This month, the Australian naval ship HMAS Ballart joined the navies of the United States, India, and Japan in this year’s edition of the Malabar Naval Exercise in the Indian Ocean, first in its east early in the month and then in the west, between November 17 and 20. The re-inclusion of Australia in Malabar, as the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Quadrilateral Security Forum (Quad) takes off, has raised fresh hopes for a new mechanism to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad was conceived in an August 2007 meeting in Manila, held on the sidelines of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), between the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia and the vice president of the United States. It was widely perceived as a security forum to rein in the Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific and re-establish a rule-based international order. The following month using the already existing Malabar exercise framework between the Indian and U.S. navies, a major naval drill was conducted between the navies of India, U.S., Japan, and Australia, with Singapore participating as well. The Chinese government responded angrily to Malabar 2007 by issuing formal diplomatic protests. Australia quickly backtracked from the Quad and made its intention clear to not participate in future Malabar exercises. Quad 1.0 thus quickly lost steam and wilted away. The U.S., India, and Japan eventually began to exercise trilaterally but Australia was absent – until 2020.
The Quad’s revival (or Quad 2.0 as it is being called) is driven by a renewed commitment among the partner countries to confront the plethora of strategic challenges emanating from China, such as aggressive territorial grabs in the South China Sea, presenting potential obstacles to freedom of navigation, use of debt traps to develop influence overseas, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During the 2017 ASEAN Summit, all four former members re-joined in negotiations to revive the Quad forum. During the foreign ministers-level conference in Japan last month in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out China as a threat to the region, although the three other foreign ministers, including India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, did not directly mention China. The Indian government in October announced that Australia would join the Malabar 2020 naval exercise.
The four countries united in the need to counter China, however, have their own unique set of strategic imperatives to revive the Quad; thus it is useful to look at each country’s circumstances separately to chart the future of the grouping.
The U.S. views China as its primary competitor in the post-Cold War era and harbors a deep suspicion of its “revisionist” agenda. The U.S. strategic approach to China has undergone a fundamental re-evaluation in recent years. The United States is now pushing back on Beijing’s hegemonic assertions and excessive claims.
The U.S. is acutely aware of the relative erosion of its military capabilities vis-à-vis China. American military assessments indicate that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to — or in some cases superior to — the U.S. military. A report by RAND, an American think tank, in 2017 brought out that over the next five to 15 years, if U.S. and PLA forces remain on roughly current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance. The RAND report recommended that the U.S. adjust its force structure, operating concepts, and diplomacy in ways that will slow the process and limit the impact of such erosion on deterrence and other U.S. strategic interests.
The U.S. thus needs partners to protect their interests in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. policy statements highlight the importance of such partnerships. “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India,” noted the 2017 National Security Strategy. Quad 2.0 thus fits nicely into the new U.S. strategy to protect its interests in the backdrop of growing Chinese power.
Before the Chinese incursions in Ladakh in May this year, the Indian government was not keen to publicly acknowledge the dangers of the Chinese threat, despite serious territorial and other disputes with China. The 2018-19 Annual Ministry of Defense report indicated that except for the Doklam standoff with China in 2017, the “The situation along the India-China border has remained peaceful.”
India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region was outlined by Modi during the Shangri La Dialogue in June, 2018, where he stated that India stands for a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Modi in his speech touched upon multilateral arrangements like ADMM Plus and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). The PM was, however, silent on the Quad. The prevailing sentiment before May this year was to avoid giving any offense to China in the post Doklam “reset” period. Accordingly, India during this period did not respond favorably to Australia’s request to re-join the Malabar Exercise.
After the Chinese actions along their disputed border in May 2020, Indian strategic thinkers have shown refreshing urgency and shed New Delhi’s traditional ambivalence toward multilateral security arrangements. There has been wide support in the Indian public and media for India’s new strategic flexibility. An article in Economic Times dated October 15 asserted “…New Delhi has no choice but to embrace the Indo-Pacific Quad.” In the Indian government, there is a growing view that the Quad enhances rather than limits India’s strategic autonomy.
The 2020 Australian Defense Strategic Update indicates concern about Chinese activities In the Indo-Pacific, ranging from “militarization of the South China Sea to active interference, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion.” Clearly, China is a top security concern for Australia. The Strategic Update recognizes that “strategic competition, primarily between the United States and China, will be the principal driver of strategic dynamics in our region.” As an alliance partner of the U.S., Australia is obliged to oppose Chinese expansionism, if the U.S. also does so.
China has also embarked on a Pacific version of the “Strings of Pearls” campaign to encircle Australia, leading to a considerable alarm in Canberra. Vanuatu is the latest victim of China’s debt trap and there are reports of China setting up a dual-use facility there.
China is Australia’s largest trade partner and bilateral trade was $159 billion in 2019, among which Australia’s exports to China accounts for $104 billion, 30 percent of its total exports. Australia is a popular destination for Chinese students and tourists providing substantial revenues for Australia. However, the fear that economic dependency on China will shackle Australia’s commitment to the Quad seems to be overstated. Chinese economic retaliation might cause short-term pain for Australia but in the long term, it will be able to diversify its market and more than offset its losses. Australia with its physical distance from China and strong alliance with the U.S. has added security that India and Japan do not enjoy.
The Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s security but Japan has made efforts to realize a favorable regional security environment by combining bilateral and multilateral security cooperation at multiple levels. Japan has been the most clear-eyed member of the Quad since its inception in 2007 due to the prevailing Chinese threat. The Japanese National Security Strategy (NSS) highlights concern over “China’s advancement of its military capacity without transparency, and its further activities in the sea and air space.” In 2013, China declared setting up of the “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone” which includes the Senkaku Islands.
In recent years, China has been more aggressive about its claim on the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu Islands by China). The Japanese Coast Guard announced in June 2020 that Chinese government ships had been spotted for a record number of consecutive days in the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands. Japan also has strong commercial interests in maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, which is under threat due to aggressive territorial claims by China in the South China Sea.
The Japanese understand the importance of multilateral fora like the Quad for promoting the building of a network for peace and prosperity in the region. A partnership with Quad countries with powerful navies will cause China to stretch its naval resources across the Indo-Pacific, thus providing relief to Japan. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had consistently advocated a coalition of “Democratic Security Diamond” of Quad members to challenge Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics feels that “from Japan’s point of view, the Quad is a useful instrument to further its own geostrategic approach.”
China’s Pushback and the Road Ahead
In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the then recently-revived Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like sea foam.” Quad 2.0 is, however, bound to raise serious concerns in China. In October this year, in China’s most high-profile criticism of the Quad so far, Wang said Washington was aiming to build a “ so-called Indo-Pacific NATO.” His remarks underline how Chinese officials, who once sought to downplay the Quad as an overhyped idea are now highlighting it prominently, describing it as part of a broader American effort in the region to “contain” China.
The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, China Daily, in a recent article warned Australia: “To be an ally of the U.S. does not necessarily mean it has to be a roughneck in its gang. With Australia mired in its worst recession in decades, it should steer clear of Washington’s brinkmanship with China before it is too late.” New Delhi will also have to be mindful of its vulnerability to Chinese retaliation along the border should the Quad take on a military dimension. Unlike Japan and Australia, India does not have the luxury of a formal alliance with the U.S. Japan will have to strike a balance in its desire to confront Beijing over security issues while preserving its intertwined economic interests with China. Japan’s exports to China were worth $134.68 billion in 2019.
Quad 2.0 has lent considerable optimism toward a robust forum to check China’s ambitions and preserve a rule-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. There are signs that the Quad could expand to become the Quad Plus with the addition of countries like South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand. Germany has indicated that it will increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific, possibly bringing it a step closer to the Quad. France, which already has a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean, could be a possible candidate to join the Quad. The United States has publicly distanced itself from the idea of the Quad being an “Asian NATO” but has not denied the possibility of it attaining a similar status in future. As American power declines in the Indo-Pacific, the need to rely more on partnerships like the Quad will increase.
The Malabar naval exercises provide a good template for Quad countries to further their cooperation. As maritime challenges are a common ground, increasing interoperability between the navies should be a priority. China, despite its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, remains vulnerable at sea. Improving intelligence sharing, secure communications, shared logistics, and better interoperability are key areas in which there should be a year-round focus rather than only during the annual Malabar exercise. India’s recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) along with the earlier Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) and Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the U.S. are positive steps in that direction. India also has military logistics agreements with Australia and Japan.
There are some apprehensions that the new U.S. administration may not be as committed to pushing the Quad forward as the Trump administration. The strong bipartisan support for the Quad and the anti-China sentiments in the U.S., however, belies such an assumption. According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans hold a negative view of China, up 13 percentage points from last year. There is no doubt that all eyes will be on the new U.S. administration to signal continued support to the Quad. India, Australia, and Japan have committed to the Quad at considerable military and economic risks from China. Any dithering by the U.S. will be a mortal blow to the prospects of the grouping.
For India, it is time to shed its traditional reluctance for multilateralism couched under the terms of strategic autonomy. India needs to send a clear signal to other Quad members that it is not only willing to increase military cooperation with them but also take part in developmental initiatives like the existing trilateral Indo-Pacific infrastructure partnership between the U.S., Japan, and Australia. The successful conduct of Malabar 2020 has sent a strong signal to China that the march of Pax Sinica will not go unchallenged. A suitable follow up to Malabar 2020 will be conducting the next Malabar Exercise in the South China Sea. The first step to defeating the dragon would be to take the battle to its backyard.
Manoj Rawat is a former Indian naval captain and director of naval operations at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on frontline warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Ministry of Defence. Rawat is an alumnus of National Defence Academy, Singapore Aviation Academy, Indonesian Command and Staff College, and College of Defence Management.