Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief: The Quad’s Path Forward in Southeast Asia
The following is an excerpt from an op-ed by Blake Berger, ASPI Associate Director, originally published in The Diplomat.
With Australia hosting the 27th iteration of the Malabar exercise in August 2023, Quad countries have once again demonstrated that it’s full steam ahead for the group’s maritime cooperation. Yet, it is important to recognize that the exercises technically fall outside of the Quad’s remit, because there is still internal reticence to explicitly incorporate a collective defense position, as well as pushback from regional partners. That said, within these political limits and regional dynamics, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States are still taking concrete steps to increase their efforts to enhance cooperation across a variety of issue areas, most importantly the provision of public goods in the Indo-Pacific.
In light of the political realities, non-traditional security, especially humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), should be bolstered and framed within the Quad’s public goods agenda as a mechanism to enhance cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With the depoliticized nature of HA/DR, these exercises and activities avoid the risk of running afoul of regional politics and mitigate concerns about the Quad and traditional security, while simultaneously providing tangible, concrete public goods deliverables.
There’s no shortage of calls for deepening Quad security cooperation, but political sensibilities within and outside of the four members mean explicit, traditional security is effectively tabled. This is doubly so for external partners, particularly ASEAN. These concerns should not be taken lightly, as trepidations about forming an implicitly anti-China coalition derailed the first iteration of the Quad in 2008. Even in its new rendition, Canberra, New Delhi, and Tokyo remain less comfortable with traditional security activities than many policymakers in Washington. The “rebranding” of the Quad in 2021, largely a response to these concerns, shifted the grouping away from previous traditional security rhetoric in favor of a focus on public goods.
With climate change and natural disasters posing a serious and urgent risk to human security in geostrategically crucial Southeast Asia, HA/DR support and interoperability should be elevated as a top-tier priority in the Quad’s public goods engagement with ASEAN. The world witnessed its hottest month on record in July 2023, and Southeast Asia is one of the regions most likely to be severely impacted by climate change. Indeed, an ISEAS survey highlighted that climate change is one of ASEAN’s most pressing challenges.
While ASEAN has taken great steps to strengthen its own disaster resiliency and mitigation capabilities, an internal ASEAN survey highlighted that a majority of respondents viewed the region’s disaster resilience as generally weak. In 2021 alone, Southeast Asia was home to more internal displacement than anywhere else in the world due to natural disasters, with over five million Filipinos and close to 800,000 Indonesians and Vietnamese, respectively, displaced.
In light of this pressing need, HA/DR activities represent an optimal means to expand the Quad’s non-traditional security and public goods agenda while bolstering ties, capacity, and interoperability with ASEAN states. The grouping’s September 2022 “Guidelines for Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the Indo-Pacific” underscore the weight the four states are putting behind this policy initiative and is precisely the right next step. Moreover, while the guidelines may be new, the four members’ engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN on HA/DR is certainly not.