China’s rise is the key development in the balance of power in the 21st century, but the United States cannot respond alone. It needs a multilateral approach that can effectively counterbalance China – especially in Southeast Asia – without escalating tensions. Economically allied and politically powerful, Southeast Asia may accelerate or stunt China’s growth in the security, economic, and political influence domains. Both China and the U.S. are vying for political influence in Southeast Asia, and, by many accounts, China is currently prevailing. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘the Quad’ (consisting of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan) has demonstrated a unique capacity to effectively counterbalance Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. Specifically, it has shown the effectiveness of public goods provision, joint military initiatives, and combined economic influence. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries’ demand for public goods, mistrust of China, and avoidance of “picking sides” provides a key window of engagement.
China’s Influence in Southeast Asia and the Need for the Quad
The U.S. has seen a relative decline in two critical domains of influence in Southeast Asia: the economy and military. Economically, China’s influence is illustrated by its trade partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – consisting of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. China and ASEAN are each other’s largest trading partners, respectively. Chinese economic influence has been rising rapidly due in large part to China’s investments in the region. Over the last decade, capital investments from China to Southeast Asia have increased by a multiple of 30, amounting to $40 billion in 2021. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has accelerated this financial investment as it seeks to create overland railroads connecting China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, in addition to other major regional infrastructure investments. Chinese investment is so extensive that displacing Chinese economic influence is less realistic than counterbalancing it through alternative economic linkages provided by the Quad. The U.S. alone simply cannot displace Chinese economic influence. U.S. policy priorities, as reflected by the 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and decreasing participation in regional trade summits, indicate that its capability to overtake China’s economic influence using face-value GDP cross-country comparisons will not be enough. Furthermore, a public opinion survey in 2020 that found 76% of people in Southeast Asia saw China as the most influential economic power in the region, compared to 7% who saw the U.S. as such.
Militarily, Southeast Asian nations have a two pronged relationship with China. On the one hand, they rely on China for arms. On the other, many are threatened by China’s claims in the South China Sea. China’s military began placing a greater emphasis on the South China Sea in 2016, militarizing it with surface-to-air missile deployments, anti-ship missiles, and advanced warships. These developments project China’s maritime power to Southeast Asian countries’ borders – and while some nations frequently push back against these territorial claims, continued interdependence gets in the way. Southeast Asia still imports more arms from China than Russia and the U.S. In addition, many nations such as Thailand conduct bilateral military exercises with China. While the U.S. has military bases bordering the South China Sea and conducts regular air patrols, the U.S. alone lacks the capacity to match China’s heightened presence due to its strategic interests elsewhere. Therefore, counterbalancing China in the South China Sea needs to be a multilateral effort.
The Quad’s Capacity for Counterbalance
Although the Quad is now seen as a “security dialogue” to counterbalance China, it was actually formed in 2004 to craft a joint aid response to the Boxing Day tsunami. Regional destabilization led to the Quad’s temporary downfall in 2007 before the cooperation reconvened in 2017. Now repurposed, the “security dialogue” label is used to set an unimposing tone and reduce criticism from China while maintaining its historical purpose. The Quad’s agenda is primarily to provide humanitarian aid in Southeast Asia, and avoid military escalation with China. This non-adversarial alliance also benefits Southeast Asian nations as it allows for them to engage in relationships with the partners but does not force them to choose sides between the Chinese and the U.S. alliance structures.
The Quad’s members share an interest in maintaining a democratic world order, which is seen to support their security interests. Another multilateral organization, the “Five Eyes” partnership, is one of the world’s largest networks of intelligence sharing. This group already includes the U.S. and Australia, providing a pre-existing basis for political and military informational exchange. Japan and India also share similar strategic interests due to their East and West borders with China, respectively. Japan borders the East China Sea, while India borders the Himalayan region. India, in particular, is affected by Southeast Asian nations and economic, climate, and humanitarian crises, which fall in China’s sphere of influence. Japan and India also greatly rely on the freedom of sea travel for trade and have investment interests in Southeast Asia. The members of the Quad are therefore some of the countries most affected by the security and economic ramifications of a Southeast Asia heavily influenced by China.
The Quad is in a better position to counterbalance Chinese influence in Southeast Asia than other relevant alliances because it avoids cooperation and escalation dilemmas. For example, AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between the U.S., U.K., and Australia with the purpose of managing the threat of China in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it is perceived as antagonistic to China, increasing the chance of escalation. The Quad strays from this narrative as each of its member states has close and personal relationships with China and a geographically-vested interest in stability in the Southeast Asian region. ASEAN would also not serve as an effective counterbalancing force to China because it requires a unanimous vote for any resolution, resulting in deadlocks and inaction. While the Quad may minimize likelihood of escalation with China, in the ASEAN block, there is always at least one country that wants to avoid disrupting relations with China – making it frequently ineffective in decisively taking a stand against China in some capacity.
Strategic Openings for the Quad
Southeast Asia has lost some faith in China following disputes over borders, infrastructure investment, diplomacy, and public goods provisions. This is an opening for the Quad. To point to a few examples that show the trend of Southeast Asia’s skepticism towards China, in 2019, a drought was exacerbated by a Chinese dam that interrupted river flows and led to dire circumstances for the Cambodian and Vietnamese fishing industry. Additionally, China’s unregulated and extractive lumber trade in protected territories is contributing to deforestation in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. Although China is also investing in infrastructure in the region, many nations are skeptical of China’s political motives behind its large-scale lending through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Even with China’s BRI, there are plenty of openings for other countries or organizations to participate in Southeast Asia’s economic development. The Asian Development Bank estimates that Southeast Asia still needs $1.7 trillion annually to keep up with the effects of climate-change and address poverty. The South China Sea also leaves room for additional actors, because conflict puts China directly at odds with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, witnessed when China disregarded Singapore’s push for China to follow The Hague’s rulings on the South China Sea in 2016. In addition to Southeast Asia’s negative response to China’s resource exploitation and territorial claims, hesitancy towards Chinese influence lessened the impact of China’s vaccine diplomacy. Instead, the Quad has already filled needs unmet by China in vaccine distribution. It distributed 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines to ASEAN, through India and Japan. The donation of vaccines from China, by contrast, totaled under 200 million. These gaps in public goods provisions and security guarantees leave room for the Quad to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.
The Quad is already counterbalancing Chinese influence in three ways: public goods provision, joint military initiatives, and combined economic influence. As shown by the Quad’s massive COVID vaccine distribution, the ‘dialogue’ has a large capacity for providing public goods like humanitarian aid in the Southeast Asian region. The Quad is in a unique position for counterbalancing because of its member states’ explicit interests in maintaining a relationship with China, reciprocating and meeting the constraints Southeast Asian nations face in wanting to remain neutral and not choose sides between China and the U.S. This messaging also makes public goods provision less threatening to China. It doesn’t require Southeast Asian nations to choose sides yet it reflects positively on democratic nations and wins influence. The Quad has already initiated plans engaging itself in Southeast Asia on climate change, initiatives that strengthen infrastructure, mitigating methane emissions, transitioning to clean hydrogen, and providing more disaster relief. The Quad’s focus on climate issues indicates rising influence of the issue in the region and provides an alternative to reliance on China for climate support.
The Quad is also balancing China’s military influence through information sharing. In 2022, the Quad agreed to a “maritime domain awareness” initiative where information is shared between the Quad and Indo-Pacific nations to monitor the sea for climate disasters. Additionally, it established a cybersecurity partnership to protect critical infrastructure, improve software, and provide cybersecurity training to Southeast Asia. The Quad also committed to sharing satellite data with Southeast Asian nations. While these capabilities are purportedly being used for humanitarian purposes, they can also be used for sharing defense-related information, as has already been speculated by experts. These dual-use capabilities further illustrate how the Quad balances its humanitarian and security focuses. The Quad is also able to stop activities that break this balance, at times. While the Quad had previously set precedent for joint naval exercises (such as in 2007 in the Bay of Bengal or more recently in 2020) this is one element of militarization that is unlikely to increase because Quad leaders’ expressed opposition to militarizing the partnership against China. Regardless of whether the Quad’s military role is explicit through exercises or implicit with information sharing, it paves a path for alternative military influence in Southeast Asia that can be mobilized in a dispute against China.
The combined economies of the Quad have a better chance at counterbalancing China than a unilateral economic effort from the U.S. The combined GDP of the Quad is $34 trillion ($23 trillion of which is the U.S.), while China’s GDP is just over $17 trillion. An even better economic metric to consider is trade volume. Trade in 2021 between China and ASEAN was valued at $878 billion compared to $441 billion between the U.S. and ASEAN, but the combined Quad nations’ trade with ASEAN totaled to $863 billion – near parity with China. The Quad provides a unique platform to increase trade volume, enhance trade operations and maintain values-based global legal norms. In 2022, the Quad stated that it seeks to uphold a rules-based order for free trade, keep coercive economic practices in check, and be a more predictable and fair trading partner than China. While China’s economic influence cannot be replaced, the Quad’s combined economic leverage provides an alternative trading partner that can counterbalance its influence in Southeast Asia. The Quad may be a more reliable and less risky path to economic balance than a unilateral effort from the U.S. to match Chinese trade.
Critics say that the Quad has no teeth because its member states do not want to provoke conflict with China. However, this understated approach is exactly what makes the Quad successful. Southeast Asian nations cannot risk conflict with China lightly, but they are increasingly interested in avoiding over-reliance on the Chinese government. In this context, Southeast Asia is beginning to trust the Quad as it provides public goods, collects military-grade intelligence, and leverages its combined economic power. Therefore, the Quad is in a unique position to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.
The U.S. alone does not possess the financial and strategic capability to completely counterbalance China’s influence in Southeast Asia. China’s rise is inevitable, but it is in the interest of the U.S. to expand the capacity of the Quad to counterbalance Chinese influence in Southeast Asia and turn to multilateralism as a tool for stability in the Indo-Pacific. It avoids escalating tensions, increases cooperation, and serves Southeast Asian nations. It is time to face the truth about the Quad: having ‘no teeth’ is the only way to take a bite out of China’s influence.
Image Source: The Daily Guardian