist between the members of this ‘potential’ Asian Quad.
The basic role of these Asian Quad members would be to create balance as security observers. Among the four members of the Asian Quad, Vietnam and Indonesia are ASEAN members and India and Japan are ASEAN’s dialogue partners. This addresses the core issue of ASEAN centrality and creates the necessary balance between ASEAN members and dialogue partners.
The ongoing power-struggle and tensions between China and the US centring the South China Sea, trade-tariff-war and other related aspects have, to a large extent, created tensions in the region, without any viable solution in sight. The necessary blue print about the Asian Quad would help to create necessary nascent institution under the regional security mechanism.
It appears that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which is a relatively large institutional body, has been unable to provide the necessary support for building comprehensive understanding on critical security issues. Therefore, the time has come to start small core group, and address concerns of both China and the US. These two powers need to subscribe to the concept of Asian Quad, as it seems one of the alternatives, for the time being, for creating a cooperative security architecture in the larger Asian region.
Dr. Pankaj Jha is senior faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O P Jindal Global University and teaches international security. His authored books include India and China in Southeast Asia: Competition or Cooperation (2013) and India and the Oceania: Exploring Vistas of Cooperation (2016).