This strategic partnership of four democracies - India, Japan, Australia and the United States - could be a rare obstacle to Chinese assertiveness.

Operation Malabar 17. Credit: US NavyBy William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Something historic occurred at the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Manila in November. With little fanfare, a grouping of like-minded states – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – held a significant meeting. No joint statement was released, but the four countries released separate statements, emphasising the need for a string of goals: a free and open Indo-Pacific; a rules-based order; freedom of navigation and overflight; and respect for international law and maritime security.

The fact that the so-called ‘quadrilateral’, or Quad, has been revived is significant, given China’s rise and the slow but steady decline of American influence and power in the region. Indeed, it could represent the sternest challenge yet to China’s assertiveness.

Rationale for revival

The Quad’s creation story began in 2004, when the four countries worked together to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief to countries affected by the Boxing Day tsunami. It was formally established in 2007, but subsequently foundered in the wake of strong opposition from China.

Through the years, it has been Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, who has provided the intellectual ballast for the grouping. The idea for the Quad was first elucidated in his 2006 book, Toward a Beautiful Country. In a speech to the Indian parliament in 2007, Abe pointed out that a ‘broader Asia’ was emerging through the ‘dynamic coupling’ of the Pacific and Indian oceans. He called for a partnership between Japan and India – and also Australia and the US – to build an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity’.

Ten years on, China’s continued ascendance provides a clear rationale for the revival of the Quad. India has persistent concerns about Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean, is engaged in territorial disputes with China and is suspicious about growing Sino-Pakistani ties. Japan, meanwhile, is worried about China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and its incursions into and around the disputed Senkaku islands. For its part, Australia is concerned about the growth of Chinese influence in the country’s politics, the use of Chinese capital to buy up Australian companies and, in common with Japan, China’s build-up in the South China Sea.

There is also an intrinsic magnetism between the four democracies. India, Japan and the US have an institutionalised partnership for strategic dialogue. A similar, high-level dialogue exists between India, Australia and Japan. During their addresses at the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue the defence ministers of Japan and Australia outlined the major themes that underpin the Quad – a rules-based order, freedom of navigation, respect for international law and maritime security.

A further driver in the Quad’s revival is Australia’s growing willingness to express its concerns about China. A senior colonel in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army took the opportunity at the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue to ask Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull what Canberra’s ‘ideal regional security network’ would look like. Turnbull replied that that the ideal environment would be one in which the rule of law is respected, in which states do not use their coercive power to ‘intimidate or bully others’. One example, he added, was the militarisation of disputed territories. In November, Canberra went a step further, declaring in its foreign policy White Paper that the South China Sea is the ‘major fault line in the regional order’.

While there is a compelling rationale for the Quad, the grouping’s very existence may trigger an over-reaction from China. It is already on ‘Quad watch’, wary of any power configurations that it deems to be aimed at a ‘third parties’. Abe has described the Quad as a ‘security diamond of democracies’, while his foreign minister, Taro Kono, has said that the grouping will seek to ‘contain’ China, but such rhetoric will only stoke Chinese suspicions. Quite sagely, India has still not given Australia full access to the annual Malabar naval exercises involving the US, Japan and India.

Whether the Quad exists or not, there is little that can be done to constrain China’s growing power and influence in the region. China is already the top trading partner to many Asia-Pacific countries, and there is a compelling logic behind the global supply chains that connect the Chinese economy to the rest of Asia and beyond. China’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of transparency and financing problems, represents a positive and strategic effort to connect the country with other nations across the ancient Silk Route. Whereas America’s Asia-Pacific strategy under the Trump administration has not been elucidated enough, the BRI represents China’s clear vision of the future regional order.

Opportunities for leverage

Given China’s growing assertiveness and its refusal to accept the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment on the Philippines’ South China Sea dispute with China, the Quad is well-placed to stake out the moral high ground. At the 2014 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Abe drove home the point about the need for a ‘rule of law’ at sea in territorial disputes, restraint from the use of force and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Similarly, Ashton Carter, then-US defence secretary, delivered a compelling speech at the 2016 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, in which he called for a ‘principled security network’ of bilateral and multilateral relationships that would support core values such as autonomy, freedom of navigation of overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes. The Quad has already taken steps in the directions sketched out by Abe and Carter, and if it continues to do so, regional stability will be well served.

There is also an opportunity for Washington to take the lead in elucidating a geo-economic vision for the region, particularly in the wake of its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that China’s financing mechanisms for infrastructure amount to ‘predatory economics’ that could saddle many regional countries with ‘enormous levels of debt’. Instead of taking potshots at China’s BRI, however, a reasonable option would be for the US to work in tandem with Quad members to offer what Tillerson calls ‘alternative financial structures’. The US has signed a US$500 million agreement with Nepal to help improve the country’s electricity and transportation infrastructure. India and Japan are cooperating on a project to provide LNG to Sri Lanka, and aligning their connectivity projects in Africa as part of a joint project known as the Asia–Africa Growth Corridor.

Another wise approach would be to integrate ASEAN into the Quad’s future plans, particularly at a time when the ten-nation grouping has come up short on issues such as the South China Sea disputes and the Rohingya problem in Myanmar. Encouragingly, the US Congress tabled the National Defense Authorisation Act for FY2017, detailing the Pentagon’s plans for building up America’s defence posture, as well as the defence capabilities of allies and partners in the ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’. The document, which was introduced to the House in June 2017, became public law in December. The term Indo-Asia-Pacific has long been used by US Pacific Command, and rightly gives pride of place to ASEAN. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ used by the Quad does not.

Operationalising principles

In the end, the strength of the Quad lies in its distinct ability not to manage China’s rise via deterrence by means of punishment, but diplomacy by dissuasion. In China’s view, the Quad’s somewhat high-minded principles and values do not – as yet – represent a challenge to its own regional ambitions.

The Quad has its work cut out for it. It will need to work on two tangibles – providing more details as to Tillerson’s ‘alternative financing structures’ for regional growth, as well as working on expanding the Malabar exercises. The 2017 iteration saw complex naval exercises involving a sea phase in the Bay of Bengal and in-port interactions at Chennai. In due course, the exercises should rope in Australia and, possibly, like-minded navies from countries such as Singapore.

The Quad is unlikely to become an instrument of hard containment vis-à-vis China. In the elucidation of high principles and the regular staging of naval exercises, however, the Quad will show an assertive China that there is an alternate centre whose powers could be brought to bear when needed.

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