Even as news of a fresh bout of escalation with the Chinese at the Line of Actual Control filters in, the Ministry of External Affairs is getting ready to sign an important military agreement with Japan. That seems to square the circle in terms of the future of Quad, a grouping that includes India, Australia, Japan and the US. In addition, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be meeting Quad counterparts soon. That should be good news for those enthusiastic about finding ‘friends’ to counter an unwavering China and demanding a ‘sea-based’ counter to Beijing. The trouble is that this move comes at a time when the virtual founder of Quad, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is leaving the stage, and the US is in election mode. Australia is publicly up in arms against Beijing, but trade has never been better. Put simply, it’s all rather complicated.
Despite our efforts for a multinational alternative, it’s not going to take off for quite a while.
Shinzo Abe had a dream
First, the ‘military agreement’ being talked about between Japan and India is an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). Largely similar agreements have been signed with the US and Australia, to allow each access to selected bases and ports of the other. This is essentially about logistical support, but does not commit to any military action in support of the other. But in war, or warlike situations, logistics is everything. In short, instead of setting up a full-fledged base in another country — both politically and monetarily expensive — an ACSA provides the next best thing. The US has some hundred plus such agreements with various countries. India has a similar agreement with Russia, while Japan has signed these with Canada and the UK, among others. So this is not just about the Quad. It’s about Japan reaching out to the Indian Ocean and perhaps beyond. It clearly worries the Chinese, as a 2019 Global Times article shows. China has, after all, faced Japanese ambitions before.
Second, the Quad was powered by Prime Minister Abe, when he proposed a Democratic Security Diamond in 2012, virtually on the day he took office, in his second term, as a solution to prevent the South China Sea from becoming “Lake Beijing”. His own party, the Liberal Democratic Party’, however, opposed this ‘security mongering’ and it was hastily wrapped up, emerging in diplomatic terms years later. In fact, actual aggressive Chinese behaviour in terms of creation of artificial islands and aggressive patrolling emerged only in 2015, raising the classic ‘chicken and egg question’.
By then, the US had stepped into the fray, and its destroyers were soon sailing provocatively close to the newly created ‘Subi Island’. Abe, meanwhile, firmed up the ‘India leg’ of the Quad during PM Narendra Modi’s 2014 visit, when the fist full of agreements signed included one of ‘Exchange of Classified Military Information’. New Delhi took another five years to sign a similar agreement with the US, testifying to close bilateral ties. Hurricane visits to Australia followed, with Abe hailing the new ‘Japan-India-Australia’ trilateral. Within the country, he steadily increased prime ministerial powers, and had deepened influence in security by creating the National Security Council (NSC) in 2013. The cherry on the cake was the reinterpretation of ‘self defence’ to allow the Japanese forces to take part in conflicts outside in defence of an ally. A storm of local protests followed this, but the path was set. In successive years, Abe determinedly drew closer to the US, committing to the $4.1 billion Aegis shores-based ballistic missile defence to mollify a Trump administration intent on ‘burden sharing’. By 2018, it seemed that Abe’s dream was coming through, with the ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology in full flow.
After the coronavirus
The post-coronavirus dispensation initially seemed to favour the Quad, as tensions rose with three US aircraft carriers, including one homeported in Yokosuka in Japan, exercising in the South China Sea. Australia was in a public slanging match with China, and India was in a near-war situation. All doubts of the Quad were cast aside. But as the pandemic bit hard on the Japanese economy, Defence Minister Taro Kono recommended scrapping the ground-based Aegis system due in part to questionable efficacy and to rising defence costs, which surged 13 per cent since 2019. Critics say the cancellation fitted perfectly with Abe’s path to opening up Japan’s defence envelope, with Shinzo Abe using the ‘D’ word in June this year, publicly questioning ways to reinforce Japan’s deterrence. In India, talk of deterrence is a general malady. In Japan, it’s a breaking of boundaries. With North Korea testing some 33 missiles since May 2019, Abe’s Japan may now consider taking them out, thereby launching a truly revolutionary move.
Abe is now gone, due to his health, but those plans will be in the NSC by September. Whether such a policy will find acceptance within Japan is debatable. Meanwhile, with debt levels of $12 trillion – about two-and-a-half times its economy — Tokyo simply cannot afford an escalating war with China or even North Korea. It needs dependable friends and allies more than it ever did; the key word being dependability.
The trade thread
Dependable allies are in rather short supply. Australia’s reliance on trade with China has only increased, as it slips into its first recession in nearly 30 years. The US has just agreed to a push on with a trade deal for more Chinese imports, including foodgrains. That’s not a Beijing give away. That’s a necessity during a severe food crisis due to massive flooding. Increased US tariffs at this time could have hit hard. Washington, however, did nothing of the kind. Instead, it exported more than 9 million tons of soybeans, roughly 100,000 tons of wheat, and nearly 65,000 tons of corn in the first half of 2020. Then there is the upcoming election. Joe Biden’s views don’t seem to veer towards taking on China.
That’s where India comes in, and why ACSA is important. Common interests equal dependability. There’s another strategy playing out too. Recently, Australia, India and Japan were reported to be negotiating a supply chain pact so as to further reduce dependence on China. That’s certainly an opportunity for New Delhi. The security thread of the Quad tapestry may be subject to stormy seas, but the trade and investment thread is the one that could have solid benefits in weaving that larger frame of the Indo-Pacific. Besides, that’s the thread that’s going to make Beijing see red.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.