Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Security

How to Make a Sharp-edged Quad Work

India’s recent decision to include Australia in the Malabar exercises is a significant step toward a militarized Quad. But what should the grouping keep in mind going forward?

Abhijnan Rej
How to Make a Sharp-edged Quad Work

Ships from the Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the U.S. Navy sail in formation, July 17, 2017, in the Bay of Bengal as part of Exercise Malabar 2017.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

With the announcement on October 19 that India would invite Australia to participate in the three-nation India-Japan-U.S. Malabar naval exercises later this year after a 13-year hiatus, Quad supporters have found much to rejoice in. In many ways, this was a significant step forward for the grouping, even though it is not clear whether Australia’s participation this year will be a one-off event (unlikely) or a permanent addition, like Japan’s since 2015. The four nations have also significantly expanded their defense ties bilaterally, while coordinating their positions on regional issues as a group, and through trilaterals, sometimes involving other countries. India already has military logistics agreements with all three of the other Quad members. To this increasingly dense mesh of relationships now lies added a renewed four-nation military exercise. (The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda has a quick backgrounder on the Malabar exercises here.)

Some of the euphoria in the Indian media around the expanded Malabar exercises, however, has bordered on the downright absurd, with talks of an anti-China “alliance” or an Asian NATO. China, for it its part, anti-climatically decided to underplay the significance of the development. When asked about Malabar on October 20, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian – someone not given to measured pronouncements even under the best of circumstances – simply noted: “China believes that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability.” (On October 13 during a visit to Malaysia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had described the Quad as underpinning a “so-called Indo-Pacific NATO.”)

But beyond the over-the-top claims and apprehensions about China’s reaction (both often go hand in hand), there is no doubt that the development does mark a pronounced turn toward militarization of the Quad, in spirit if not in letter. The question, then, becomes what the Quad should aim at, as the security dimension of the grouping firms up.

There are three sets of considerations the Quad would have to keep in mind, agnostic of the future shape of the security grouping – whether it does become more “regularized” and eventually “formalized” (as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun described U.S. expectations on October 20) or remains informal and flexible (as India’s current strategic preferences would suggest).

The first revolves around joint strategic signaling through military exercises. While it is true that India’s penchant for exercising with one and all does dilute the political value of its exercises with the U.S. and allies, it is the nature of the exercises with them that adds potency. In fact, Malabar’s focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the past, as well as ASW featuring in India-Australia bilateral naval exercises, sends a clear to China about intent. This assumes even stronger salience given that all four countries operate the same or comparable ASW reconnaissance platforms and along with the U.S.-India secure data communications agreement since 2018, India’s in-principle ability (minus formal agreements) to utilize protected U.S. military communications nets involving Australia as well as Japan.

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But none of this is to suggest that the Quad can or must have a joint combat role in case deterrence and dissuasion fail. As has been said umpteen number of times, the grouping is not an alliance. (Not that, after Trump’s periodic shocks to American allies over the last four years, treaty alliances are what they used to be.) The end effect of strategic signaling by the Quad should be to create enough uncertainty in the mind of their adversaries so as to generate deterrent effects. Put plainly, the framing idea for a militarized Quad should be to fool the adversary into thinking that something that talks and walks like an alliance is, in fact, one.

That’s a tall order but that’s what a sharp-edged Quad – should one materialize – should aim at.

But that leads us to the second set of considerations in front of the Quad: What are the tasks in front of the grouping should a shooting war involving one or more of its members break out – in the event of deterrence failure? As I argued at length here recently, when it comes to India’s continental China dilemma, a maritime thrust — possibly involving coalitions like the Quad — is unlikely to be useful for a plethora of reasons. What a militarized Quad can do is prevent a conflict on land from spilling over to the seas. As China’s naval reach increases into the Indian Ocean – and India’s remain constrained when it comes to the western Pacific – a naval Quad can ensure that China will be discouraged from expanding a limited conflict horizontally across theaters to India’s detriment, for the simple fear of drawing other actors in. (Note: This is different from saying that a naval Quad will allow India to do so.) That, in turn, will aid in early conflict termination.

The observant reader will notice that so far, I have only referred to the goals for the Quad in abstract, without spelling out “what” kind of behavior needs to be deterred or dissuaded even if we know the “who.” This brings me to the third set of considerations, around the “what,” for the Quad: the need to formulate an effective integrated common strategy for all malign activities that fall short of open, military aggression, ones in the “gray zone.”

And this is where the Quad could eventually play the biggest role, bringing to bear economic, diplomatic and political instruments along with military ones, should the other three fail. One must keep in mind that China has been the most successful in its gray zone tactics precisely with countries that have deep economic relations with it. The Quad’s economic statecraft agenda (either as a whole or bi- and trilaterally) must include working with potential target countries to reduce their economic dependence on China, making them less vulnerable.

The Trump administration, widely known for its fondness for military instruments, understands that this will be a crucial task ahead of the Quad; witness Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent expansive definition of security — involving “economic capacity and the rule of law, the ability to protect intellectual property, trade agreements, diplomatic relationships,” — in the context of the Quad’s goals as he sees them.