The arrival of Yoon Suk-yeol as President of South Korea earlier this year is a golden opportunity to strengthen the Quad by adding a new member.
Beijing lashed out last week following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Although the People’s Republic of China has never had sovereignty over the island, it continues to insist that Taiwan must be brought under its control, by force if necessary, in defiance of Washington and the island’s other backers. In a transparent display of its military power, Beijing began exercises involving warplanes, naval ships and missile strikes in six zones surrounding Taiwan. Some lie as little as 12 miles off the island’s coast and are clearly designed as a punishment to Washington for allowing Pelosi to display US friendship to Taipei, even though President Biden had no authority to prevent her from doing so. In her role as Speaker, Pelosi is second in succession to the US presidency, behind Vice President Kamala Harris, and therefore has a significant status.
These exercises are the largest and most threatening towards Taiwan since Beijing launched missiles into waters north and south of the island in 1995 and 1996, when Washington received the then President Lee Teng-hui. Although Beijing regularly sends warplanes into Taiwanese airspace, these live firings are unusual and appear to be a rehearsal for a potential and much-threatened blockade and invasion of the island. Should this happen, it would almost certainly escalate into a regional war, involving not only the United States, but also American allies including Japan and Australia, all members of the Quad.
With world attention focused on the northern Indo-Pacific, it’s easy to forget that a real-time example of the reshaping of world order is taking place in the south. China has been wooing nations in the South Pacific for some time, trying to extend its diplomatic reach. The controversial deal struck between China and the Solomon Islands and signed on 29 April this year, covered extensively by The Sunday Guardian, caught the western world off-guard. It allows the Solomon Islands to call on China to send police, armed police and military personnel to the country for various reasons, including “maintaining social order” and “protecting people’s lives and property”.
Although the deal allows China to “make ship visits to carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands”, Colin Beck, the permanent secretary of foreign affairs and a senior figure in the Solomon’s government, insisted that it had nothing to do with the establishment of military bases there. But Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States, have all expressed fears that the deal would smooth the deployment of Chinese military forces among the sparsely populated and often poor nations of the Indo-Pacific.
Compared to China, Australia has historically closer ties with nations in the region, providing them with more financial assistance than any other country. Sino-Australian relations are currently strained by their own trade and political issues, and Australia fears that a nearby Chinese military base would be a “concrete threat” to its security. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary concurs that the deal will upset regional security, while the White House has accused China of “offering shadowy, vague deals with little consultation” in the region.
So, Australia, Japan and the US, three members of the Quad, have all criticised China’s incursion into the South Pacific. Was this a Quad position? A spokesman for India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, was asked this question. “I don’t know if the Quad made any statement, you meant that these three countries made it and you are reading it as a Quad statement. I am not,” Bagchi reportedly said. Later, in June, a statement was made following the meeting between India’s and the Solomon’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the margins of the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, “renewing and reaffirming the two countries commitment to enhance bilateral cooperation to new heights”. Note the word “bilateral”.
China’s behaviour in the Indo-Pacific has become increasingly assertive over recent years, and the rise of the Quad is a demonstration of the willingness of the US, Japan, Australia and India to respond more emphatically in defending their position and interests in the region. This has not gone unnoticed in China. The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid newspaper, has repeatedly referred to the Quad as the “sinister gang of Indo-Pacific to contain China”. A huge compliment. But the response to China’s seduction of the Solomon Islands would have been considerably more effective if it had been a strong “Quad response” rather than a few tepid bilateral statements. And it would have been even more effective if the Quad had been expanded to include another powerhouse in the region—South Korea. In other words, a response from the Quint.
The arrival of Yoon Suk-yeol as President of South Korea earlier this year is a golden opportunity to strengthen the Quad by adding a new member. During his key-note speech at the Asia Leadership Conference in Seoul in July, Yoon presented his nation as a confident and constructive force whose time has arrived. This echoed his buoyant and self-assured inauguration speech earlier this year when he maintained “it is incumbent on us to take on a greater role benefitting our stature as a global leader. We must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights.” A perfect CV for joining the Quad.
Just weeks earlier, Yoon made the unprecedented decision to attend a NATO summit in Madrid, where South Korea and Japan were invited as partner nations. South Korea also joined the US-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Forum this year, which aims to counter China’s growing economic influence in the region. Yoon also vowed to repair frayed ties with neighbouring Japan in order to strengthen US-Japan-Korea trilateral relations. Significantly, he made it clear that his country is ready to join the Quad. Former US Defence Secretary Mark Esper endorsed the view in February this year that the Quad should be expanded to form the Quint, but the Biden administration has so far been lukewarm to the idea.
The Yoon administration has already recalibrated its country’s foreign policy by adopting a tougher stance on both China and North Korea, while welcoming closer defence cooperation with the US and the hosting of American-made advanced missile defence systems, submarines and nuclear-capable bombers. He has also stepped up his country’s defence policy by pursuing large-scale arms deals with partners from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
President Yoon Suk-yeol’s overtures to join the Quad to form a new Quint have so far been spurned. The Biden administration is nervous about making the Quad look more like an “Indo-Pacific NATO”, claiming that this would exacerbate structural tensions with Beijing as well as belie India’s non-alignment strategic posture. “There are many ways that we engage with South Korea”, said the White House press secretary in a briefing earlier this year. “It’s an incredibly important relationship. But the Quad will remain the Quad”, immediately shutting down any speculation about an expansion.
This is a mistake. South Korea participated with India in the 2022 Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC), which ended last week. This was the world’s largest international maritime exercise, with more than two dozen nations participating, designed to strengthen their collective forces and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. It was also a great rehearsal for South Korea’s gradual alignment with the Quad both at sea and in the air.
In just over half a century, South Korea has undergone a dramatic transformation from a poor, authoritarian country devastated by war to an economically dynamic, culturally rich, and resilient democracy. It is a major trade hub and technological powerhouse. The country is already known for its stand-out role in global semiconductors and robotics supply chains, and stands to contribute hugely to technologies at the heart of competition between China and the Quad, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology.
The way is surely open for the Quad to expand to become the Quint. Together, the five countries could cooperate more deeply on standard setting, diplomatic messaging, practical economic measures to sustain a liberal rules-based order, and incrementally build interoperability and other forms of military cooperation. Despite complementary economic policies and expanding dialogue, South Korea and India have yet to formalise any high-level expert exchange programme, but given India’s significant advantages in cultivating AI and STEM talent, it would be a boon for both Seoul and New Delhi to establish such scholarship under the Quint. Of course, such cooperation depends on the will of New Delhi to make it happen, but there is growing scope for India to view the Quint as enhancing rather than limiting its strategic autonomy.
It would certainly help in countering China in the Solomons.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK PM John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.