Quad leaders stress Asean's centrality in their Indo-Pacific visions

Ducking the media glare, the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - the United States, Australia, Japan and India - had a quiet meeting on the sidelines of this week's Asean summits.

It was the third time that the informal grouping had come together since its first huddle alongside the Asean Summit in the Philippines last November, with the implicit aim of counterbalancing China's growing influence in the region.

But this time, there was a new twist: An explicit and vigorous mention of the centrality of Asean within the differing visions of the Indo-Pacific espoused by the different Quad nations.

Senior officials met after Thursday's East Asia Summit to discuss topics ranging from regional security and counter-terrorism to connectivity, governance and sustainable development, according to the four statements - one from each country - issued after the meeting. Notably, each statement affirmed the importance of the Asean-led architecture in the evolving idea of the Indo-Pacific.

Dr C. Raja Mohan, director of the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, told The Straits Times: "There was a greater consciousness among the members at this meeting that there is a need to reassure Asean that the Quad is not meant to supplant or replace Asean centrality. And that the members, individually and collectively, need to engage with Asean to address its concerns." Asean, however, continues to keep a distance to maintain its own primacy in setting directions for the region.

The Quad also appears split on how to respond to China's increasing economic influence, including to its massive infrastructure programme, as well as to Beijing's militarisation of the South China Sea.

The officials in the consultations reaffirmed their "shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations are sovereign, strong and prosperous", the US said in its statement.

Australia's official remarks spoke of "the value of working together to support stability in the Indo-Pacific regional maritime domain".

Japan's statement mentioned "the complementary visions for the region held by the four countries, grounded in a shared support for a free, open and inclusive region that fosters universal respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development". India's statement spoke about the agreement "to partner with other countries and forums in the region to promote a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific that fosters trust and confidence".

The fact that the Quad meetings continue to be held at the official level and fail to produce a joint statement signals the struggle within the grouping to reconcile views.

"India, following its non-aligned tradition, has a different approach from Japan and Australia, which are US allies," Dr Raja Mohan said.

The differences, as veteran Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh noted on Tuesday, have contributed to discomfiture within Asean.

China had no official reaction to the Quad meeting, but its influential Global Times said the idea was doomed to fail if its aim was to rival the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) rather than helping regional economies. Noting that the four members differed in their ability to execute development projects, its article said: "Our suggestion is, instead of being the loudest in the room, why doesn't the Quad complete a mega infrastructure programme of its own that differs from the BRI they repeatedly denounce?"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2018, with the headline Quad leaders stress Asean's centrality in their Indo-Pacific visions. Subscribe