Two international organizations in the Asia-Pacific region have been in the news lately, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, more commonly known as ‘The Quad’) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). QSD represents the growing defense ties of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. Powers that could be threatened by a more assertive and potentially revisionist China. The Quad is effectively a nascent counter-China alliance in all but name. RCEP, meanwhile, is the international trade bloc that includes China, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei, Laos, Singapore, and, as of June 25th, Japan. The purpose of RCEP is to standardize both legal and logistical trade practices between partner countries, effectively serving as a preliminary free trade deal for certain sectors of the economy (some sectors, such as agriculture, are exempt).
At first glance, this seems to introduce a contradiction in geopolitical aims. While the United States is on course for a ‘decoupling’ from some of its close economic links with China, two other Quad members, Australia and Japan, are part of RCEP, increasing their level of economic integration with what is now Asia’s largest economy. This also means that the two most potent states in the region, Japan and China, are increasing their financial ties with each other despite generations of rivalry. Additionally, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the United States withdrew from in 2017, was a pan-Asian deal of similar purpose designed to exclude China. Many TPP nations are also part of RCEP, a trade agreement that excludes the United States. Preliminary evidence may also imply that regional trade agreements in Asia, now the world’s most economically productive region, yield bigger overall gains than bilateral trade deals with the U.S. Both trade organizations also assist large international firms with multiple supply chain linkages to reduce logistical difficulties in a cumulative fashion when a country is part of both.
Do these events leave The Quad irrelevant or compromised? Or, conversely, does the existence of The Quad have the potential to cause problems within RCEP? Outside of truly outlier events, it seems likely that the answer is ‘probably not.’ In fact, what the existence of countries which overlap in both organizations shows is that attempting to conceptualize the rise of China in the framework of a ‘New Cold War’ is an inaccurate and overly ideological proposition that strips smaller countries in Asia of their agency.
It was in fact the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that initiated RCEP, and not Beijing. Bringing together an amalgamation of different separate existing trade deals in the region, RCEP was designed by ASEAN to be a more standardized institution for their collective benefit. Southeast Asian nations have continued to play an extremely dynamic role in the spread of the organization even after China joined and became the largest economy under its umbrella. Furthermore, RCEP will likely offset regional losses in the U.S.-China trade war for ASEAN countries but not necessarily for China itself.
At the present moment, economic relations seem to be prioritized in the Asia-Pacific to a greater level than military-security concerns. But it is worth noting that even if China gets to be first-among-equals, regional integration may in fact make it easier, rather than harder, for smaller nations to deal with diplomatic disputes arising from Chinese policy. These smaller nations are now more important to the levels of prosperity Beijing can now extract from trade, and the ability of the Southeast Asian nations to work in concert is at least theoretically increased. As of the present, RCEP is a fairly basic trade framework that has immense but not yet fully realized potential. Much of that potential, however, will still be in service of the interest of countries that do not have the closest of relations with Beijing on non-economic issues. Increased economic linkages will most likely not change the status of sovereignty or territorial disputes in the region.
Considering these ASEAN-led conditions, the recent addition of Japan to the agreement does not invalidate The Quad nor RCEP. In fact, it opens up a particularly unique opportunity for Japan and Australia, who are in both organizations, to increase their diplomatic connections with each other and India plus the United States as well as with Beijing. Having security concerns need not get in the way of peacetime commerce. At the same time, increased trade deals do not mean one is not willing to stand up for national interest in an international dispute. Not only is being in both institutions not necessarily contradictory, but they can also even be strategically complimentary in the right circumstances. Additionally, Japan being the clear second weightiest member of RCEP further adds to the case that the organization will not simply be a disproportionate benefit to China. Wise Japanese diplomacy could be an advocate for smaller nations as counter-balancing forces in the right circumstances.
Multifaceted diplomacy avoids the fate of becoming trapped in a Manichean binary system where rivalry with some powers is always inevitable. By navigating these waters skillfully, the smaller nations of the East Asia-Pacific region may in fact increase their international prominence. Meanwhile, The Quad need not fear for its existence as, if anything, having members inside RCEP could increase its relevance in international disputes and open more channels with Beijing.
Dr. Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.