The Quad leaders have met for the fourth time in just over a year, indicating that this four-nation club is taking on a more institutional character. The second in-person Quad summit, held in Tokyo on May 24 with much fanfare, should be seen in that context where initiatives of critical importance were launched before and during the Summit.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), the Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package (Q-CHAMP), the Quad Debt Management Resource Portal, the Quad Vaccine Partnership, and the Quad Fellowship are among such initiatives.
Rather than portraying the Quad and Indo-Pacific as mere China containment strategies, the Quad members have been trying to highlight the benefits to the region’s small, middle and growing states. Recent actions show that both Quad and the US are striving toward that aim.
Initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework may be able to help in this regard. The IPEF, which was launched on May 23, is largely regarded as the US’ attempt to re-establish itself as the regional economic rule-maker. The IPEF proposes several normative notions that are consistent with the US’ goal of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
Critics claim that IPEF is overly focused on the US and may fail to achieve tangible results, but they ignore a similar shortcoming in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes all of ASEAN’s dialogue partners except the US, India and Russia. The fact that seven ASEAN states, including Malaysia and Singapore, have consented to join the IPEF shows their reservations about entering the Indo-Pacific are increasingly dissipating.
The IPEF is not a free trade agreement in the traditional sense, but the RCEP and the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership)/TPP-11 are. The IPEF provides an intriguing picture in terms of membership. For starters, it includes all Quad members as well as RCEP members from ASEAN (barring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar). What makes the IPEF even more interesting is that it includes India, whereas China is replaced in the agreement by the US.
That said, the IPEF is still adjusting itself to suit the regional realities. Unlike the RCEP, it does not take a plunge into an economic pact; it provides a framework – a rule book of sorts – for the Quad members and nine RCEP (and 9 APEC) countries in the region to follow internationally accepted rules and norms of four pillars of economic policies and practices: clean economy; connected economy; fair economy; and resilient economy. Its flexibility is demonstrated in that it’s a coalition of willing partners who can pick and choose the pillars of cooperation.
Notably, the IPEF highlights the pitfalls of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) investment practices by focusing on the digital economy, artificial intelligence, supply chains, climate change and economic sustainability, as well as measures to combat corruption, predatory investments, money laundering and tax evasion.
The IPEF may give a degree of assurance that a traditional free trade agreement (FTA) cannot, which is why India, which declined to join the RCEP due to worries about market access and rules of origin breaches, is willing to join the IPEF. Nonetheless, the IPEF is not the only endeavour aiming at giving the Indo-Pacific a more institutionalised configuration.
Quad: Security Provider to Indo-Pacific
The Quad Cybersecurity Partnership which, of course, intends to secure the valuable cyber domains and 5G technology sectors was also mentioned during the second Quad summit. It also attempts to effectively exchange information, share best practices and work together in building members’ capacities to combat hacking, cyber espionage, terror financing and cyber fraud.
The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) is another endeavour aimed at bringing institutional reality to the Indo-Pacific. The IPMDA is intended to provide a unified framework for dealing with humanitarian and natural disaster situations. It intends to create an Indo-Pacific consultation framework and collaborate closely with regional information fusion centres in the Indian Ocean, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Quad has also formed the “Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific,” taking a step further in positioning itself as a security provider to the Indo-Pacific arena. It is a huge step forward in terms of establishing an institutional framework for non-traditional security cooperation.
Lauded as the ‘force of good’, the primary objective of the Quad is to project and establish itself as the ‘security provider’ to the Indo-Pacific region. Members of the Quad are moving quickly to establish institutions that can be woven together to give the Indo-Pacific order a unified shape as soon as possible. In doing so, Quad does not lose sight of two key regional organisations — the European Union and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations); it keeps ASEAN central and the EU closer, in its Indo-Pacific visions.
Quad Support for ASEAN
Launched in 2021, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is widely seen as good news for ASEAN and the wider Indo-Pacific region. In contrast with the US, which perceives China as the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order”, the EU’s focus is still on ‘rules rather than the actor’, by stressing the ‘promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law’ but denying any specific bias against China.
The EU’s strategy provides ASEAN with more leeway in dealing with China, which is not only the region’s largest trading partner and investor but also one of the long-term sources of development and economic progress for some. Historically allergic to great power politics, ASEAN countries have been wary of some elements of the Quad. While some ASEAN nations see the benefits of embracing Quad, their reservations and apprehensions stem from a militarised form of Quad and China’s likely response.
In such a situation, Quad’s reiteration of “unwavering support” for ASEAN unity and centrality is comforting to ASEAN and its members. The Quad’s support for the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) is helpful, especially as China has also accepted and backed the ASEAN version of the Indo-Pacific.
Quad is aware that without ASEAN on board, Indo-Pacific may not be able to get the requisite amount of traction. Lessons from history, it may be said, are driving Quad’s adaptability to accommodate ASEAN and India’s reservations. The dismal reception of the US’s SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) during the Cold War hasn’t gone unregistered in Washington’s grand strategy.
The acceptance and effectiveness of these measures are directly proportionate to the US (and other members’) capacity and readiness to listen to its allies and partners in defining the Quad and the Indo-Pacific order and providing them with a robust institutional reality.
Dr Rahul Mishra is a Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia, where he heads the European Studies programme. He tweets @rahulmishr_. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.