Assessing Asia's New Quad: The US-Japan Australia-Philippines Quadrilateral in Perspective
Plus charting Shangri-La Dialogue country datapoints; new Indonesia-Malaysia border diplomacy; Southeast Asia's development financing picture and more.
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For those looking for a quick snapshot of key country announcements at the Shangri-La Dialogue, we’ve generated an extended table of select datapoints from countries based on all the plenary and special sessions in a section below. This is the sort of product we’d usually reserve for paid subscribers, but owing to broad interest and some incoming reader requests, we’ve added it to the free section of the newsletter. Do consider upgrading to a paid subscription if this is the kind of product you’d like to see more often going forward!
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And with that, let’s get to the topics! In this iteration, we’re looking at:
How far the new U.S.-Japan-Australia-Philippines quadrilateral can go, and what it means for the region;
Select datapoints from speeches officials delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue, summarized in table form;
Mapped outcomes from key regional developments including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Vietnam and the much-anticipated Indonesia-Malaysia summit;
Trends in Southeast Asia’s development financing picture as well as the movement of drugs across the region;
Developments incluiding Singapore’s new submarine cable landings target and Vietnam’s coming TikTok decision.
And more. (ICMYI, do also check out our long read from earlier this week putting a peace plan broached by Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto at the Shangri-La Dialogue in perspective amid several ongoing realities including the country’s upcoming elections. And my take for The Diplomat on the broader question of AUKUS’ future role in Indo-Pacific regional architecture, beyond cyclical perception management of Southeast Asian states).
WonkCount: 2,191 words (about 9 minutes)
Asia Gets a New Quad, But How Far Can It Go? Assessing the US-Japan-Australia-Philippines Quadrilateral
The holding of the inaugural meeting of defense ministers of the United States, Australia, Japan and the Philippines last weekend highlighted both its potential significance and future opportunities and challenges that could lie ahead within the broader network of Indo-Pacific regional alignments.
What’s Behind It
The four defense ministers held the first-ever meeting of its kind between them, as officials had been privately hinting. Per a brief press release by Japan’s defense ministry, the four countries met for around 35 minutes and discussed issues of common interest and opportunities to expand cooperation.
The meeting came amid a recent surge in activity by the four countries with respect to Indo-Pacific security networking. Of the four, the biggest driver behind this surge has been the Philippines, with the administration of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. firmly placing Manila back as a node of regional security cooperation after his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte had disrupted earlier momentum that built up under President Benigno Aquino III. The U.S.-Philippine alliance has provided a platform on which this has been built, in line with the Biden administration’s emphasis on operationalizing security networking with allies and partners — for instance, officials note that it was no coincidence that the joint statement inked during Marcos’ White House visit earlier this year directly mentioned, next to a reference to the Quad, advancing “trilateral modes of cooperation” between both the United States, Australia and the Philippines as well as the United States, Japan and the Philippines. This quadrilateral meeting also came just as the United States, Japan and the Philippines were conducting a first-ever coast guard exercise (see image below).
Why It Matters
In addition to this being a notable first for Indo-Pacific security, it is also a minilateral arrangement that has a key Southeast Asian state embedded within it. As I have observed previously, the rise of minilaterals like the Quad and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral security agreement has tended to be framed as a automatic loss for ASEAN centrality, even though Southeast Asia as a region is no stranger to minilateralism, and there are opportunities for more of an “and conversation” rather than an “or conversation.” The Philippines does stand out within the region given its status as a U.S. treaty ally and has not formally joined the Quad or AUKUS, but its direct engagement in trilateral and quadrilateral configurations of security networking suggests that this is one way individual Southeast Asian states can actively participate in a fluid conversation around regional institutional architecture if they decide to do so.
This configuration of cooperation has also been harder to achieve historically than may be expected, which adds to its significance. While the logic of cooperation between the four countries may seem obvious at face value – in addition to being democracies, Australia, Japan and the Philippines are all treaty allies of the United States – collaboration has concretized only over the past few decades and has not been without its share of challenges. U.S.-Australia-Japan cooperation itself began at the senior official level in 2002 and was then elevated, with defense ministers meeting regularly since. With respect to collaboration with the Philippines, apart from a level of participation in joint drills and engagements like the Balikatan exercises, Australia only recently joined the United States as the two countries to have a visiting forces agreement with the Philippines when Manila inked the pact in 2007 and then ratified it in 2012, with Japan beginning discussions about a similar arrangement in 2015. Nor has the trajectory of collaboration been linear – in particular, during the early tenure of Duterte, several bits of the U.S.-Philippine alliance were in peril, even though this adjusted following events such as the 2017 siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi, and Japan continued to nurture close ties with Manila.
Where It’s Headed
With the meeting now having taken place, the focus will shift to what the future prospects are for alignment between the four countries collectively. The headline-grabbing items to watch include those like patrols in the South China Sea, particularly given that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness shows no signs of easing anytime soon. Yet officials also say privately that areas of promise also extend to other parts of the defense realm and include greater integration of exercises, such as more involvement by individual countries in drills like the Balikatan exercises or Talisman Sabre.
Beyond this, though the focus may be on efforts undertaken by the four countries as a grouping, one should also carefully watch the trilateral and bilateral configurations within that as well. Momentum in the U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral is building, as evidenced by the first-ever joint coast guard exercise we just witnessed, and Washington and Manila have quite clearly indicated that with the burst of engagement leading up to Marcos’ White House visit, there will be a clear emphasis on translating some commitments into reality. Beyond that, the Philippines will also serve as a focus within Southeast Asia security-wise for both Japan and Australia as they both navigate through important years in their ties with the region, with Tokyo’s ongoing efforts to upgrade ties with ASEAN during the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan friendship this year, and Canberra commemorating five decades of dialogue partnership with ASEAN in 2024 and a special summit planned.
An emphasis on future opportunities should also be balanced with an appreciation for strategic realities and potential challenges. Without institutionalization, engagements like this quadrilateral risk being subject to evolving political dynamics that can complicate the forming of habits of cooperation. Though the Marcos administration in the Philippines has been an accelerant in this process to date, it is also true that we are not even a year into his single six-year term, and attempts by Manila to calibrate its ties with China, or even adjust to future waves of maritime assertiveness by Beijing, may affect its comfort level with activities. More generally, though the four countries are democracies, there are two sides to that coin: while that means they share common values, it also means that they have occasional changes in administrations or shifts in political tides where even minor changes in outlooks can affect the momentum for collaboration, especially in new mechanisms.
For those looking for a quick snapshot of key country announcements at the Shangri-La Dialogue, we’ve generated an extended table of select datapoints from countries based on all the plenary and special sessions in a section below. These sorts of visualizations would usually be for paid subscribers, but we’ve added it to the free section of the newsletter due to the broad interest. If you have comments on our characterizations of these speeches and datapoints, please feel free to get in touch as always!
Mapping Development Financing; South Korea’s Regional Outreach; Hedging in Drug Trafficking Routes
“While China is the region’s leading development partner, it faces significant competition,” notes a commentary accompanying the release of the Lowy Institute’s new Southeast Asia Aid Map. Though Beijing is found to have accounted for almost 20 percent of all regional development spending, nearly 40 percent of all infrastructure as well as the majority of spending in the energy domain, overall sectoral reach is uneven among major powers, with Japan providing slightly more financing in the transport sector, and South Korea on par with Beijing in the communications sector. China also plays a minimal role in social infrastructure relative to economic infrastructure that is evident in areas like water and sanitation (link).
“The visits by three Korean ministers to Malaysia in May have produced significant outcomes in national security, food security and defence security,” notes a new piece in the New Straits Times by South Korea’s ambassador to the country. The article notes that Malaysia was the first country that Seoul’s foreign minister visited since the articulation of the Korea ASEAN Solidarity Initiative last year by the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol, and that this was followed by the visits of the ministers of agriculture and defense (with the latter tied to the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition). It argues that cooperation is slowly taking shape in areas from fighter jets to halal beef (link).
“There is no sign of a letup in the supply…from Shan State Myanmar, and [there’s] the emergence of new trafficking routes,” notes a new UN study on the methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia. The study notes that while trends such as the role of the Golden Triangle as a hub for drug production remain, there are also signs of “some diversification of production and hedging” by organized crime in terms of methods of operation and transit routes, leading to developments such as Cambodia’s role as a transit and production point, the usage of routes through central Myanmar and the Andaman Sea as well as the greater integration of South Asia into the Southeast Asian market (link).
Singapore’s New Submarine Cable Landings Target; Vietnam’s Coming TikTok Decision; What Another Signature BRI Project Delay Could Mean
From Singapore’s new target to boost its role as a global submarine cable leader to the Vietnamese government’s hints at how a coming verdict on TikTok might play out, the new dashboard we have added to our WonkPulse section below analyzes relevant industry developments by sector along with their implications.