Asean, the Quad and Aukus are the load-bearing pillars on which Indo-Pacific security will rest in the coming decades. The first is a norm-builder, the second a problem-solver, and the third a deterrent of military conflict.
This is Asia’s new security architecture.
Asean’s annual meetings of leaders, foreign ministers, and defence chiefs are a foundation of inclusive diplomacy and cooperation.
The informal Quad dialogue among the United States, Japan, India and Australia delivers vital public goods like Covid-19 vaccine doses, while also holding up the broader rules-based order.
The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (Aukus) pact promises leading-edge defensive technology necessary to maintain a military balance of power.
Reinforcing Asean institutions
Asean is the largest of the three organisations, and its strength derives from its 10 members’ commitment to unity. The differences among Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar do require supreme patience to find common ground. But Asean’s common allegiance to the peaceful resolution of disputes, reverence for sovereignty, and regard for the rule of law strengthen regional norms.
In an era of resurgent major power competition, Asean tries to dampen hyper-nationalism, encourage commerce, and establish peaceful coexistence in Asia. Yet its record of converting dialogue into action is less than perfect: China sometimes divides Asean members from one another.
That might be acceptable were South-east Asian countries not struggling to ward off China’s assertive maritime behaviour.
Peaceful South-east Asian states locked in dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea must endure a Chinese campaign of maritime coercion, including Xi’an Y-20 heavy military transport planes holding drills in the Spratly Islands, plus intrusive coast guard, maritime militia and survey vessel activity in the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China may soon use a fleet of drones to help police its controversial nine-dash line claims over almost the entirety of the South China Sea and the maritime features claimed by neighbouring states.
By contrast, US freedom of navigation operations underscore international law, including a 2016 arbitral tribunal’s judgment against some of China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea. As US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro argues: “No nation has the right to claim longstanding international waters as their own.”
But if Asean is incapable of standing up to coercion, and US freedom of navigation operations impose no penalty for malign action, what is the value of rules and norms? Asean needs help.
Enter the Quad and Aukus. The level of cooperation exhibited by these two mechanisms is a sea change in the history of regional security. While neither the Quad nor Aukus will quickly solve the problem of maritime coercion in the South China Sea, both are complementary groups that enhance Asean-centred institutions.