Apprehensions about China have brought back the idea of the ‘Quad’ of democratic nations – US, Japan, India, and Australia – about 10 years after it was mooted.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative conference in Beijing in May 2017 sent ominous signals about its approach to multilateral cooperation. The response to it was an almost immediate creation of a defensive psyche among stakeholders of Asia’s stability and security.
Apprehension is evident after China spelt out its vision at the recently concluded 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China. The Indo-Pacific, as it is now called, will probably feel the effects of this aggressive Chinese vision much earlier, as the nation charts its course towards its ambitions for 2050.
A spurt in aggression was more noticeable after China sensed that the US, under Donald Trump, was veering towards greater isolationism, and was diluting its strategic space in the Indo-Pacific. The Doklam standoff between India and China has also contributed to the concerns about China.
These apprehensions have brought back the idea of the ‘Quad’ of democratic nations, almost 10 years after it was first mooted. There is concern in the Indo-Pacific’s power centres about China’s emergence as a major global power. The US, Japan, India and Australia (the current poles of the Quad) have common interests in the Indo-Pacific, which see the aggression of China as an aberration in the dynamics that ensure peace in the region.
The strategic space of the Indo-Pacific region has overlapping power centres. ASEAN is the one institutional grouping, but its security footprint is minimal. The East Asian region has the US straddling with individual alliances with Japan and South Korea, but no trilateral arrangement with them. There is a Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD) between the US, Australia, and Japan since 2002. However, Australia and Japan have had different perceptions about security, especially since Australia does not perceive a direct threat from China. This has prevented the TSD becoming fully operationalised.
With the extension of the zone of concern from Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, India’s steadily increasing strategic importance and commonality of threat perception has made it a far more important player. Its strategic control over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the clash of interests with China’s Maritime Silk Route give it even greater significance.
The Quad, though only at a consultative stage between government officials, has re-emerged as an idea rather rapidly. The recent robust diplomatic consultations in Asia by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis have obviously corrected what appeared earlier as a flawed US perception about its willingness to yield strategic space to China. That had created much apprehension among US allies such as Japan and South Korea. China’s ability to wean away smaller ASEAN nations such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand (even Philippines to some extent) also caused some consternation in the ranks of the players looking at security of the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad, at its inception stage, is likely to be more of a consultative mechanism rather than an alliance. If anything, its idea removes the reticence from important stakeholders about doing anything which China would perceive as inimical to its interests. It will fill a strategic void where China thus far has had a free run.
Convergence of interests through diplomatic consultation, defence cooperation, and promotion of free trade and freedom of navigation is a way of ensuring the Quad is taken ahead successfully. Its forums can have larger consultations with regions of interest stretching from Africa to East Asia as a multi-layered alternative to the singular pole China has to offer.
A formal formulation of the grouping could take place soon, as leaving it only as an informal consultative mechanism is unlikely to meet the demands of the highly complex strategic environment in which China is likely to respond with its own counter-balancing strategy. China may also restructure some of its initiatives, which have received the label of ‘predatory economics’.
For India, it’s a win-win situation for its Act East policy, and enhancing proximity to the emerging zone of importance for the future, without having to be directly at loggerheads with China.
Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), a former GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation.