Japan, Quad 3.0, and the Thucydides Trap in the Indo-Pacific

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Japan, Quad 3.0, and the Thucydides Trap in the Indo-Pacific

The Thucydides trap cannot be overlooked in considering Japan’s national security strategy in conjunction with the Quad as well as the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Japan, Quad 3.0, and the Thucydides Trap in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Depositphotos

Early next year, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States will hold a foreign ministers’ meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad) in New Delhi, India. The Quad member states have held regular meetings over the last five years to discuss regional and global security issues based on their shared fundamental values, such as democracy, human rights, and rule of law.

The four countries first formed a core group to lead the international community’s support efforts after the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra and resulting tsunami disaster that occurred in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. The establishment of the Quad was proposed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the first meeting by Quad officials took place in May 2007. Although there was a working-level meeting and a maritime exercise in 2007, the so-called Quad 1.0 during the first term of the Abe administration was not fully institutionalized for several reasons, including a reluctance to antagonize China.

The quadrilateral security alignment developed into so-called Quad 2.0 during the second term of the Abe administration in Japan as well as the Trump administration in the United States. Notably, former Foreign Minister Kono Taro proposed to institutionalize the Quad and upgrade it from the sub-cabinet level to foreign ministerial level. As a result, a director general-level meeting of the Quad 2.0 has been held on a regular basis since November 2017.

The first foreign ministers’ meeting of the Quad took place in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. The second foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Tokyo in October 2020, and a foreign ministerial telephone meeting took place in February 2021. In March 2021, top leaders of the Quad countries held a video conference for the first time. In September 2021, the first in-person meeting by leaders of the Quad took place in Washington, D.C. Thus, the Quad 2.0 has been steadily institutionalized even during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

The Quad countries continued to strengthen their strategic alignment in 2022 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In February 2022, a Quad foreign ministerial meeting was held in Canberra, and a Quad leaders’ teleconference took place in the following month. The Quad leaders confirmed their concerns over the Ukraine crisis during the meeting. In May 2022, the in-person Quad leaders’ summit took place in Tokyo. In July, a Quad energy meeting took place in Sydney, and a foreign ministerial meeting took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2022. Thus, the institutionalization of the Quad has been facilitated by the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine, and it may be time to argue that a so-called Quad 3.0 has been emerging in the changing geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific. Significantly, Japan might acquire a “counterstrike capability” and will look to double its defense budget in the Quad 3.0 system.

In response to the emergence and institutionalization of the Quad, China has been cautious and even paranoid about the motives of the four countries. At first, Beijing did not take the formation of the Quad seriously, stating that “they are like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean: They get some attention but will soon dissipate.” Indeed, when former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided on a “policy to disconnect from the Quad” during his first term, the quadrilateral alignment became inactivated. When the Quad was revived however, Beijing began to rethink its previous optimistic views and started to pay close attention to developments. The Quad member states decided to cooperate on monitoring illegal fishing activities by China in the Indo-Pacific region, and this decision stimulated policymakers in Beijing. On May 22, 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for instance, criticized that the Quad had been formed “to contain China,” and now Beijing regards the Quad as the “Asian NATO.”

The Quad was reborn in the age of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” where the United States and China have been competing for a regional and global hegemony. In this sense, it is important for the Quad to avoid so-called “Thucydides trap” argued by Graham Allison, a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School. Allison cited an analysis of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who noted, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison argues that there are 16 cases in history in which a rising power threatened to ruling one, and that 12 of them resulted in war.

It has been argued that the Thucydides trap is at work in Asia, where a power transition from the United States to China is observable, and therefore, the Quad 3.0 needs to be aware of and step away from the Thucydides trap in the age of the Indo-Pacific.

What are strategic implications of the Thucydides trap for the Quad vis-à-vis China? At a press conference after the Australia-Japan foreign ministers’ telephone conference on February 9, 2021, former Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu commented that “I believe many writers would argue that it [the Thucydides trap] does not apply at the present point.” Motegi’s remark as a foreign minister was diplomatically appropriate, as it intended not to cause unnecessary tension between Tokyo and Beijing. Strategically, however, the Thucydides trap cannot be overlooked in considering Japan’s national security strategy in conjunction with the Quad as well as the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The scope of security cooperation of the Quad 2.0 includes the quadrilateral strategic alignment in the fields of economic security and energy security. In a joint statement in March 2021, for instance, the four countries agreed to “launch a critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future” while focusing on four aspects: “technical standards, 5G diversification and deployment, horizon-scanning, and technology supply chains.” Likewise, the four countries decided to cooperate to “bolster supply-chain security for semiconductors and their vital components” in the midst of the technology competition between China and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the middle of the energy crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine War, the Quad was faced with the necessity of quadrilateral energy security cooperation. On the occasion of Quad leaders meeting in Tokyo on May 24, 2022, the Quad leaders launched the Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package as a measure against climate change as well as energy insecurity. On July 13, 2022, the first-ever meeting of Quad energy ministers took place in Sydney. Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hagiuda Koichi, Australian Minister for Climate Change and Clean Energy Chris Bowen, Indian Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy R..K Singh, and U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm agreed to cooperate for the enhancement of energy security and facilitate the transition to clean energy and decarbonization. The Quad energy ministers furthermore agreed to promote the development of clean hydrogen and ammonia supply chain among the four countries, while Hagiuda asked Bowen and Granholm to supply more liquified natural gas (LNG) to Japan, which had suffered from energy shortages.

Meanwhile, the Quad countries have to be careful about the point that the four countries could be entrapped in traditional “security dilemma” with China that might increase the possibility of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. Diplomatic tensions over the Taiwan Strait have already built up. Meanwhile, Japan is attempting to acquire a “counterstrike capability” or “enemy base strike capability.” Although the policy debate in Japan has been focused on enemy base strikes in the context of missile defense systems during a possible military emergency in the Korean Peninsula, such a strike capability could technically target China as well. In other words, Japan as a member of the Quad 3.0 plans to obtain counterstrike capability that can be used in possible military emergency between Tokyo and Beijing. In this respect, Japan should be aware of the Thucydides trap not only in the Taiwan Strait but also in the East China Sea. Likewise, a military contingency in the Taiwan Strait could become the source of another Sino-Indian War in the Himalayas.

In strategizing the quadrilateral security dialogue to the level of the Quad 3.0, more attention should be paid to the security dilemma in the Indo-Pacific region as well as the possible formation of a rival quadrilateral security alignment between China, Russia, North Korea, and possibly Pakistan. North Korea has strengthened its strategic ties with China and Russia after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. In addition, the Quad countries cannot ignore the strategic connotation of the fact that top leaders of Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan recently congratulated Xi Jinping’s historic election to a third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of October 2022.

In the coming Quad foreign ministerial meeting to be held in New Delhi, the four countries are expected to reinforce the security alignment, but at the same time, they need to figure out how to mitigate the security dilemma and carefully step away from the Thucydides trap that exists in the Indo-Pacific strategic sphere.