Forming The ‘Quad’
On the surface, it seemed innocuous enough. It was just a meeting of officials from the Foreign Departments of India, USA, Japan and Australia on the sidelines of the meetings of world leaders at the ASEAN Summit in Manila. What was significant was the agenda of the meeting. It was to develop the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the four nations. What was more significant was the fact that their four leaders were meeting around the same time for the ceremonial lunch during the summit (Incidentally all four were identically dressed in a Barong Tagalog, the traditional Philippine shirt) and discussing similar issues. The dialogue that was started could establish a ‘Convergence of Democracies in the Confluence of Oceans’ in the Indo-Pacific.
The ‘Quad’ is not a new idea. It was proposed in 2007 by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe who mooted the idea of a security framework in the Indo-Pacific based in Japan, USA, Australia and India. The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises – the MALABAR series - which predictability raised Chinese hackles. Although the MALABAR naval exercises have remained, the idea of the Quadrilateral slowly dissipated. The first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was unable to generate the momentum required for its sustenance and Australia pulled out. Japan and India too did not get the political backing required and the US seemed to lose focus. It fizzled out in 2008, only to be revived recently, again through the efforts of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and the active backing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This time, politically all four leaders are on a surer footing, there seems to be a greater sense of purpose and the Quad could well fructify now.
The initial meeting at Manila to kick-start the Quad could well pave the way for ministerial and leadership level meetings that can give solid shape to a security architecture in the region. Already the idea of a Quad has led some enthusiastic analysts to hail it as ‘An Asian NATO.’ That comparison is far-fetched, but it does have the potential to provide a mechanism, that will draw in similarly minded nations into its orbit and contribute to the security and stability of the region.
The initial meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue discussed the theme of ‘Free and open Indo-Pacific’ and addressed seven core issues; A rules based order in Asia, freedom of Navigation in the maritime commons, maritime security, respect for international law, enhancing connectivity, the North Korean threat, Nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. Although China was not explicitly named in any of the official statements, the seven core themes all seem directed at it. The ‘rules based order, respect for law and freedom of navigation’ are thinly veiled references to the Chinese activities in the China Seas and their disregard of the International Court of Justice ruling against its claims. The theme of ‘enhancing connectivity’ again addresses the need for other nations to develop linkages that will help counter China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiatives. The statement also made a reference to ‘providing alternatives to predatory financing’ a euphemism for China’s hard-nosed financing of projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and others which has allowed it to dictate terms and virtually take over the project, as it did with Humbantota port, when Sri Lanka found itself in a debt trap. Providing economic alternatives to smaller nations in the region will be one way of ensuring their security and ensuring that the strategic interests of the region are not compromised.
China has responded in a predictable manner. In 2007, it had exerted sufficient diplomatic pressure to scuttle the initiative, even going so far as to issue diplomatic demarches to the four nations accusing them of colluding against it. This time its response has been more guarded. It merely stated that it hoped that the initiative ‘would not target or damage a third party’s interest.’ However, a news agency decried the forming of ‘an exclusive club’ warning that they could not contain China in that manner.
What can be the scope of Quad? The prospect of a quadrilateral security mechanism is appealing. India and Japan are at the receiving end of China’s territorial claims and both are wary of its long-term aims. The US is seeking to retain its imprint in the Asia–Pacific against a rising China and India- Japan are natural allies for it. Australia is vital for its very position and also has apprehensions of China’s growing footprint. For all four nations it seems to be a win-win situation. But at the same time, India has forged a relationship with Japan that promises to be the defining partnership in Asia. US - India also seem to be ‘natural allies’. India has also developed independent links with Australia. Besides developing bilateral relations with all four, one of the major successes of Indian diplomacy has been that our relations with China have been independent and progressive. Forming a formalized security framework may be the best counter to China in the Indo-Pacific, but it has the risk of alienating China and making it feel vulnerable and hence more dangerous.
The ‘Arc of Democracies’ which Quad envisages can also attract nations like South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia the Philippines and others into its orbit. China has been focusing on the Shanghai Cooperative Organization as the regional security mechanism, and has virtually taken de facto ownership of it. The quad provides a viable regional alternative – maybe an opposing one. So, what will be China’s perspective? It would not be too surprising if they close ranks with Russia and Pakistan to form a trans-Asian Alliance (drawing of a parallel with the Warsaw Pact is a tempting analogy). Yet as has been repeatedly emphasized, the aim of Quad is not to contain China. Rather it is an attempt for neighbors with ‘shared values and interests’ to grow with it in an environment of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.
A quadrilateral of the four largest democracies in the Indo-Pacific rim will provide a military and economic clout that can provide security in the region. But with the current flip-flop of US policies, how committed would they be to that. Also, the US may tend to push its own interests at the expense of regional allies. A triad between India, Japan and Australia will attain similar aims and will be based on regional allies in their backyards, who are the greater stake holders. That must be kept in mind while promoting and pursuing the Quad. Even while entering and participating in it, independent linkages with China must be maintained and its fears if any, have to be assuaged. Else instead of promoting peace and security, it will form blocs which could actually be detrimental to the region.