A year on from the resurrection of the Quad, and the US move to an “Indo-Pacific” strategy, Laura Walters reports on the response from New Zealand and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Analysis: While the world has been focused on the great power rivalry between the United States and China, other countries in the region have continued their rise.

This is the first time in history the US, China, India, and Japan have all been major powers in the Asia-Pacific region.

In response to China’s rising power, the US has enlisted powerful regional allies to regroup a regional sub-set of four major players, known as the Quad. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as it is formally known, includes the US, India, Japan and Australia.

About a year ago, the US shifted from talking about the Asia-Pacific to the “Indo-Pacific”, notably bringing India into the fold. In the past 12 months there has been increased use of the term, a specific Indo-Pacific security strategy, and more focused talks and military exercises among the four nations.

Indeed, this week’s East Asia Summit (EAS) in Singapore is the event of choice for US Vice President Pence to unveil his country’s new Indo-Pacific strategy.

At last year’s APEC summit, Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva wrote of regional concerns regarding the change from Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific pivot to Donald Trump’s increasingly insular America.

The worries focused in part on the Quad’s potential resurrection, the use of “Indo-Pacific”, and whether this could lead to sidelining existing groups like ASEAN and APEC.

A year later, those concerns remain for some in the Asia-Pacific.

New Zealand isn’t the only regional player to stress the importance of multilateralism and relying on the existing architecture, rather than closing ranks and creating exclusive cliques.

The term Indo-Pacific seems to have lost some of its controversy, with more regional leaders adopting the term in certain situations.

Earlier in the year, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters responded to these developments, saying an Indo-Pacific configuration made sense for some countries, including Australia and India, thanks to their geography and history.

“However, the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ resonates with New Zealanders because of our own geography. This is consistent with – and indeed complementary to – our partners’ policies…

“The Government will continue to stand with ASEAN as a partner in the Asia Pacific. New Zealand supports ASEAN centrality,” Peters said in June.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also stressed the importance of multilateralism and cohesion in the lead-up to the EAS and APEC.

New Zealand isn’t the only regional player to stress the importance of multilateralism and relying on the existing architecture, rather than closing ranks and creating exclusive cliques.

Rise of the Quad

On Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence spent a day in Tokyo with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The pair spent time talking about security issues in the “Indo-Pacific”, making a point of naming the two countries as leaders in the area.

They also announced negotiations regarding a bilateral trade agreement would begin soon, and reaffirmed their stance on North Korean denuclearisation and sanctions.

In his statement, Abe said the pair were able to “elaborate and align” policies ahead of travelling to Singapore for EAS.

Both touted a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, but singled out Quad countries, talking about closer economic and military ties, including a recent trilateral military exercise involving India, Japan and the US.

Both also reiterated their position on China, saying they wanted constructive dialogue with the superpower.

Pence said a free and open Indo-Pacific must be built “nation by nation, through strong partnerships”.

“In all that we do, the United States seeks collaboration, not control,” he said.

“Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific. And I know this vision is shared by the United States and Japan.”

Regional reservations

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Asian foreign policy expert and former adviser to the vice president of Indonesia, said ASEAN wanted to remain the primary convener of regional meetings and offer more inclusive work on regional architecture.

Everybody wanted regional stability, safety of navigation, and assurance of predictability, whether it came from trade or other relationships, Anwar said.

“ASEAN doesn’t want to be put in a position of being torn by competing major powers, when they pursue their major power rivalry…clearly we do not want to be a theatre used for proxy conflict. Therefore, it is very important for ASEAN to rally together and continue its unity.”

This message has been echoed by other leaders in the lead up to the regional summits, including Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who in his opening remarks as host emphasised the importance of speaking with “one voice”.

Anwar, currently in New Zealand as the 2018 Sir Howard Kippenberger Visiting Professor in Strategic Studies, said peace, prosperity and stability could not be taken for granted.

This was where New Zealand and other “middle countries” could step up, she said.

Jacinda Ardern reiterated the importance New Zealand places on multilateralism and for a like EAS and APEC during an interview with Channel NewsAsia’s breakfast show in Singapore. Photo: Supplied.

“New Zealand has said it supports the ASEAN centrality, I hope New Zealand can mention that again…

“Whatever develops, it has to be based on ASEAN centrality, and built upon existing ASEAN mechanisms, and we see the EAS as the right forum in talking about Indo-Pacific affairs,” Anwar said.

Referring to the Quad, she said there was no urgency to create another body sitting outside ASEAN when there was already a perfectly good system supported and accepted by all the big players.

“I think it would be a good idea for NZ to raise its voice in continued support of these ASEAN mechanisms, precisely because it is truly inclusive. And it prevents this hierarchical regional structure.”

As Ardern puts it, her message has been “utterly consistent”, when it comes to the importance of open, inclusive multilateralism, and adherence to the rules-based order.

She has stayed firm on this position in the lead-up to EAS and APEC.

The Government won’t be worried about the Quad as long as work between the four powers remains open, inclusive and transparent.

But like other countries in the region, New Zealand will be watching how these relationships develop.

Ardern dining with Pence

Consistent with his incremental withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific and the existing regional set-up, Trump is not attending this year’s meetings, although he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Argentina later this month.

Trump is sending Pence in his place, who has requested to sit next to Ardern at Wednesday night’s EAS gala dinner in Singapore (overnight NZT).

This is better than an often heavily-scripted bilateral for Ardern. The pair will sit side by side for about 90 minutes, where she will have the opportunity to talk about regional issues.

“New Zealand brings a unique perspective, I’m sure he’ll probably already know some of the things we’d like to raise,” she said ahead of the meeting.

“But it’s a good opportunity to have that conversation, with someone at the most senior level, about New Zealand’s perspective on the region, on the Pacific, on the Asia-Pacific.”

Ardern said the New Zealand-US relationship was strong, but she would continue to push Pence on steel and aluminium tariffs imposed on New Zealand.

She will also have her first face-to-face meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday night (NZT), and later in the week she will meet with Japan President Shinzo Abe.

The same day, she will also have a bilateral meeting with China Premier Li Keqiang, where she will raise regional security issues and human rights concerns.

Other meetings on Ardern’s agenda are bilaterals with Myanmar’s Aung Sun Suu Kyi – currently in the firing line over the persecution of the Rohingya people – as well as Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Singapore’s Lee, and Malaysian Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

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