Reuters recently reported that the United States, Japan, India, and Australia are discussing an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Talks of deepening cooperation between the four democracies, otherwise known as the “Quad” or quadrilateral security dialogue, were only resurrected last November. Short of a joint statement, the separate statements issued after the initial meeting agreed that the four nations shared similar visions and interests to ensure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.
The quartet first came together in response to the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which saw their navies collaborating in relief operations. Initiated by Shinzo Abe during his first stint as Japan’s prime minister, the Quad held their first summit and also participated in a large naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007. However, the Quad suffered an early demise when the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled out under Chinese pressure.
There has been much speculation regarding what the newly resurrected Quad is and what it is intended to accomplish.
As before, Beijing believes that the quadrilateral grouping is part of a containment strategy against China and has immediately raised its concerns. Chinese scholars say Beijing should stay alert to such a security alliance, which might reshape the regional geopolitical landscape.
Though the statements carefully avoid specifically naming China, the revival of the group is undoubtedly motivated by increasing nervousness at China’s assertiveness and ambitions in the region. China has been building artificial islands in the contested South China Sea to back its claims, and ignored a judgment in the Philippines’ favor by an international tribunal in The Hague without any real consequences. Worryingly, it seems that China also does not shy from using its economic leverage for political aims.
However, the Quad 2.0 is not a first step toward an “Asian NATO.” While both Japan and Australia are U.S. allies, they have yet to show any willingness to follow U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) into the 12 nautical mile zone around contested territories.
Moreover, India has traditionally been nonaligned and is unlikely to enter any kind of formal alliance. In fact, the Indian statement revealed calculated caution in avoiding even the phrases “rules based order” and “freedom of navigation” — both of which are frequently used in Indian government documents.
In addition, even though Abe successfully pushed through a bill in 2015 to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist Article 9 and allow collective self-defense, he still faces considerable legal limitations in terms of what Japanese troops are permitted to do in support of allies, on top of widespread public criticisms and protests.
It is thus difficult to imagine that Japan would or could help to defend India’s disputed borders with China, or that India would reciprocate in the East China Sea to support Japan. It is also unlikely that Australia would commit itself to an alliance that might drag it into geographically distant conflicts and risk its relations with China, its largest trading partner.
The quadrilateral grouping is likely to remain a loose and flexible partnership, involving closer naval cooperation such as joint exercises, information-sharing, and consultations. Bureaucratically, it might be more efficient to consolidate the numerous existing trilateral agreements among the quartet, but this will never amount to an institutionalized military alliance like NATO. Rather than confronting China head-on, the Quad serves more as a diplomatic signal of solidarity and warning against any challenges to the status quo. Moreover, the idea of a Belt and Road alternative suggests the members’ preference for soft hedging.
Quad 2.0 need not suffer the same fate as its predecessor if it can move beyond statements and reaffirmation of principles. While it need not be institutionalized, it should work toward a roadmap with actionable items and show tangible results, such as by stepping up coordination in counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and disaster relief.
The four countries must define the scope of the Quad and articulate what more can be done that is not already being achieved through bilateral and trilateral agreements. There are today much more evolved U.S.-Japan-Australia, U.S.-Japan-India, and India-Japan-Australia dialogues than there were 10 years ago.
Also, the Quad failed the first time around when Australia caved, which supposedly made India skeptical about participating in Quad 2.0. While Australia has shown interest in participating in the Malabar exercise along with the United States and Japan, it remains to be seen if India would accept Australia’s request to join the exercise this year. Learning from past failures, the Quad will fare better if Australia and India try to cement deeper ties to increase confidence.
Thrashing out the agenda clearly and maintaining a degree of transparency may help to dispel some of China’s suspicions, if the Quad wants to avoid being branded as an anti-China clique.
Japan and Australia both depend on China for approximately 22 percent of their trade and will avoid placing their economies at risk. India, which engaged in a 73-day military standoff with China along the Himalayas in 2017, will not want a repeat crisis, or intensified competition in the Indian Ocean, which India regards as its sphere of influence. China is the largest holder of U.S. debt, $1.18 trillion as of 2017. Furthermore, the United States is preoccupied with domestic concerns and may become more inward-looking; hardly perfect timing to throw down the gauntlet to China.
At the same time, the quartet will bear in mind that accommodating China’s sensibilities in the past may have done little to soften China’s assertions in the region or increase China’s sensitivity to its neighbors’ security concerns. Hence, they are likely to pursue policies that will avoid overdependence on economic relations with China, especially if Beijing is willing to use economic leverage to achieve political ends.
Overall, the continuity of Quad 2.0 will hinge on how well the four members stand their ground in face of Chinese pressure, as well as possible economic or political pushbacks.
Tan Ming Hui is an Associate Research Fellow and Nazia Hussain is a Research Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.