The administration of U.S. President Donald J Trump has re-raised the decade-old geopolitical concept of the “Indo-Pacific region.” Within this framework, it is proposing and pushing for a so-called “Quad” — a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States.
The proposed Quad is widely perceived as a part of the U.S. China containment strategy. U.S. pressure, both public and private, is forcing each prospective member, as well as other players like Singapore, to face some very tough decisions regarding their future relations with China. To the chagrin of the United States, their decisions are neither easy nor clear cut.
China clearly thinks the new gambit is aimed at it. China’s Global Times carried an article suggesting that the motive behind a Quad security arrangement is that “the U.S. can not only reduce the risk of confronting China but also reach the goal of checking China.” According to Michael Beckley, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, U.S. security cooperation with China’s neighbors “maintains deterrence by denying China the possibility of a decisive military victory, while enhancing crisis stability by reassuring China that it will not suffer a massive attack on its homeland.” It would also increase the vulnerability of China’s sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and blunt China’s Belt and Road Initiative by causing prospective partners to hesitate in participating.
The national deliberations of potential Quad members stir primal feelings. As then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia famously quipped: “Australia’s China policy is driven by fear and greed.” This mixture of emotion and desire complicates to varying degrees the decision for all prospective members and will also influence how committed the United States is to any policy that may estrange it from China. This begs the questions: If Washington will not confront China, why should other prospective Quad members do so? What is in it for them?
Of course, the decision can be mitigated but not avoided completely. Stresses and strains in the U.S.-China relationship are rapidly pushing the situation beyond waffling and hedging. Even if hesitation buys time, it only puts off the inevitable choice, giving one or the other a fundamental advantage. Once the basic decision is made and becomes clear, it will be hard to reverse the impact on trust, and thus relations with either China or the United States, and its impact on the region’s “order.”
According to Van Jackson, now at Victoria University in Wellington:
Parts of Asia will continue to support and enforce a rules-based liberal order. Other parts will fall unquestionably within a Chinese sphere of influence. Still others will continue trying to hedge between China and the United States even as the foreign policies of each undergo major changes. The great risk is that opposing visions of order cannot stay forever autonomous from one another, and may instead become a basis for future fault lines.
Economic “greed,” as Abbott put it, is driven in part by a country’s economic dependence on another. China’s economic dynamism and largesse are a well-known phenomenon of our age. China is the most important trading partner for both Australia and India, particularly as an export market for their raw materials. Australia is also the second-largest recipient of Chinese direct investment. Japan’s economy is constrained by an aging, shrinking population and thus has a deepening dependence on China’s growth. Japan’s exports to China now exceed those to the United States and account for nearly 20 percent of its total exports. These economic links will clearly influence the decisions of these prospective Quad members.
But fear will also play a major role in the decisions. The Australian administration of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to be siding with the United States, its interpretation of the “rules-based order,” and its forward military presence in Asia. Australia’s recently released Foreign Policy White Paper angered China by characterizing the South China Sea disputes as “a major fault line in the regional order.” According to Julie Bishop, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs: “What we are seeking to do is balance against bad behavior. The key is a rules-based order. We urge China to defend and strengthen that order.”
But here Australia is treading on a steep and slippery slope in regard to Australia-China relations. In reaction to the White Paper and Bishop’s elaboration thereof, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson criticized Australia’s “irresponsible remarks” on the South China Sea issue. This White Paper and the response to it have set off a national debate on what Australia’s China policy should be.
As Australian analyst Michael Wesley puts it: “We’re facing an uncomfortable fact: that the major source of our economic prosperity is potentially in a position to challenge our most sacred values. It forces us to think about potentially forgoing some of that prosperity to stand up for what we believe in.” The national debate pits realists who foresee or accept the inevitability of China’s dominance and influence in Asia and on its society and values against idealists who are “willing to risk the economic benefits to preserve Western values and existing international order.”
Japan is in a different place geopolitically. Since 2015, the U.S.-India Malabar military exercise in the Indian Ocean has included Japan. This may be one reason why some think the Quad arrangement could eventually become a security arrangement. But in Japan, fear dominates avarice when it comes to China. Its worst nightmare is subjugation by a vindictive China exacting revenge for its military’s behavior in China prior to and during World War II. Japan needs to be very careful. Earlier, when Japan appeared to be considering joining U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, China bluntly warned that it would be crossing a “red line” if it did so. China then promptly stepped up pressure and tension in the East China Sea.
India faces a somewhat different and more nuanced trade-off. Greed plays a role, but so do its ambitions for dominance and influence, especially in the Indian Ocean region. According to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. Our nations are two bookends of stability — on either side of the globe — standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”
That may be the U.S. goal, but China has several ways to apply pressure to India if it so desires, including withdrawing desperately needed assistance in infrastructure development, making military mischief along their common and disputed border, beefing up its presence in the Indian Ocean, and providing increased military aid to India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan. As a sign of the sensitivity of such a decision for India-China relations, when senior representatives of the Quad countries met on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN-hosted meetings, the Indian government downplayed the meeting and did not join the other three in acknowledging the need for “coordination on maritime security.”
The point is that a security Quad is not a done deal, and the United States may not like the result of forcing countries to make a choice between it and China. Hedging aside, the outcome of the contest between fear and greed will heavily influence whether Australia, India, and Japan will join such an arrangement.
This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.
Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.