Chinese Ghost Story


On February 5, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith assured his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, that Canberra had corrected the feng shui of a disturbing piece of the region’s diplomatic architecture. Australia, he said, “would not be proposing” a repeat of last year’s four-way dialogue with the United States, Japan and India.

What a difference, it seems, a year can make. In the first half of 2007, Beijing was becoming anxious about what it perceived as an emerging axis among these four Asia-Pacific democracies. Last May, they brought their foreign policy officials together for tentative talks on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. It was blandly termed “the quadrilateral dialogue”, quad for short, with no announced agenda. Some observers wondered if this was the embryo of a pact of democracies, an Asian NATO to “contain” rising Chinese power. A story in one Australian newspaper implied that this was indeed the plan. Beijing’s diplomats lodged protests, demanding an explanation of the mysterious talks. According to the Indian press, these demarches came with petty punishments, such as visa trouble for an Indian delegation due to visit China, and hints of worse to come.

In Australia, most security commentators rallied round the view that a quadrilateral security alliance would provoke China into the very posture of defensiveness and hostility that the region needed to prevent. It soon became nigh-on impossible to meet a Chinese foreign policy scholar without hearing a variant on why the quad was bad. By September 2007, when the four democracies plus Singapore brought their navies together for exercises in the Bay of Bengal, close to China’s sea lanes to the Middle East, quad hysteria was at its peak.

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Yet today the idea seems to have dissipated, along with the political fortunes of its foremost advocate, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not to mention former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who seemed willing to play along). The quad’s chief American fan, Vice President Dick Cheney, will be out of office within the year. And the Indians have done more than go quiet: when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Beijing in January he assured his Chinese counterpart that India would have no part in any attempt to contain China.

Thus, it would appear, game over: China and common sense, one; the quad and wrong-headed containment, nil. But the real story is more complicated. The quad was more phantom than menace. Its effects were mixed. And it is not quite exorcised yet.

The quad was never going to be an alliance in the technical sense of a mutual defence pact: India’s allergy to such entanglements, let alone the caution in other capitals, was always going to ensure that. The quad was simply a dialogue; at most, it might be called a loose arrangement. Likewise, it was never going to be a tool of containment, another abused word in the security lexicon. Containment in its true Cold War sense was about thwarting a militarily and ideologically expansionist Soviet Union, including through a strategy to beggar its economy. Yet today’s China, America and most other Asia-Pacific countries have critical stakes in each other’s prosperity.

So if the quadrilateral wasn’t as the headlines claimed, what was it? And where to now?

The quad’s origins were many. One was the swift cooperation among the US, Japan, India and Australia in responding to the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The success in harnessing their maritime forces to serve the common good enthused all four capitals about working together on other transnational problems.

After all, they did not see the broader diplomatic structures of the Asia-Pacific as abuzz with promise. The ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC may once have been repositories of hope for region-wide cooperation to meet common challenges, such as terrorism, pandemics or the risk of war between states. Yet, with their unwieldy size, diverse memberships, and restrictive consensus style, progress had become insubstantial.

Instead, there was a growing taste for “minilateralism”. Subgroups were self-selecting to pool efforts on issues that mattered to them: the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to protect Chinese and Russian interests in the new Central Asia; a strategic dialogue among the US and its allies Japan and Australia. In Southeast Asia, exclusive institutions centred on China, especially a China-ASEAN process, were stealing the show.

Meanwhile in Washington, a massive commission of non-government experts was crafting a new grand strategy for the US in an era of changing global challenges. The Princeton Project report, released in 2006, recommended a “concert of democracies” which might even give itself the right to authorise use of force. Such recommendations came with caveats about not seeking to contain China, but lent themselves to easy caricature in a Beijing already worried that the US was on a global ideological offensive.

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