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The Quad’s uneasy place in Southeast Asia

ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)
ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)
Published 14 Apr 2021 12:00    0 Comments

Last month, the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – met for the first time. Promising to strive for a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”, the Quad countries launched a vaccine partnership and promised to deliver 1 billion Covid-19 vaccines to countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Among other things, the summit also discussed climate change, critical technologies, cyber space, counter-terrorism, maritime security and humanitarian assistance.

But the significance was also the message that the summit sent about the nature of the grouping. Against the backdrop of worry about China, this summit clearly sought to address one of the biggest concerns from Southeast Asian countries about the Quad concept itself: that it focuses too much on security rather than cooperation on more practical, immediate concerns. Given that the Quad’s main concern revolves around China, there were worries that the Quad would securitise the region by becoming an “Asian NATO”.

Southeast Asia’s response to the Quad has been muted. With China the largest trade partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the member countries are cautious, for fear of pushback from China, which remains wary of the new grouping. The Quad’s language about upholding the rule-based order and democratic values might also not sit well with some governments in the region, even if they pay lip service to it.

All four Quad countries have had deep footprints in Southeast Asia and good ties with many Southeast Asian countries.

By focusing on more practical cooperation, the Quad has gone some way to allow Southeast Asia a good entry point for cooperation. Increasingly, a “twin chessboard scenario” is being formed in the region, where great powers are competing at two levels – the strategic and resources level. For the latter, we can see a race to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in the likes of Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, Australia’s Partnership for Infrastructure (P4I) and the US-led Blue Dot Network.

Logically, having more options for Southeast Asia is no bad thing. Cooperation on technology, climate change and vaccines is much needed by Southeast Asian countries, and working with more than one partner can reduce over-reliance and encourage better quality investment.

Yet the attention of great powers can be a blessing or a curse. Southeast Asia has been careful in not choosing sides, insisting on ASEAN centrality in any regional cooperation. But mere refusal not to choose side might not be an option for long as great power competition intensifies, meaning that ASEAN’s strategic calculation must adapt. As it stands, ASEAN has published the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, giving the the Quad’s favoured lexicon an affirmative nod while offering its own iteration of the concept.

 The virtual ASEAN-India Summit in November 2020 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

Having said that, it is not always helpful to see the world in such binary terms. All four Quad countries have had deep footprints in Southeast Asia and good ties with many Southeast Asian countries. Even if Southeast Asian countries are not ready to openly endorse the Quad as a whole, it should not hinder strengthening cooperation with Quad countries. A good example is Malaysia’s approach in the South China Sea issues. While choosing quiet diplomacy by not regularly clashing with China, Malaysia has also taken less publicised steps to strengthen its maritime security with other partners, including under the Maritime Security Initiative with the US, as well as the submission of the continental shelf delineation to the UN in December 2019.

Many non-Quad countries are also increasingly adopting the “Indo-Pacific” concept in their strategic documents. This includes the United Kingdom, whose recent integrated strategic review signalled an Indo-Pacific “tilt”, as well as France, Germany and the Netherlands. These countries have expressed concerns over regional security in the Indo-Pacific while also holding a more nuanced view about working with China.

Southeast Asian countries will need more assurance to assuage a deep-seated fear of upsetting China, a country which by dint of geographical fact will forever be a big neighbour. How ASEAN countries perceive the “China threat” will also be a key factor in driving them closer or further away from the Quad. Southeast Asia will judge the Quad on its promise of more regular engagement and realisation of the initial commitments. The courting of so-called “Quad-plus” countries has already begun, and ASEAN members will need nimble diplomacy in response to navigate these new dynamics and emerge with a positive outcome.

The Quad (finally) delivers: Can it be sustained?

The virtual leaders’ summit of the Quad dialogue (White House/Flickr)
The virtual leaders’ summit of the Quad dialogue (White House/Flickr)
Published 12 Apr 2021 17:00    0 Comments

On 19 March, the leaders of four important democracies of the Indo-Pacific region – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – held (virtually) their first-ever “Quad Summit.” This meeting at the leaders’ level of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was significant on two counts.

It showed, for one, that the extent of frustration with Chinese behaviour has reached a pitch where all four countries have overcome past reservations to deliver a potent message of solidarity. Following border clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the Himalayas and export sanctions meted out as punishment by China to Australia, the new Biden administration’s determination to rally this grouping as a show of strength in the region was more easily realised than it otherwise might have been.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Quad was finally able to show the substantive utility of the grouping in its collaborative effort to provide a badly needed global public good: more vaccines. Provided that the deal hatched for the summit is realised, the world will now be up another billion Covid-19 vaccines, based on Indian production and financial, technical and logistical assistance from the other three players.

This development probably would not have happened without this Quad summit as an “action-forcing event”, but now provides a template for possible future projects. This promising start has boosted enthusiasm on both sides of the Pacific about the Quad’s finally coming together; Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the meeting as ushering in a “new dawn”.

It seems clear that the Quad is destined to continue as a dialogue for now, and will not take on a permanent secretariat beyond the ad hoc working groups that were established at the summit.

Before we invest in Quad challenge coins, however, it’s worth probing some of the seams of this grouping to make a realistic judgment about its future direction and sustainability. Many in the US have cheered the Quad’s powerful symbolism as a grouping of important democracies in the region. This attribute is seen as particularly important in the current moment, when the performance of democracies is being compared with perceived efficiencies or advantages of authoritarian governments, such as China, for example, in combatting Covid-19 or industrial policy. But so far, the topics discussed in the Quad grouping have little to do with governance, human rights, or strengthening democracy or the rules-based system, and few believe that like-mindedness on these issues was the decisive factor in pushing India forward at long last.

It is also not clear how, in forming an entente aimed at major-power contestation in the Indo-Pacific region, this grouping will strengthen international institutions and rules so much as go around them. It’s great, of course, that this collective spurred the production of more vaccines for the Indo-Pacific, but the international mechanism for fair vaccine distribution is the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility and should be based on science, not geopolitical competition. Rampant vaccine nationalism and major-power fixation on milking vaccine distribution for “soft power” purposes can only erode faith in international institutions and are indicators of the continued weakening of that system, which will redound negatively to the world’s democracies, in particular.

Baiyun International Airport, Guangzhou (Zhong Liting/Southern Metropolis Daily via Getty Images)

The behind-the-scenes main impetus for the Quad, of course, is shared security concerns about China, and security cooperation seems now to be durably established. India already has bilateral or trilateral arrangements with each of the Quad countries in the military sphere, which open the way for continued training, intelligence sharing and capacity enhancement. Last year’s inclusion of Australia in the Malabar naval exercise should now provide the Quad’s security leg with a solid, annual platform.

Looking ahead from this promising kick-off, there are many factors that will determine the Quad’s future sustainability and success. It seems clear that the Quad is destined to continue as a dialogue for now, and will not take on a permanent secretariat beyond the ad hoc working groups that were established at the summit. This is to the good, as it keeps expectations modest, allows for flexibility in taking in new partners and does not compete with important regional architectures such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

Two key factors, though, are likely to determine the Quad’s staying power above others. The first is the degree to which the Quad can forge a reputation for producing positive-sum outcomes. Without an alternate rationale for what this particular four-country grouping can do, its salient identity will be as a nakedly anti-China bloc. India in particular will be uncomfortable with this, as was demonstrated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s insistence that that group “stand for something and not just against something”, and by the non-mention of China in the summit’s joint statement.

But if the Quad’s raison d’être is provision of public goods and mobilising synergies on global issues, not only do member countries stand to benefit, but Chinese objections will fall flat. The initial “deliverable” of a pooled investment in Indian vaccine production capacity is right on target, but following this with further outcomes on climate change and technology cooperation will likely be more difficult. If, however, the Quad can push in the laudable direction of raising India’s global engagement while expanding its marketplace and support network, the Quad brand will remain resilient in the face of future potential pressures.

Which brings us to the final point: if China continues to show its teeth and bully others, the Quad is more likely to be sustained. If, on the other hand, China demonstrates restraint, it will be harder to keep it going.

The Quad gives a boost to India’s vaccine diplomacy

Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2021 13:00    0 Comments

The most notable takeaway from the first-ever “Quad” leaders meeting involving the US, India, Japan and Australia at the weekend was the agreement on expanding the global vaccine supply. The vaccination capacity of India will be increased to produce 1 billion doses by 2022, the leaders announced in a joint statement, as US and Japan plan to fund Indian production of Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which Australia will then distribute across Southeast Asia.

This will undoubtedly boost India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts where it has been providing vaccines to the developing countries, both in its neighbourhood as well as globally. So far 71 countries have received vaccines manufactured in India, fast garnering it the title of “the world’s pharmacy”. Largely, these are developing countries which did not have adequate access to the vaccine.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has won attention for its efforts to make vaccine availability more equitable. There has been criticism that India is working outside the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative in supplying vaccines – although India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rejected the “hypocrisy” of such claims, asking “Which one of these countries have said that while I vaccinate my own people, I will inoculate other people who need it as much as we do?”

The strategic significance of India’s vaccine diplomacy also cannot be overlooked. India is now competing with China in the vaccine diplomacy sphere, as both countries vie for strategic influence in the region. After the troops of both countries disengaged from their borders after a dangerous stand-off last year, their rivalry has now shifted to vaccine diplomacy.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, India has not missed a chance to seek political influence in its region through displays of strategic altruism. The focus on Southeast Asia as a priority region has important geostrategic implications. China has sent more than 60% of its global vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, Beijing has attempted to employ a soft-power strategy in this region to soften the stand of these countries on territorial disputes such as that over the South China Sea.

The Quad leaders meeting held on 12 March (Washington time) was historic, not just because it was the first of its kind, but also because it highlighted how the four countries can realistically cooperate in creating a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. Creating an equitable access to an effective vaccine distribution has now become a central goal of the Quad as outlined by the leaders’ joint statement entitled “The Spirit of the Quad”.

Expanding the global vaccine supply is an important chapter for the Quad because it is an early example of international cooperation in efforts to roll out vaccines to the low- and middle-income countries. Supporting India’s expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity has given the Quad a shot in the arm in its cooperation mechanisms in the region.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region. It is doing so as to not appear too antagonistic, which arguably was one of the reasons that eventually led to the demise of the first iteration of the Quad after early meetings between officials in 2007. The reconstituted Quad is now more in tune with the regional realities in that it is seeking to link its security objectives with prosperity and development objectives.

Yet the focus on vaccine collaboration is not purely to act as a counterbalance to China. Another notable element from the Quad leaders’ meeting was to highlight the willingness for the countries to cooperate in areas of climate change. This recognises that the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific involves a linkage of the security and development needs of the countries in the region and is not solely reliant on one dimension or the other. The Quad leaders’ meeting has promoted a framework that fosters multilevel cooperation.

It is also important to note the historic origins of the Quad as a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when the four countries came together to coordinate disaster relief. The Quad’s initial rationale for multilateral cooperation was essentially for delivering humanitarian assistance, which later evolved into more security-oriented cooperation. In that sense, by focusing on delivering vaccines in the region, the Quad is playing to its strength of cooperating to provide regional assistance.

There has been cautious optimism for the future of Quad since its rebirth in 2017, as it now looking at wide ranging areas of “practical cooperation” that is mutually beneficial to all the countries in the grouping – as well as the wider region.

A new “concert” to govern the Indo-Pacific

A monitor displays the leaders of the US, Japan, India and Australia during a virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting, 12 March in Tokyo (Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
A monitor displays the leaders of the US, Japan, India and Australia during a virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting, 12 March in Tokyo (Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 Mar 2021 16:00    0 Comments

The joint statement issued following the weekend meeting of the four “Quad” leaders was titled “The Spirit of the Quad”. This title could be read as either self-affirmation or self-praise. The Quad’s first summit of leaders was a somewhat informal affair, held virtually amid a global pandemic on 12 March (Washington time), with the promise that an “in-person” formal Quad leaders’ summit would be organised by the end of 2021.

However, the gathering was not necessarily a signal of a significant lift of the Indo-Pacific contest.

The joint statement twice used the words “inclusive” and “diverse”. The Indo-Pacific is characterised as “inclusive”, but the Quad itself is said to bring “diverse perspectives”.

I don’t know which country’s diplomats suggested this formulation of key words in the statement, but the expression is intriguing and worth examination. It reads:

We bring diverse perspectives and are united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific. We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.

The statement goes on to acknowledge an ambition to see “the world’s most dynamic region … be the free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific we all seek”.

It may be that the use of “diverse” actually exposes some differences or disagreements over issues within the Quad grouping.

After the meeting, the Quad leaders included the “inclusive” idea in a joint op-ed published in the Washington Post, suggesting an improvement or enrichment of the original “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP).

Officially, China has yet to embrace the “Indo-Pacific” concept, still preferring to advocate the Asia-Pacific. But China has not neglected a de facto strategy of Indo-Pacific engagement.

The “inclusive” theme has been stressed by leaders from the Quad before. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the “inclusive” concept at the IISSS Shangri-la Dialogue in June 2018, and India has pursued its adoption in many Asia-Pacific regional processes, with considerable success. While the joint statement also invoked the words “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a phrase frequently overemphasised by Japan under Shinzo Abe, “inclusive” may help make FOIP less confrontational, particularly with regard to China.

It was also notable that the Quad statement stressed the indispensable role played by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Indo-Pacific, with the four leaders declaring: “We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.”

The 2019 ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific was a collective response to the Quad’s “FOIP”. It was in fact a case of old wine in a new bottle. In discussing the “Indo-Pacific”, ASEAN did not abandon the concept of an “Asia Pacific”, where it has acted as a major driving force of economic opening and integration since the 1990s, but instead let its version of the Indo-Pacific run in parallel. It has been engaging Australia, India, Japan, the US and China simultaneously.

For the Quad leaders to emphasise ASEAN suggests an opportunity. ASEAN is actually an example of a successful and effective diplomatic concert – an effort to manage the challenge of diverse perspectives on common problems. ASEAN-centred dialogue processes have sought to create “a concert of Asia” or “a concert of Asia-Pacific” through the many associated initiatives, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN plus meetings, or the Asia-Europe Meeting. These existing frameworks, processes, institutions and forums are relevant and useful as a regional community – and indeed they form strategic assets in governing the contest in what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific.

So adopting the language of an “inclusive” region in statements such as that by the Quad leaders may help make a broader “concert of the Indo-Pacific” possible in the future.

What I would like to see is Indo-Pacific actors such as Australia and Japan, together with China, take the lead in organising an Indo-Pacific concert to manage a regional contest. China was included and well-integrated into the “Asia-Pacific”. So it should be in an Indo-Pacific concert.

Officially, China has yet to embrace the “Indo-Pacific” concept, still preferring to advocate the Asia-Pacific. But China has not neglected a de facto strategy of Indo-Pacific engagement. China is a signatory to the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal (from which India unfortunately withdrew during the negotiations). And at the APEC meeting 2020, China announced it would “favourably consider” joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also criss-crosses the region and beyond.

The 15th East Asia Summit, during the 37th ASEAN Summit, November 2020 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

So China is already an Indo-Pacific power and would have no problem embracing this concept if framed in an inclusive fashion. The Quad has so far sought to manage its view of a “China challenge” by convergence. Yet it should be recognised that the inclusion of China in the Indo-Pacific by various regional and trans-regional arrangements helps in the prevention of conflicts. To exclude China, or other important Indo-Pacific actors, might have serious political and economic consequences: “new Cold War”, “decoupling”, de-partnership, de-integration and even “destined wars”.

It is interesting to see the new Biden administration develop the idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class”. Such a US domestic priority can be best achieved by an Indo-Pacific concert of powers – in a fashion similar to Deng Xiaoping arguing China needs “a peaceful international environment” to focus on economic construction. China’s subsequent integration into the Asia-Pacific made for a longer peace in the post–Cold War. That need for peace now covers the Pacific and Indian Oceans, not only for China, but the US as well in an era of tremendous challenges, internationally and at home.

In terms of real “hard” and “soft” power, China will not overtake the US in the future. The prospect of China as the largest economy around 2030, if realised, does not imply China becoming the world’s number-one superpower. China’s ageing demographic issues – as one population scientist put it, a “big country with an empty nest” – will weaken its power status and challenge China’s economy, society and relations with the world. Meanwhile India and Indonesia will enjoy population advantages.

Consequentially, the continuation of “strategic competition” in the Indo-Pacific needs a fundamental solution, which lies in a concert of Indo-Pacific actors, powers and stakeholders.

Australia’s Pacific Step-up and the Quad

Understanding the growing overlap between the Step-up and the Quad is important (Holly L. Herline/US Navy)
Understanding the growing overlap between the Step-up and the Quad is important (Holly L. Herline/US Navy)
Published 19 Jan 2021 06:00    0 Comments

The growing synergy among the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue powers of Australia, Japan, the United States and India has provided a crucial impetus to the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Bilateral ties between these four states have also seen positive growth, largely a result of “like-minded” visions and policies dedicated to the creation of a free, rules-based and open maritime domain. One particular focus that Australia brings to the grouping includes its Pacific Step-up – a neighbourhood engagement policy described as among the “highest foreign policy priorities”, yet one rarely assessed in the “Quad” context.

Understanding the growing overlap between the Step-up and the Quad is important. China’s rising belligerence has led to stronger collaboration among Quad nations in an attempt to limit Beijing’s revisionist tendencies and “debt-trap” Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) policies. BRI’s lending poses risks especially for developing and fragile economies of the Pacific; the very scale of China’s loans, coupled with a lack of institutional mechanisms that promote debt sustainability, have given rise to claims of “debt-trap” diplomacy. Such fears were accentuated when Beijing took control of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka on a 99-year lease in 2017. In order to avoid a repetition of such a scenario, it is important that Quad states build momentum within and between their own Indo-Pacific connectivity initiatives in an attempt to provide alternatives to the BRI, especially for smaller economies in need of infrastructural aid.

Linking with the Step-up can provide a greater avenue for further projects, especially vis-à-vis third-country cooperation.

At the AUSMIN meeting in July last year, Australia and the US pledged to enhance joint efforts to aid economically the Pacific island nations. The US promised $118 million in assistance to Australia’s Covid-19 recovery fund for the region while the US and Australia have committed to contributing to the Pacific Islands Forum and its mechanisms. With the Pacific Islands Forum, Australia plans to invest $500 million over the next five years under the Step-up to promote renewable energy goals, and cooperation here with US’ Asia Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy (AsiaEdge) focused on bolstering secure, sustainable and affordable energy markets all across the Indo-Pacific and especially Blue Economy must be encouraged.

Further, the two countries plan to invest in high-quality infrastructure investment for Pacific Island states – already the US has established a Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network (ITAN), which could become a joint venture with the Step-up under the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) to promote strategic interests of both allies.

The “Quad” ministerial meeting in Tokyo in October. From left, India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi, Australia’s Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (State Department/Flickr)

Australia remains the largest development assistance partner of the Pacific region and has committed $1.44 billion for the same for 2020–21. This makes Australia a logical point of engagement and collaboration for Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI), which builds on former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Vision.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been hailed as a “continuity” leader and Japan hosted the second Quad ministerial in Tokyo shortly after he took charge, highlighting continued importance to the Indo-Pacific by Tokyo. Under the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership (JAEPA), Japan’s investments in Australia have grown and linking with the Step-up can provide a greater avenue for further projects, especially vis-à-vis third-country cooperation. For instance, the Palau cable has already seen US-Japan-Australia investments which has also furthered in principle the objectives of the Blue Dot Network founded by the three nations without formally being part of the same. A further tie in is available via the formation of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) by Australia and Japan along with India.

India-Australia ties – often cited as the “weakest” link in the Quad process – have seen structured growth in 2020. The integration of the Step-up with India’s Indo-Pacific initiatives – such as Project Mausam, Project Sagarmala, Security and Growth for All (SAGAR), all established under India’s own action-oriented “Act East Policy” (AEP) – are crucial. More importantly, the Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region, previously known as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), also has scope for expansion to link Pacific island nations with this connectivity project.

India’s recent inclusion as an observer in the Indian Oceans Commission (IOC) demonstrates India’s expertise and interest with oceanic challenges and this engagement can usefully extend to the South Pacific. India can also potentially find a partner in France under the newly established India-Australia-France trilateral which highlights Paris’s growing Indo-Pacific focus while emphasising focus of the three nations on the “Marine Global Commons”. The still nascent Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), described as “open global initiative” focused on “existing regional cooperation”, can also complement Japan’s FOIP, the US Indo-Pacific strategy and Australia’s Step-up to promote maritime governance and “like-mindedness”.

In the post-Covid world, with a need to rebuild supply chains and maintain a rules-based international order, it is important that bilateral ties between the Quad states continue to grow. The strengthening of Quad in policy coordination – before focusing on potential institutionalisation or militarisation of the same – must take place via synergy between domestic Indo-Pacific initiatives of partner countries. This can translate into a broader vision, encompassing national interests of all powers in an attempt to create a cohesive, active and future-oriented multilateral structure.

A Quad of consequence: Balancing values and strategy

Heats during the 2019 World Rowing Junior Championships in Tokyo in preparation for the now-delayed 2020 Olympic Games (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
Heats during the 2019 World Rowing Junior Championships in Tokyo in preparation for the now-delayed 2020 Olympic Games (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
Published 5 Oct 2020 13:00    0 Comments

What makes the Quad foreign ministers conversation this week in Tokyo consequential? Probably the strategic setting – a pandemic, global economic contraction and an accelerated Sino-US strategic competition on one hand, and rising regional tensions from the Himalayas to the South China Sea and Hong Kong to Taiwan on the other. An added layer is an American president infected with Covid-19 in Washington during an election season while a post-Abe leadership takes the reins in Tokyo.

Whether Covid-19 amounts to a re-ordering moment in the international system or merely hastens the prevailing trends of international history is intensely debated. But one thing is certain: a China reset is unfolding in the major Indo-Pacific capitals.

Power asymmetry with neighbours and Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations fuels its vision of a Chinese century, as opposed to an Asian century. Beijing’s aggressive strategic posturing during a pandemic illustrates the Chinese Communist Party’s relentless push to advance a Sino-centric order. It has further sharpened the clash over political values, rules, norms and principles.

While there is no appetite in India for entering any formal alliance system, there is certainly deeper strategic coordination.

Beijing sees the Quad through the lens of a military alliance, as the core of an Indo-Pacific strategy directed towards containing China. The Quad is seen as Tokyo’s project to marginalise and offset Beijing’s regional primacy. The Quad certainly touches a nerve in Beijing.

India is considered the weakest link. However, the Galwan face off this year has marked a fundamental reassessment in India’s China policy. Strategically, India has pushed closer to the US, and there is growing momentum to strengthen the Quad. India was for a long time unenthusiastic about conflating the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy and the Quad. But evolving geopolitical complexity has put the Quad at the centre of New Delhi’s strategy. No less a figure than the Chief of Defence Staff has described the Quad as a “good arrangement” to ensure free and open maritime passageways that are not dominated by any one power.

While there is no appetite in India for entering any formal alliance system, there is certainly deeper strategic coordination and issue-based alignments with like-minded democracies. India sees itself as a stabilising power, not a bystander or abstainer.

Meanwhile, Australia has led the way in calling out China’s behaviour that undermines the liberal rules-based order. Whether it is Australia’s lobbying for an independent probe into the origin of Covid-19 or rejecting China’s claim to historical rights in South China Sea, Canberra has demonstrated effective middle power leadership.

The fluid regional order has pushed Tokyo to step up as a rules-promoter. But Japan cannot defend such norms alone. In response, it has woven a multi-layered web of partnerships, with Japan-US alliance at its centre, and the Quad constitutes one of the key threads in Japan’s Indo-Pacific vision.

The first meeting of Quad foreign ministers, New York, September 2019 (US Department of State/Flickr)

The Quad should not be underestimated as mere talk shop. Top agenda items for the forthcoming meeting include reducing the risk from China by rebalancing supply chains, the strategic vulnerabilities related to 5G networks, as well as the push to advance quality infrastructure investment in the region and uphold the rules-based maritime order.

The opportunity is to map the intricate structure of regional supply chains, identify potential vulnerabilities and deficits in knowledge, as well as to evaluate policy options to coordinate in restructuring supply chains across key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, semiconductors, automotive, strategic minerals and chemicals.

Already the technology race has led several stakeholders ban high-risk 5G vendors such as Huawei from selling equipment due to national security concerns. Given secured networks are vital, the Quad powers are stepping up to coordinate on trusted 5G vendors and set global standards. Quad members are already participants in the UK-led “D-10” coalition on 5G.

Infrastructure financing is also a vital geo-economic instrument of statecraft. Japan has driven global conversations – from G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment and in developing infrastructure partnerships with the US, Australia, European Union and India. Tokyo has joined forces with Washington and Canberra in the Blue Dot Network, and launched EU–Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure, and developed third country projects with India in the Bay of Bengal.

Emerging economies have multiple financing options today, including under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Any financing should be underpinned by consultation anchored by international best practice and global standards – the collective discussion of the Quad can help set such standards.

Warships from the US, India, Japan and the Philippines transit the South China Sea in May 2019 (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)

Another key area of concern is securing the rules-based maritime order, particularly in the South China Sea. Safeguarding good order at sea as well as the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea are shared responsibilities which shape the Quad and “Quad Plus” framework. The Quad is built around the concept of ASEAN centrality in the region, and ASEAN mechanisms are important means to realise a stable maritime order. With this is mind, the growing number of logistics agreements, intelligence sharing arrangements and efforts to strengthen interoperability between the navies involved will allow greater latitude to manage the security dynamics.  

The Quad was resurrected in 2017 following a decade long hiatus. It is true that there are divergences of view among the participants regarding the nature of the China challenge that each Quad member faces, but a balance of interest is motivating issue-based alignments in the Indo-Pacific.

Abe Shinzo has left office but his strategic vision of Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond forms one of the key pillars for stability in the post-Covid order. As the Quad gathers in Tokyo, the participants should agree on a joint statement that both manages expectations yet imparts a clear strategic vision and an action plan on key issues that will shape the future of the liberal order. As Quad gains strategic heft, a positive and productive memo will be crucial in garnering regional support.

Who really killed the Quad 1.0?

Published 2 Jun 2020 10:00    0 Comments

The tale has become accepted diplomatic folklore. In the telling, it was Australia, back in 2008 in the early days of the Rudd government, that decided to scuttle the then-nascent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the four-way talks also involving Japan, the United States and India. To compound the indignity, Stephen Smith, the new foreign minister, had the poor grace to announce Australia’s withdrawal standing alongside his counterpart from China, given Beijing’s well-broadcast opposition to the “Quad” idea.

Or so the story goes.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison alluded to this history in his Lowy Lecture in October last year, about having to work “patiently to restore trust and confidence following the Rudd government’s policy to disconnect from the Quad”. Former PM John Howard expressed a similar regret in his memoir, about the “mistake” by the Rudd government ruling out participation by India, as he put it. Countless strategic observers have repeated a version across the years, the blame almost always sheeted to Australia.

But is that the whole story? With a Quad 2.0 recently launched – now as a ministerial-level meeting – and Morrison about to hold a virtual summit with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the common wisdom about why it all fell apart the first time around is worth revisiting.

Kevin Rudd certainly thinks so. He sees a “nonsense” perpetuated by “right-wing Quad zealots” that he opposed the concept as a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat keen to cosy up to China. Rudd sought to correct the record with what he called “inconvenient truths” in a detailed article for Nikkei Asian Review last year, where he mostly blamed the ambiguity of the original proposal and divergent interests of those involved.

Another key player from the time points the finger in an entirely different direction – away from Australia.

“The US said it wanted to go slow,” says seasoned Indian diplomat Shyam Saran. I had an email exchange this week with Saran about the first iteration of the Quad to put his recollections on the record, having heard him speak previously in private about the events as they unfolded.

Neither New Delhi, Tokyo, Washington nor Canberra wanted to surrender a right of veto to Beijing, yet each also had differing views about what, precisely, a Quad might entail.

Saran was the head of India’s foreign service until 2006, staying on in the months afterward to serve as the personal envoy for then–prime minister Manmohan Singh. And it was ahead of Singh’s December 2006 visit to Japan that the word came through from Washington to ask Tokyo to put the Quad on the backburner.

To understand why, it’s useful to rewind to the genesis of the Quad idea. As Saran tells it, the proposal stemmed from the cooperation shown in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, where during three weeks of frantic phone calls between counterparts, Australia, the US, Japan and India were able to coordinate their efforts in the emergency response. From crisis, an opportunity, as it were. An effort was made in the years following to institutionalise the consultative forum, although not, from India’s perspective at least, as a de facto military alliance.

China, nevertheless, came to see it otherwise, darkly muttering about containment. Not only Beijing, but Moscow, too. This left a conundrum. Neither New Delhi, Tokyo, Washington nor Canberra wanted to surrender a right of veto to Beijing, yet each also had differing views about what, precisely, a Quad might entail.

Shyam Saran, right, in January 2007 as the Indian Prime Minister’s special envoy, greeted by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images)

Singh chose not raise the US request with Abe during his visit to Japan. “At the official level, the US was advised that its message on the Quad was best conveyed directly to its ally,” says Saran. The two leaders did issue a joint statement which included reference to the “usefulness” of talks for Japan and India with other like-minded countries in the region, without express reference to the Quad. Saran visited Canberra in March 2007, where despite the idea breaking into the news cycle, Australian officials told him they were also surprised the US had gone cool on the idea.

This was the moment the George W. Bush administration had other regional ambitions, particularly to keep China engaged in the so-called “six party talks” about North Korea’s nuclear program. The US also was attempting on gather support in the UN Security Council to condemn Iran’s nuclear weapons – goals Saran has referred to previously in emphasising that Australia was not the first to demur about the Quad. Putting China offside would not have helped these US broader objectives at the time.

The talks had sputtering momentum. Representatives from the four nations did gather for a meeting in May that year, with little fanfare, and only assembling bureaucrats from each side, signalling of lack of firm agreement about the status attached to the forum. By September 2007 Abe was gone from his first stint as prime minister in Japan, quitting two months before Rudd won in a landslide in Australia.

Smith was surprisingly catapulted into the foreign affairs job, having previously been in the education portfolio. Contrary to the popular telling, Smith had already set out Australia’s position on the Quad question at a press conference in Tokyo in the days before meeting his Chinese counterpart back in Canberra – and little attention was given to the fact he was also largely repeating what the previous government had also said in July 2007, that the quadrilateral talks was “not something that we are pursuing”.

Instead, the broader context had also soured. The Rudd government had separately flagged it would reverse a decision to sell Australian uranium to India, angering New Delhi, while Rudd decided to personally visit Beijing ahead of Tokyo, which Japanese officials bitterly resented, on top of Australia’s campaign against Southern Ocean whaling.

Rudd’s political opponents at home saw a chance to capitalise on the impression of a government on training wheels, so took every opportunity, as I remember as a foreign affairs reporter at the time, to reinforce the perception Australia had also snubbed New Delhi and Tokyo in “unilateral abandonment” of the Quad. The reticence of the US was lost amid the din of complaints. Neither India or Japan was inclined to rescue the Rudd government from calumny.

The rest, as they say, is history.