Should ASEAN Engage the Quad?

Leaders of Quad countries at a previous meeting. There has been a discussion whether ASEAN should directly engage the Quad or not. Credit: the Government of Japan.


The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has had an interest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its first summit in March 2021. The Quad has expressed its intention to support and collaborate with ASEAN through joint statements produced after each summit, clearly signalling a desire to be closer with ASEAN.

However, ASEAN Member States (AMS) have had their reservations. ASEAN’s sentiment tends to perceives the Quad as merely the latest attempt at marginalizing China in the Indo-Pacific region, which is not in line with ASEAN’s paradigm of an inclusive regional dialogue. A survey conducted by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) found that 78,8% of respondents perceive a tension between the Quad and China, though at varying degrees.

It does not help that China is among, if not the biggest, trade partners with each of the AMS. This means each AMS and ASEAN as a whole stand to lose economically if there is a heightened tension between the Middle Kingdom and the Quad.

Despite this hesitation, the Quad members – the United States, Australia, India and Japan – have been trying to convince the region that the minilateral grouping is not meant to corner China, but to serve as an alternative cooperation partner to the region.

QUAD’s” wish for ASEAN

In its past four joint statements, the Quad had consistently expressed its support for ASEAN’s centrality. The Quad acknowledges the strategic position and the role of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical architecture.

The Quad also sees the importance of ASEAN unity aside from its centrality. In all of its joint statements, the Quad has always mentioned the terms ASEAN “centrality” and “unity”, treating both terms as essentially inseparable. However, the Quad also recognizes ASEAN disunity in addressing political-security issues to some degree, particularly in addressing the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea and Myanmar crisis.

ASEAN’s Wish for the Quad

ASEAN’s core principle in the Indo-Pacific is inclusivity. This principle has been stated and written in all of ASEAN leaders’ speeches and ASEAN documents. For the grouping, the principal idea behind inclusivity is that the Indo-Pacific cannot exclude China from the picture.

On the Quad side, the word “inclusive” has been expressed since its first joint statement in March 2021. They added the word in addition to “free”, “open” as well as “resilient Indo-Pacific”. Compared with former President Trump’s Indo-Pacific concept, which did not use the word, this is a notable paradigm shift.

We may not have a clear picture as to what the Quad really means when it talks about “inclusivity”, however, it appears that the Quad have readjusted its parameters to better align with ASEAN’s paradigm of an inclusive Indo-Pacific. Thus, it can be argued that the core principles of both the Quad and ASEAN on Indo-Pacific are more compatible now.

More Attention to ASEAN

Does ASEAN Matter? may be the title of Dr. Marty Natalegawa’s latest book, but the same question can be asked to the Quad members. Does ASEAN really matter to the minilateral grouping?

The word “ASEAN” is mentioned more frequently with each subsequent joint statements produced by the Quad. The first joint statement only mentions ASEAN once. The second (September 2021) mentions it four times. The third (May 2022) mentions six times. Significantly, the recently concluded summit in Hiroshima produced a joint statement that mentions ASEAN a whopping 13 times.

Through this indicator, we can simply conclude that ASEAN is getting more attention from the Quad members, an acknowledgment that the Quad sees ASEAN as a strategic regional partner.

The Room for ASEAN-Quad Cooperation

During Cambodia’s 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship, ASEAN leaders committed to operationalizing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Since the adoption of AOIP in 2019, analysts have criticized the concept for not offering something new and lacking details on steps to operationalize it.

However, this is perhaps where the words of a Singaporean senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan ring true when he said that the AOIP is an old wine in a new bottle. We could not ignore the fact that it is never easy to operationalize it and that ASEAN should work towards getting buy-in from and mobilizing its dialogue partners to achieve such objective.

Engaging the Quad is a worthwhile option to consider. The latest joint statement from the Hiroshima summit expresses that “We will continue to strengthen our respective relationship with ASEAN and seek opportunities for greater Quad collaboration in support of the AOIP.

This shows the Quad’s political will and readiness to be engaged by ASEAN. In a previous joint statement, the Quad specified the cooperation areas to include digital connectivity, clean energy, climate resilience, disaster resilience and energy. These are in line with AOIP’s four pillars of maritime cooperation, connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and economics.

A Potential ASEAN-Quad Meeting?

Engaging the Quad is timely and relevant to ASEAN. Quad has demonstrated that it is not merely a security-oriented minilateral grouping, but also one that focuses on connectivity, regional resilience, economics and other dimensions which align with the AOIP.

There is a possibility to actualize the ASEAN-Quad engagement under Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship this year. President Joko Widodo has stated that the Quad as well as the Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) security pact should be viewed as partners and not as competitors. This is the first time any ASEAN leaders has openly said the possibility of engaging with the Quad, even with the AUKUS. For Indonesia, this statement is a shift of position considering how sceptical Jakarta viewed the Quad and AUKUS before.

To propose for an ASEAN-Quad summit at the sideline of this September’s ASEAN Summit would be too much to ask, but an informal meeting of the foreign ministers between ASEAN and the Quad is a possibility worth considering.

On the other hand, it is also worth asking why there should be an ASEAN-Quad summit when all Quad members are already ASEAN Dialogue Partners. An exclusive meeting between ASEAN and the Quad could may also be too sensitive, if not treated as an outright provocation, to China.

Despite this, ASEAN could not afford to ignore the Quad as an important grouping in the Indo-Pacific, just as ASEAN could not afford to ignore China in Indo-Pacific discourse. Thus, engaging the Quad could be argued as part of ASEAN’s exercising its centrality and inclusivity.

Pragmatically, the operationalization of the AOIP should start with opening and widening ASEAN engagements. The Indonesian chairmanship has pushed ASEAN to engage more with the Indian Ocean Rim Organization (IORA) and Pacific countries; why not with the Quad as well?

Furthermore, the Quad is an alternative of source for ASEAN to meet its development plan. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 estimated that around US$110 billion is required to build connectivity hardware and software from 2016 to 2025. ASEAN cannot be only relying on one partner; ASEAN should work with all available partners. The momentum for cooperation is there. All in all, there is no doubt that the Quad has an appetite to get closer to ASEAN. The ball is now in ASEAN’s court. If the metaphorical ball means exposing ASEAN to geopolitical risk, we should remember that ASEAN story has always been about taking geopolitical risk and exercising our strategic autonomy.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Calvin Khoe is Co-Director of FPCI Research and Analysis, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). FPCI is an independent international relations organization and a think tank based in Jakarta. Calvin focuses on Indonesian Foreign policy, ASEAN, ASEAN-China, and Geopolitics of Indo-Pacific. He has also been the program coordinator and analyst of ASEAN-China Survey since 2020.