Flashpoints | Security | Central Asia

Where Does Central Asia Fit in the Quad’s Indo-Pacific Plans?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s even more critical to advance “Indo-Pacific Plus” strategies to counter a growing Pax Eurasiana.

Where Does Central Asia Fit in the Quad’s Indo-Pacific Plans?
Credit: Japanese Prime Minister’s Office

At the latest Quad summit on May 24, the four leaders again showcased their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and demonstrated the quartet’s resolve in upholding the values and norms that have underpinned the rules-based world order. The summit in Tokyo came at a watershed moment in history, as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, initiated unilaterally by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24, challenges a range of values broadly shared by most states.

The leaders’ meeting, hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, was attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. President Joe Biden, and the brand-new prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese, fresh off the Labor Party’s victory in the May 21 elections. It was a highly significant event that demonstrated the quartet’s momentum. Admittedly, Biden almost stole the show the previous day by launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and affirming the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Nonetheless, the Quad meeting was critical both politically and symbolically. The in-person summit, the second in as many years, reaffirmed the centrality of the Quad in the Indo-Pacific and its focus on the threats it faces from China.

It remains true, however, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed deep fissures that appeared to have dealt a grave blow to the Quad’s cohesion. This inevitably has led to questions about the Quad’s continued relevance. If it cannot agree on a course of action over Ukraine, what happens if hostilities occur around Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, or Arunachal Pradesh?

The Indo-Pacific as the Geographic Theater of Competition

The Indo-Pacific is the geographic theater of China’s rivalry with the United States and, increasingly, with the Quad. Indeed, we term the Indo-Pacific as a “geographized political reality” in our new book, “Indo-Pacific Strategies.” This socially constructed geography, brought forward by the Quad’s leaders and policymakers, has come to encapsulate the strategic maritime landscape.

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The informal grouping called the “Quad,” advocated by Japan’s former prime minister, Abe Shinzo, has played a pivotal role in delineating the Indo-Pacific and addressing the insecurities of its members related to China. The Quad’s informal nature remains, but its strategic and symbolic credentials have been firmly established.

An interesting, but unspoken, understanding among the Quad members is that the Indo-Pacific is also a pseudonym for part of maritime Eurasia and, along with its normative aspects, this has relevance for China, Russia, and Ukraine. In a sense, the Indo-Pacific strategies of various Quad capitals are what we call Eurasian strategies “from the backdoors” that focus on China as an implicit antagonist.

However, serious questions have arisen in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion as to how much or what parts of Eurasia the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategies can address. In other words, is this geography of strategies critically flawed because it has failed to consider the geopolitical significance of Eurasia – apart from China?

Russia, Central Eurasia, and the Advent of “Indo-Pacific Plus” Strategies?

The Quad’s democracies have been able to pursue a principled regionalism across two oceans because the Indo-Pacific, as a concept, projects a bounded yet highly innovative geography of strategies. As the case of Eurasia makes clear, this essentially maritime-based concept has eclipsed land-based Eurasian geographies that hold considerable strategic consequence. Theoretically, to preserve the rules-based international order, the Indo-Pacific ideal of upholding freedom and openness must be equally applicable to provocateurs in terrestrial Eurasia – such as Russia.

Likewise, the Indo-Pacific lynchpins must consider extending Indo-Pacific strategies in order to counter the growth of what we call Pax Eurasiana, a hegemonic system led by authoritarian regimes in Eurasia. Russia’s and China’s “backyard” of Central Asia is the case in point. The landlocked region is certainly vulnerable and historically prone to domination by larger powers. Indeed, Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are perhaps increasingly relevant to the Quad, given Russia’s outright territorial ambitions in its “sphere of influence.” What we term the “Indo-Pacific Plus” strategies precisely come into play in a regionally focused great power competition.

However, the difficulty experienced by the quartet in presenting a united front against Russia’s aggression was apparent during the Quad’s emergency online meeting in March 2022. Attempts by Japan and Australia to explicitly reference Russia in the meeting’s readout were hampered by India’s veto. New Delhi’s neutral stance struck a discordant note precisely because it contradicted the normative positions that form the Quad’s foundation. In Ukraine, a nuclear-possessing land power has egregiously violated the fundamental principles of international law. Rather than verbally penalizing Russia, India instead chose to burnish what it considers its “strategic autonomy” and thus, in effect, condoned Putin’s war.

Should we be surprised by the Quad’s lack of unity? As importantly, does it show the limits of informality in security groupings as well as a lack of resolve among members when the going gets tough?

It is not quite time for authoritarian regimes to celebrate, however.

Like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the role and purpose of the Quad appears to be more consequential than ever considering Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Its actions and words, nonetheless, will necessarily be subtle. This is because the quartet does not need to act vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine to be effective. Rather, NATO is designed precisely for the purpose of addressing the threats posed by Russia in western Eurasia – and it is not alone. The European Union (EU) and Group of Seven (G-7) are also appropriate frameworks in this strategic context, as they demonstrated by their late March emergency meetings in Brussels. AUKUS, a novel security architecture bringing together Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, founded on the basis of culture of trust and technology transfer, may also be effectively used to counter China and even Russia. AUKUS and the Quad, among other alignments, therefore, may be able to address security issues in eastern Eurasia, as NATO can do in the west.

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Arguably, the past few months have shown us that the Quad members’ varying sensibilities may hamper a coordinated position on the Eurasian question. India, for its part, may not wish to engage itself in any action that could harm Russia’s position. While Japan and the United States may see strategic interests in better engaging the Central Asia region from an extended Indo-Pacific perspective, Australia, an Oceanian middle power, probably sees little rationale to do so.

Given such a “Quad Minus” prospect, perhaps a tailored and flexible affiliation of like-minded partners is the key, one that uses the same methods of variable minilateralism we have come to take for granted in the Indo-Pacific. While it may push the limits of the Indo-Pacific still further (and risk watering down its value-laden aspects), other suitable partners, such as Ukraine, once peace comes, may yet bring about a “free and open Eurasia,” one freed from coercion and predation.

A Refocused, Revitalized Quad in the Face of a Looming Pax Eurasiana

Despite misgivings in the other Quad capitals, India’s stance on Ukraine has resulted in a refocused and – after the Tokyo meeting – a revitalized Quad. The quartet’s renewed focus on China as the antagonist in the Indo-Pacific is valuable both strategically and politically. S. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, made India’s strategic stance clear when he implicitly pointed out the aggression of China to visiting Europeans in late April in Delhi: “[W]e have been hearing for the last two months a lot of argument from Europe saying that things happening in Europe should worry (us) about it because these could happen in Asia… Guess what, things have been happening in Asia for the last ten years.”

Competition and division are the undeniable facets of the current world. Whatever name is given to the great power rivalry, we are witnessing two emerging, competing orders, one led by Washington and another by Beijing. As China’s power reaches its peak, the Quad must confront the complexities of real threats posed by both of Eurasia’s revisionist states. But the quartet’s purpose and focus as it revitalizes for the post-pandemic world must remain on China.

What is, thus, needed is a long-term commitment to a measured and principled confrontation that targets an untold but palpable endgame in the future. The Indo-Pacific lynchpins, by implementing an Indo-Pacific geography of strategies, and assisted by relevant groupings, existing or new, can lead the charge in the Indo-Pacific Plus and, in the process, allow NATO and others to shore up western Eurasia.

In this respect, the Tokyo summit provided a critical boost – complacency is not the option. Ever so gradually, the combined efforts engendered by common concerns about China may bring about a Pax Indo-Pacifica, the rules-based Indo-Pacific order that serves, by extension, to counter a looming Pax Eurasiana.