Photo from US Embassy Manila

The complexity and uncertainty of the current regional security situation in the Asia-Pacific requires a delicate balance of the dynamics between the present superpower and emerging great power – the United States and China – to promote a stable order in the region. Security arrangements are volatile in the sense that once the scale tips in favor of one of the two countries, tensions build up between the great powers. Economic and security cooperation initiatives are interpreted as nothing but attempts to counterbalance each other, and strategic competition overcrowds the arena as cooperation is reduced to being a matter of “who is siding with whom” – a version of the New Great Game moving to India and the Pacific Rim, so to speak.

The Quad and Regional Security

One of the major regional security cooperation initiatives in the spotlight is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Put forward in 2007 by Japan, it was viewed with potential to be an avenue for practical cooperation between the countries; however, it fizzled out after a year after Australia under Kevin Rudd pulled out. The major changes in the operational environment, such as the emergence of gray zone challenges, the presence of Daesh-inspired terrorists in the region, and most notably, China’s operationalization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and their Belt and Road initiative, made a revamp possible a decade after, during the 2017 ASEAN Summit in Manila. The Quad is viewed by many scholars as a counterbalance to China’s rising economic and military power in the region, and a warning against its increasing assertiveness, particularly in the maritime strategic space. Further, India’s participation in the dialogue and the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ over ‘Asia-Pacific’ raises the question of the Quad being the fulcrum of a containment or encirclement strategy against China. This strategic distrust stemming from Beijing remains to be an important issue, dating back to 2007 when China submitted diplomatic protests to all four capitals due to the conduct of Exercise Malabar in the Indian Ocean, where over 25 ships and 20,000 naval personnel from all four countries plus Singapore were involved.

In this sense, creating a multilateral approach overlapping with the US’ hub-and-spokes security architecture is both the Quad’s strength and weakness. Aside from the fact that these countries are banding together to check China’s vision and machinations for the region, it could also be said that the other three countries – the US excluded – are opening the door for middle powers to carry their share of the burden of security and maintaining a healthy power balance in the region, and to prevent a power vacuum vis-à-vis the US’ reduced engagements in the Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the Quad has no clear projection to be a collective regional security regime, and the possibility of it falling apart lies on the strength of bilateral relations between countries in the dialogue. Thus, to make the Quad ‘work’, the focus should be turned from its nature of counterbalancing China, towards a more pragmatic cooperation over shared interests.

The four nations have voiced their shared interests in maintaining a ‘free and open’ rules-based region; addressing terrorism, deepening cooperation, and ensuring maritime security, considering these countries’ dependence on maritime trade. All four also have advanced research and development capabilities, particularly in information technology, military hardware, and governance systems. Despite a traditional flavor, these interests also present numerous possibilities for more practical cooperative activities on security with the ASEAN countries, particularly those focused on non-traditional areas such as addressing transnational crime and piracy, enhancing disaster response and resiliency, improving connectivity, and maintaining the security of sea lines of communication.

Focusing on this, the Quad, if played well diplomatically to stick to operational and practical cooperation, could be considered a welcome development for the ASEAN, particularly for connectivity. Geographically, the whole of the Southeast Asian region is in the center of all four nations if connected by a single line; thus, it will greatly benefit from cooperation – both bilaterally with any of the four nations and with the Quad itself – especially on developing maritime situational awareness, enhancing logistical routes, and enriching the market for a more robust information and communications technology and physical infrastructure. This will also be in line with the 2025 Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, where sustainable infrastructure and digital innovation are key strategic areas.

Further, cooperation with the Quad may well help the navies and law enforcement agencies of Southeast Asia, particularly focusing on maritime domain awareness. Southeast Asia is home to major SLOCs pivotal to maritime trade, and with it comes the perpetual threat of piracy and other crimes at-sea. Further, the insular Southeast Asian countries of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, have been plagued by terrorist network activity in their shared maritime space. Australia, Japan, and the US have been important partners of Southeast Asian countries in counter-piracy, maritime security, and even disaster response; securing India’s commitment completes a common operating picture which will greatly help in securing maritime routes, cutting off terrorist networks in the maritime domain, and in creating a stable order at sea.

However, the challenge of China’s opposition to activities under the Quad remains. As Beijing did during the last combined exercise in 2007, it should be expected that China will launch diplomatic protests against military activities between the Quad and other nations, especially those which particularly exclude China from the picture. At the operational level, this may also spur heightened presence of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) and the Chinese maritime militia in the East and South China Seas, and expedited operationalization of the artificial islands in the South China Sea as military bases and logistics hubs in support of the Belt and Road initiative.

The Philippines and the Quad

If the Quad becomes operational in the region, it may very well open another strategic opportunity for the Philippines to address its need to modernize the armed forces. With the Quad’s advanced navies operating in the shared waters of the Indo-Pacific Oceans, the maritime domain will possibly be the arena of security cooperation between them and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Although the AFP has varying levels of bilateral engagement with all of four countries, engaging them multilaterally will give the AFP the right push towards development of joint and combined operations. Some of the important avenues for practical cooperation with these countries include developing new doctrines and capabilities focusing on combined operations, network-centric warfare, and asymmetric warfare, particularly to address the issues in the tri-border area; maritime situational awareness, and disaster response. Also, this increased and diversified cooperation with other armed forces will greatly help in enhancing interoperability with other partners, especially at this time when the US Navy is experiencing operational fatigue.

Lastly, the Quad could be a major opportunity for the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard to further update its capabilities in upholding its interests over its substantial maritime domain right in the middle of the four countries. Information-sharing with the four countries will be pivotal to augmenting efforts in securing the Philippines’ southern corridor from becoming Asia’s hotbed of Daesh-inspired terrorists. Considering this, more assets, platforms, and secure networks for the Philippine seaborne services should be developed to participate in combined exercises and other activities as a co-equal to members of the Quad. Also, as technology shapes the future of warfare, the Philippine government must continue to invest, and secure partners steeped in research and development to increase the absorptive capacity of the country’s security sector for technological advancements.

As a final note, what is most important is that the Philippines should be careful in engaging with the Quad, both bilaterally and multilaterally. As the saying goes, it is not good to put all eggs in one basket. The current strategic environment levels the playing field in the Asia-Pacific region for countries to compete and cooperate toward a delicate balance of power in the region; hence, this increases the possibilities for the Philippines to choose which partners to initiate, develop, and sustain engagements with. The Philippines currently enjoys good relations with China under the Duterte administration; the current environment is a strategic opportunity for the country to continue engaging China and other existing and alternative partners, some of which are involved in the Quad. After all, playing the country’s cards right in its bilateral and multilateral security engagements first and foremost depends on how we articulate our strategic goals (policy), and how we pursue them (strategy).

P/ENS DIANNE FAYE C DESPI (PROF) PN is a member of the Corps of Professors (COP) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and is currently stationed at the Office of the Dean, COP at the AFP General Headquarters, Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the official policies and position of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.