Without a shift away from “a security view of the Quad”, he said, the alliance “isn’t going to get buy-in” from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
In Southeast Asia in general, the Quad has had a mixed response.
The “main concern” was that the Quad “would heighten tensions in the region, especially vis-a-vis China”, said Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But with its moves away from “its more militaristic elements” and towards “areas that Asean cares more about” such as pandemic recovery — which demonstrate “sensitivity to the region’s needs” — she thinks “the position on the Quad dialogue has softened somewhat”.
The most recent joint statement by the Quad’s foreign ministers was released in February.
In it, Asean centrality was “right up at the top”, pointed out Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the CSIS.
These are engagement efforts taking place in a region that is “much more heterogeneous than NATO”, noted Nagy.
“(NATO countries) have the same political systems … similar economic standards, and they’re well integrated into each other’s economies, whereas (in) Southeast Asia and Japan and Korea, we have a variety of government styles,” he said.
“We have a variety of commitments to democracy, a variety of development levels.”
Hence, on the question of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, he thinks it “doesn’t make sense” to equate NATO to the Quad.
Quite apart from any parallels to NATO, however, developments in the South China Sea may be giving the US’ strategy a boost.
For example, an hour from Singapore, work on a US-funded Indonesian maritime training centre has commenced.
The centre in Batam will be owned and operated by Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency, or Bakamla, and will aid the agency in overseeing Indonesia’s territorial waters and its exclusive economic zone.
The project is of significance as Bakamla has intensified patrols in recent years to deal with Chinese fishing boats — escorted by Chinese Coastguard — sailing into what Indonesia regards as its territory.
“Indonesia needs to upgrade its Navy and also its maritime capacity. Having defence co-operation is one of the best ways,” said Klaus Heinrich Raditio, the author of Understanding China’s Behaviour in the South China Sea.
“Batam’s location is very strategic … And we’re aware that the US has a lot at stake in defending the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.”
According to the US State Department, the US provided Indonesia with almost US$39 million in 2020, mostly in security assistance, plus spending on military financing and military education.
In the Philippines, the annual Balikatan exercise between US and Philippine forces concluded last month. It was billed as the largest-ever edition, and in a first, the US’ Patriot missile system was deployed during amphibious operations.
“We can assume that this is part of the different theatre (of operations) scenarios,” said international relations expert Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby. “This is likely in preparation for China’s next move in Taiwan, or whatever might happen in the South China Sea.”
The associate professor at De La Salle University in Manila also noted that the US is a preferred partner in the Philippines.
She and her colleagues conducted a study of perceptions in the Filipino strategic community in 2020, for example, and the majority preferred to be partners with Australia, Japan and the US — the Philippines’ traditional partners.
“China is way down on the list,” she said.
Especially after Washington was “blindsided” by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-Americanism when he took office, it is likely that the US is now “much more aware” of how strategically important its alliance with the Philippines is, said Poling.
“The Philippines and the US are now beginning to have the kind of conversations that the US has had with Japan, Korea, Australia and NATO for three decades,” he added.
With specific reference to NATO, Article 5 of its treaty states that there are collective defence obligations in the event of an attack on any member.
To bind countries in the Indo-Pacific to a mutual defence treaty, however, “would be a fool’s errand”, said Kuok.
“The US knows that … Southeast Asian countries in particular all have different interests and different positions vis-a-vis China as well as one another. I don’t think that the US is trying to build NATO in Southeast Asia.”
But as the superpower advances its Indo-Pacific strategy, Gao worries that it may lead to not only miscalculation but also “very dangerous courses of action”.
“Now with Ukraine in the middle of this war … we need to realise the value of peace and stability,” he said. “We don’t want to be hijacked by any single big country.”
Kuok, meanwhile, thinks the choice for Southeast Asian countries is “very clear”.
It is not so much as one between the United States or China, but rather “one that supports a rules-based international order and the rule of law, or a world where might becomes right”. “I choose the former,” she said.
“I wouldn’t like to see the world, and particularly not the region, descending into a situation where might is right. And we’ve seen what happens in a scenario such as that: In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
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Source: Channel News Asia