Will the return of Shinzo Abe as Japan's prime minister mark the attempted revival of his controversial and short-lived 2007 initiative, the quadrilateral dialogue? A reading of his recent article on a "strategic diamond" of Indo-Pacific Asia's maritime democracies – Japan, the United States, Australia and India – certainly leaves that impression.
Just a few weeks into the job, Abe is already being criticized for heightening mistrust between Japan and China. His stance on the issue of so-called comfort women from the time of Japan's World War II occupation of Korea is cause for concern. And any more general attitude of downplaying Japanese contrition over that brutal period of history hardly seems in Japan's interests in terms of winning friends in Asia or beyond.
Yet it would be inaccurate and unfair to dismiss the entirety of the new Abe government’s foreign and security policy platform as needless or provocative nationalism. It is both prudent and understandable, for instance, that Japan appears set on a modest expansion of its maritime defense capabilities, given several years of tensions with China and worsening anxieties about North Korea.
And a more normalized Japanese defense posture – including a military that can operate confidently with partners beyond Japan's immediate neighborhood – could contribute to the maintenance of security and order in the Indo-Pacific regional commons, where Japan has a legitimate interest as a major seafaring and trading nation.
Still, one area where Abe could well ring alarm bells in Beijing and among those observers most sensitive to China's perceptions is the question of so-called minilateral security collaboration. This refers to small groupings of self-selecting partner countries holding confidential strategic dialogues or military exercises or even joining forces in operations like disaster relief.
This has been a growth industry in Asia over the past decade, driven partly by frustrations with the slow pace of inclusive multilateral institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Already there is an established trilateral strategic dialogue, Australia, the United States and Japan, and an emerging trilateral forum of Japan, United States and India. An Australia-India-United States trilateral has also been briefly mooted. Meanwhile bilateral dialogues, security declarations and defense cooperation agreements (albeit short of treaty alliances) have proliferated between American allies and partners, notably Australia-Japan, Japan-India, Australia-India and Australia-South Korea.
No doubt Chinese security analysts have been watching all of this with concern, and there's no question that much of this heightened interest in ‘connecting the spokes’ of the American-centric strategic order is due to strategic uncertainty about how China might use its future power. It is understandable hedging and soft balancing.
The question now is whether Japan under Abe might return to the idea of something bigger and more cohesive than a web of bilateral and trilateral dialogues among Indo-Pacific democracies. The quadrilateral dialogue of 2007 brought together Japan, India, Australia and the United States, the four first responders to the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, in a tentative set of mid-level officials talks focused principally on disaster relief and similar transnational security concerns. It was less substantial or threatening than Chinese analysts seem to consider it — something of a phantom menace, as I wrote in The Diplomat at the time.
There will be little immediate appetite for its revival among some participants, notably India and Australia, if they judge that possible benefits in strategic policy coordination are outweighed by the prospective rise in Chinese perceptions, however misplaced, of a containment strategy. Then again, policymakers in these nations naturally resent the idea that China should have a veto over what they talk about with whom. Australia’s conservative opposition has continued to criticize Canberra’s Labor government for withdrawing from the quad in the first place.
And there is no reason why new minilateral arrangements should be destabilizing provided that participants step up their efforts at parallel strategic dialogue with China.
Either way, I suspect we have not seen the last glimpse of Abe’s strategic diamond.