With President Donald Trump part-way into his protracted tour of Asia, much of the focus has been on the North Korea threat, his personal relations with Prime Minister Abe of Japan and President Moon of South Korea, and his interaction with President Xi Jinping, China’s political strongman who emerged even more powerful from the recent Communist Party Congress.
Important as these bilateral meetings are, however, what the President says later today in his major policy speech in Da Nang, Vietnam, may be even more important for the future of the region.
President Trump is expected to build on a recent address in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out the Administration’s vision for a 'free and open Indo Pacific'.
Both the geographic 'Indo Pacific' and the ideational 'free and open' parts of this construct are important. Traditionally, US governments have favoured the narrower 'Asia Pacific' label, but the Trump Administration’s regional concept incorporates geography and democratic values and draws India into the heart of its regional strategy. It’s no coincidence that this week Indian warships are exercising with Japanese and US vessels — including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan — in the Sea of Japan. That’s a long way from the Indian Ocean and is sure to have caught Beijing’s attention.
Tillerson’s speech made clear that the US looks to India to play a greater role in maintaining stability and security — and, in thinly disguised terms, to help balance China. He called for closer cooperation among the region’s maritime democracies — the US, Japan, India and Australia — in support of peace, security and a 'free and open' region, including freedom of navigation.
The Administration’s regional strategy is far from perfect. The absence of a credible trade policy, following Trump’s ill-judged withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, is a glaring defect. But reports that the Quadrilateral Dialogue (henceforth 'Quad') between the region’s leading maritime democracies is being reconstituted suggest there is more to the 'free and open Indo Pacific' than just rhetoric.
The Quad’s origins can be traced back to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which decimated swathes of South and Southeast Asia. In a massive display of military capability and democratic soft power, Washington marshaled a flotilla of US, Japanese, Indian and Australian vessels to bring prompt humanitarian relief, in the process highlighting not only the UN’s (and China’s) limitations but the potential for maritime cooperation between the four oceangoing democratic powers.
Collaboration among them gathered pace in 2007. Early that year Shinzo Abe - then serving his first, unsuccessful stint as prime minister - proposed an informal four-way strategic dialogue, with support from then US Vice-President Dick Cheney, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Australia’s John Howard. In March 2007 Howard and Abe signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation which provided the framework for the subsequent blossoming of bilateral strategic relations and a template for a similar arrangement between Japan and India signed later that year. In September 2007 the four countries participated in major naval exercise, Exercise Malabar, in the Bay of Bengal.
After this promising start, the Quad foundered in 2008 when Australia’s newly elected Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, withdrew his country from the arrangement in the hope — ultimately vain — that this gesture would facilitate a breakthrough in Australia-China relations. Rudd — a bona fide China expert — should have known that China’s authoritarian leaders have no respect for weakness and are quick to pocket gratuitous concessions.
After his re-election, Abe — with a clear eye on the longer term and apparently undismayed by Australia’s wobbliness — returned to the fray late in 2012. In an influential article outlining his vision for 'Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond', Abe argued that peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the Pacific are inseparable from peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, and called for the four powers to work together.
One of the problems with quadrilateral structures — compared with trilateral arrangements such as the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue — is that it can be hard to maintain a sufficiently strong alignment of strategic perspectives and priorities to offset countervailing pressure from Beijing, particularly in light of each country’s substantial economic and other interests in China, not to mention inevitable changes of government and foreign policy emphasis in each capital.
Until recently, New Delhi was hesitant about resuming the Quad. Its professed reason was concern that Australia may once again let the side down, although this was probably more an excuse than a reason: India has to manage its own complicated relationship with China, including the Doklam border standoff, and was likely wary of adding an extra irritant to the mix by coming out in support of the Quad.
Now, those inhibitions have apparently been overcome and all four governments have expressed support for resuming the Quad — initially at senior officials’ level.
What should be on their agenda?
The Quad should be driven by function rather than form: the best way to consolidate support in all four capitals is to focus on producing results. To that end, the Quad can be foreign-ministry-led but needs to involve defence and other agencies where relevant, perhaps through establishing working groups on different topics.
Maritime cooperation is an obvious place to start. The four countries should develop a robust annual exercise program to build interoperability, capability and ultimately deterrence in the region. This should cover the gamut, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through to maritime surveillance and ultimately covering high-end missions such as theatre anti-submarine warfare — a growing priority as Chinese submarines enter the Indian Ocean in increasing numbers. India should reincorporate Australia into the Malabar exercise series (it was excluded after Canberra withdrew from the Quad). Together, the four nations should significantly increase their maritime presence in the Western Pacific, as well as the eastern approaches of the Indian Ocean.
The scope for cooperation is much broader, however. The four countries could compare notes on China’s Belt and Road initiative and coordinate their efforts to contribute to regional infrastructure and capacity, including in areas such as maritime surveillance, fisheries enforcement, counter-terrorism and cyber. Southeast Asia should be a focal point for much of this effort.
Finally, Australia will have to step up. Despite considerable potential, Australia’s bilateral strategic and economic ties with India are underdeveloped. And notwithstanding Canberra’s firm rhetoric about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, officials in Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi have lingering concerns about Australia’s resolve and are looking to see actions backing up words. It is sobering that Indian diplomats are talking of the Quad as a way to stiffen Australia’s spine.
Photo by Flickr user Border. garuku.