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Monday, October 25, 2021, 09:23 (GMT+7)
“Asian NATO” and its implications for ASEAN

Recently, the Quad, including the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia has been promoting its operations at a higher level and playing a pivotal role in Washington’s free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Therefore, the future of a NATO-like orgnanisation in Asia and its implications for ASEAN are drawing public attention.

The Quad’s possibility of becoming an “Asian NATO”

With reference to the establishment of the Quad, when the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Parliament of India in August 2007, he proposed the connection of Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean into a larger Asia. Then, he called on the U.S., Australia, and India to cooperate with Japan in discussing security issues of common interests. Immediately after announcing his first ideas about a “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision in 2017, the then U.S. President Donald Trump put the Quad at the forefront of the force gathering and cemented Washington’s relations with partners in order to maintain the U.S. economic benefits, political power, and military and diplomatic strength.

After many years of foundation and development, up to now, cooperation of the Quad has been increasingly diverse, flexible, and close and comprehensively included political, diplomatic, non-traditional and traditional security, defence, and economic fields, together with the likelihood of initiating new members. In spite of the fact that the Quad is currently just a cooperative mechanism between the countries sharing common viewpoints and interests in the Indo-Pacific Region, it is probable that in the future this organisation will become a military alliance like a NATO in Asia - in other words, “Asian NATO.” On March 12th, 2021, at its first Summit, the Quad announced that it would focus all of its operations on the issues relating to the Indo-Pacific Region, particularly the East Sea and the East China Sea.

As the Joe Biden Administration is implementing the foreign policy to enable “the U.S. to be back,” Washington will play a more active role and more widely and deeply take part in the international system, with importance attached to heightening multilateralism and consulting its partners and allies about the handling of international issues. More specifically, the U.S. will encourage the role of regional and multilateral mechanisms, including NATO and Quad, while gathering forces from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean so as to exert a stronger influence upon the region. Washington is committed to protecting Japan and strengthening cooperation with this country in realising the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy, supporting freedom of navigation and the use of international law to settle differences between Japan and China in the East China Sea and the issues relating to Taiwan and Hong Kong as well. Although the U.S. plays a key role in the Quad, its new strategy tends to remove unipolarity. Hence, the role of Japan is increasingly promoted. Japan is devoting effort to making a transformation from a mediator into a key player in the Indo-Pacific Region. Recently, Japan has organised more joint exercises with the U.S. and some other countries, such as the UK, France, Germany, and Australia in the region. However, due to its economic interests in its relations with China, certainly, Japan does not want to become an “outpost” against Beijing in military terms.

As the third country in the Quad, India is strengthening security cooperation with the U.S., fostering its special strategic partnership with Japan, and maintaining a close relationship with Australia. India puts the Quad’s cooperation at the forefront of the shaping of a regional economic and security architecture. According to many experts around the world, India is the weakest link in the Quad due to this country’s hesitation in handling regional issues; however, India has recently proved otherwise with specific actions to defend its national sovereignty and territory as well as clearly expressed its opinions about the settlement of regional issues. As a traditional and close ally of the U.S., Australia is committed to backing Washington’s regional policies, especially the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy. On July 1st, 2020, Australia announced its new defence strategy according to which this country’s armed forces would pivot to the improvement of military strength across the Indo-Pacific Region. Recently, Australia has adopted a large number of practical and legal actions against brazen activities in the East Sea. However, according to Australia, the Quad is just a dialogue mechanism aimed at allowing participants to reach an agreement on the issues of common interests relating to the Indo-Pacific Region; therefore, instead of becoming a “hard” military alliance to challenge brazen actions in the region, the Quad should be a “soft” allied organisation only to provide consultancy for the general security issues.

Generally speaking, the establishment of the Quad has basically met the strategic needs of the four members amidst the increasingly complicated developments of the competition for influence between major powers in the Indo-Pacific Region. Nevertheless, the Quad’s possibility of becoming an “Asian NATO” much depends on each member state’s strategic calculations and political determination. As many countries are facing difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for cooperation between the Quad’s members and each nation still plays a dominant role, the risk of a military confrontation will be kept under control, and no single country will possibly “cross the red line.”

Implications for ASEAN

Southeast Asia is the centre of the U.S. free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Thus, the formation and development of the Quad and its possibility of becoming an “Asian NATO” all impact on ASEAN.

If the Quad maintains the current level of cooperation, its presence will significantly contribute to controlling disputes in the East Sea where 4 member states of ASEAN are making sovereignty claims. When disputes in the East Sea are always the most controversial topic at meetings between ASEAN member states and between ASEAN and its partners, the Quad’s increased presence in this region will help ensure maritime security and fight against the scheme to monopolise the East Sea, regardless of international law. It should be noted that the Quad supports ASEAN’s standpoint on the settlement of disputes in the East Sea by peaceful means on the basis of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Hence, regional countries could take advantage of the Quad’s support to handle situations in the East Sea.

However, in addition to advantages, ASEAN is confronted with a lot of challenges due to the Quad’s intervention in the region. First of all, once the Quad is more active, it could challenge the centrality of ASEAN and usurp the central diplomatic role of this organisation in Southeast Asia and even in the Indo-Pacific Region. Moreover, if the Quad’s bond is stronger and it is developed into a “hard” military alliance, there will be risks of a military confrontation or an arms race in the East Sea. Over the years, member states of the Quad have taken a great deal of actions on the field and in legal terms so as to increase pressure and demonstrate their strength over the Indo-Pacific Region and particularly the East Sea. At the same time, they have called on key member states of NATO (including the UK, France, Germany, and Canada) to join military exercises, develop diplomatic dialogues into military diplomatic ones, and actively share intelligence. It could be said that a possible increase in relevant parties’ presence in the East Sea will lead to the risk of collision and confrontation amidst the existing complicated security-related developments in this strategic region. Once tensions escalate, the Quad’s transformation into a “military alliance” will come true and negatively impact on regional security.

In addition, ASEAN member states will be faced with the risk of being drawn into a “hard” military alliance. Currently, most of the regional countries maintain and develop their relations with all 4 member states of the Quad. Defence cooperation between regional states with each member of the Quad has positive developments and the Quad’s member states all express their support for the strengthening of defence cooperation with each ASEAN member state and the whole ASEAN. However, the Quad’s open mechanism for cooperation with regional countries will also create challenges relating to defence and security. If regional countries (excluding the U.S. allies, such as Thailand and the Philippines) cooperate with each member state of the Quad in the sensitive fields, such as joint exercise and patrol, they will be thought to be joining the Quad unofficially, which will negatively impact on the policy of balancing relations with major power they are pursuing.

In conclusion, in spite of the fact that the Quad is much interested in the geo-strategic role of Southeast Asia and hopes to involve this region’s countries in a “hard” military alliance, ASEAN member states will have to adopt their own approach appropriate to each country’s policy of balancing relations with major powers to avoid direct negative impacts on diplomatic ties with others in the region. Therefore, in the upcoming time, all regional countries must harmoniously deal with issues on selecting spheres of cooperation with the Quad in order to take advantage of resources for their national development, security, and defence.

Lt. Col. NGUYEN HUU TUC, Institute for Defence International Relations

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