ASEAN, the Quad, and China: A Security Contestation for the Indo-Pacific Region

By Fadhil Haedar Sulaeman (Photo: The National Interest)

In June 2019, ASEAN leaders successfully adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) at the 34th ASEAN Summit. The outlook, formulated by the Republic of Indonesia, emphasizes the importance of ASEAN centrality, inclusivity, and complementarity in the Indo-Pacific region as its main principles (Singh and Henrick, 2020). These principles gave ASEAN much flexibility to utilizes its method of interaction, which is consultation and inclusive cooperation, to advance their prosperity in strategic sectors such as maritime, economics, cultural, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Besides, the outlook also gave ASEAN a prominent role in shaping the discourses and development regarding the Indo-Pacific issue, which become increasingly more prominent throughout the years to come (He and Mingjiang, 2020). However, ASEAN was not the only major actor in the Indo-Pacific region, as other power with diverse motives also lurks to shape the region towards their interests. Currently, two great powers are reported to expand their power and influence in the region. The first great power, the United States of America, have increasingly increased their presence by devising their strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and implements it by empowering the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) that includes lesser power such as India, Japan, and Australia (Misra, 2020). The other great power, the People’s Republic of China, has been courting Indo-Pacific states with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects while maintaining a hostile policy in the South China Sea (Cronin, 2020). With these two great powers implementing their policy in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN is caught in the middle of a geopolitical contestation. Therefore, this essay believes that ASEAN should maintain the AOIP foreign policy and not to bandwagon with either power, as choosing sides between the two great powers and their blocs would be a disadvantageous policy for the security architecture of Southeast Asia.

On the one hand, ASEAN should also be critical of Chinese foreign policy in regards to the Indo-Pacific region. Even though Beijing has not yet to adopt the term “Indo-Pacific” due to its suspicion, several foreign policy such as the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, the so-called “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, and the Belt and Road Initiative shows that China is an assertive player in the Indo-Pacific region (He and Li, 2020). In regards to the militarization of the South China Sea, China has been developing an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) as a part of its national defense strategy to deter foreign aggression, in accordance to the Island Chain Theory (Liu, 2020). So far, the Chinese approach to the South China Sea dispute is based upon the strategy of bilateralism, and thus the international call to multilateralism dialogue has been deferred and not to mention their persistence in violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Gong, 2020). Therefore, Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea contradicts the AOIP, in which the principle of inclusivity and international law is cast aside. Likewise, if ASEAN chose to align their Indo-Pacific policy with those of Beijing’s, the United States would not contend with accepting such adjustment. Reassessing previous American foreign policy in the region, the United States would not sit still to see that its adversaries were gaining such power to the extent of regional domination, such as the rollback or the regime change foreign policy doctrine (Litwak, 2007). In addition, the world has currently seen an increasing trend in the utilization of proxy warfare, and the United States’ support of the Kurdish rebellion in Syria is one of them (Thornton, 2015). At the same time, several intra-state conflicts still occur in Southeast Asia, such as the Myanmar Civil War and the Moro conflict. In the end, the United States would have more incentive to support armed rebellion or opposition in Southeast Asia if the region is to fall within the Chinese sphere of influence (Valencia, 2018). This outcome would be the opposite of what the AOIP envisioned, which is the principle of “complementarity” that could find a peaceful and diplomatic solution instead of armed hostilities.

On the other hand, the United States-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and their Free and Open Indo-Pacific is not a suitable policy to be taken by ASEAN either. First of all, The Quad was allegedly a bandwagon of states that seeks to curb China’s influence in the international community, and indeed, these countries possess a geopolitical obstacle for China (Liu, 2020). India would check Chinese power expansion in the Indian Ocean, while a concerted approach by Australia, Japan, and the United States would try to suppress Beijing’s influence in the Pacific Ocean following the Island Chain Theory (White, 2019). Hence, antagonizing China is not indeed a policy to be taken by ASEAN as it excludes the AOIP principle of “inclusiveness” by alienating Beijing as a significant power in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, it would increase the pressure for Chinese policymakers to militarize the South China Sea further. If ASEAN decides to bandwagon with the Quad, it will prompt Beijing to increase its military capabilities in the South China Sea, as it would further envelop their geopolitical encirclement (Okuda, 2016). If the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea intensifies, then the United States and ASEAN member states would have the incentive to increase their military power in the region as a means to protect their national interests, and thus a security dilemma would arise in the region (Wuthnow, 2019). More importantly, the danger of a security dilemma in the region was not compartmented only to the ASEAN-China model or the U.S.-China model, but also a security dilemma between the ASEAN member itself (Casarini, 2018). It should be noted that Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN Chairman, currently possesses the second most extensive Exclusive Economic Zones claims in the South China Sea and have multiple maritime disputes with ASEAN member states, such as Indonesia and Malaysia (Puspitawati and Rusli, 2020). Also, the tension between Singapore and Malaysia has had its ups and downs throughout history, and the former military power still poses some threat in the minds of Kuala Lumpur policymakers (Singh, 2015). If ASEAN did bandwagon with the United States and the Quad, then the threat of conflict in Southeast Asia was not limited to outside intervention, but also amongst ASEAN member states themselves. In comparison to the FOIP, the AOIP is a better alternative, in which a neutral regional organization that promotes state sovereignty, dialogue, and consensus decision-making is a better-suited mediator and facilitator in the Indo-Pacific region, rather than its superpower-led counterpart which allegedly involves a containment strategy aimed at another great power and could lead to a further escalation in the region.

Indeed, as an implementation of the AOIP, ASEAN should be engaged with both the U.S.-led the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and China (Leong, 2020). At a glance, the FOIP documents contains many similarities with the AOIP and there were several prospects for a merge (Tan, 2020). However, ASEAN would be forced into an asymmetrical relationship with the U.S.,  and thus it would erase the “ASEAN Centrality” principle and replaced by a Washington-centric Indo-Pacific (Saha, 2018). Additionally, even as ASEAN has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative by signing the ASEAN-China Joint Statement, ASEAN member states should not compromise its sovereignty at the expense of foreign investment and geo-economics strategy (Li, 2020). In other words, investment projects should be transparent, and none shall be a potential or imminent threat to national security. For instance, there were reports that Chinese-owned ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan would be developed into a naval base, and such development would potentially incur negative feedbacks from India and the United States (Kanwal, 2018). In order to avoid such a scenario, it would be wise if the public maintains and improve their check and balances towards the government.

Even if the current situation still poses little security threat to ASEAN, the status quo would be changed if the two opposing great powers, the United States and China, increased their exchange of hostilities and escalate the situation. By 2025, the People Liberation Army Navy would be much more potent than it is today, and the United States would be induced to redeploy more of its forces into the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, the United States and the Quad policy of containing China would make the latter feels like a cornered dragon, and nothing is more dangerous than a cornered animal. Similarly, Chinese economic expansion is followed by its naval build-up, and as a result, skepticism is arising among Southeast Asian states that China intends to make the region as its traditional sphere of influence. More than ever, the world needs ASEAN to be the leader in the Indo-Pacific discourses and seeks more influence in the international community.

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). Currently, he serves as a Research Division Intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He could be contacted through email:



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