The risk is that if the Quad develops into a Nato-like alliance, it will create a self fulfilling prophesy in which the PRC responds by taking military steps to pre-empt efforts to constrain its growing economic and maritime capacity.

 

London: Was Tuesday’s meeting of the rejuvenated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) yet another example of the old joke “Déjà vu all over again”, or was it the embryo of something bigger? After all, the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui seemed rattled enough last month when he called the Quad “an anti-China front line and mini Nato, reflecting the cold war mentality of the US”. A different view was given by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a briefing prior to his trip to Tokyo for the meeting: “Quad membership is driven by shared interest, not binding obligations.” So is the Quad really a fledgling alliance with the potential to form a nucleus of an Asian Nato to contain China, or is it just a talking shop?

It’s now 13 years since representatives from America, Australia, India and Japan first met in the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum summit in Manila to share their concerns on the rise of China in the region and reflect on “themes of mutual interest”. There was no formal agenda and no decision about a subsequent meeting was taken. But there was an expectation that the “Quad” countries, as the grouping became known, would meet again.

Curiously, it was Beijing’s negative reaction to this event that drew attention to the Quad’s very existence. Even before Manila, China officially protested, asking each participant about its objectives. When Chinese President Hu Jintao brought it up with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he was told that the group wasn’t “ganging up” on China but simply meeting “to exchange views on developments from our experiences as democracies”. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and other officials emphasised that the Quad was not about containment or forming an alliance, it was a “balancing approach to foreign policy”.

Sensitivity about China’s continuing hostile reaction caused interest to wane and Quad 1.0 ended not with a bang but with a whimper. In December 2007, Kevin Rudd, a China supporter, became Prime Minister of Australia and the Quad, which was already on life support, was quickly and unilaterally killed off. Rudd called the Manila meeting a “one-off” and confirmed that “Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature in the future”.

Then in 2012 Shinzo Abe, a firm supporter of the Quad, returned as Japanese Prime Minister. With the arrival of China’s Xi Jinping at about the same time, and his developing aggressive build up in the South China Sea, Abe proposed that the US, Japan, Australia and India should cooperate to “safeguard the maritime common area stretching from the Indian Ocean Region to the western Pacific”. A vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, this eventually triggered the revival of interest in the Quad.

Delhi was at first hesitant about this turn of events, not only by concerns about China’s response, but by reasonable doubts about the other partners’ approach to China, particularly Australia. The close Sino-Australian relationship in trade, rapidly growing at the time and now accounting for 33% of Australia’s exports, led Indian officials to express uncertainty about Canberra’s “strategic clarity” concerning Beijing. Also, Delhi had then, and still has, doubts about the utility of a quadrilateral grouping since it already had trilaterals with Tokyo and Washington, and also with Tokyo and Canberra. Nevertheless, the Quad was rebooted last September and Tuesday’s was the second meeting.

So what’s the point of the Quad 2.0? Last year, US Secretary of State Pompeo said that by reconvening the Quad “it will prove very important in the efforts ahead to ensure that China retains only its proper place in the world”. A broad aim, but no mention of HOW this would be achieved. Especially as, in Pompeo’s words, “it’s driven by shared interest, not binding obligations”.

From Tuesday’s meeting the usual vague statements emerged about disaster relief, maritime safety and security, health security and counter terrorism. What was most significant was that neither India, Australia, nor the host Japan, mentioned China directly in their final statements. China was the elephant in the room.

For all three countries, the problem is the same—balancing their desire to confront Beijing over a range of security and rights issues, while also seeing that their intertwined economic interests with their giant neighbour are maintained.

By contrast, there’s little doubt about how America sees the Quad—a platform for China bashing. On the eve of Tuesday’s meeting in Tokyo, Pompeo remarked, “As partners in this Quad, it’s more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the exploitation, corruption and coercion of the Chinese Communist Party. We’ve seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, and the Taiwan Straits.”

All this illustrates the lack of clarity and purpose of the Quad. For some it’s the basis of 21st century containment in which maritime democracies hold the line against expansion until the many shortcomings of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) system eventually weaken it and limit its international influence. Others see it as a means to manage great power rivalry. All the while at the official level it’s presented in bromide-like terms as a means of developing a shared vision for regional security and prosperity. In other words, the Quad is officially intended to buttress the current “rules-based” regional order in the face of “shared challenges”. This is carefully calibrated diplomatic code to identify the PRC as the problem without actually saying so.

The risk is that if the Quad develops into a Nato-like alliance, it will create a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the PRC responds by taking military steps to pre-empt efforts to constrain its growing economic and maritime capacity. This perception will encourage an even more assertive PRC approach to the region, and at worst fuel the paranoid impulses in the PRC’s military that could badly destabilise the region. Rather than managing geopolitical tension, the Quad risks escalating it further. Perhaps this explains the hesitancy in the three FMs’ statements after Tuesday’s meeting.

Few doubt that Beijing’s behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region is creating a strategic challenge that requires multinational cooperation of some kind. The question remains, is the Quad the best forum for achieving this? If the Quad is all about India, India’s participation is all about China. But if that’s the situation, a free and open Indo-Pacific doesn’t need the Quad. In any case, two members of the Quad are likely to be flaky and unreliable. Australia, because of its huge trade dependency on China and its substantial Chinese diaspora, leading to the possibility that Australia could do another “Rudd” at any time. Japan, because its new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is already sweetening the country’s relationship with China. His chief Cabinet Secretary, Katsunobu Kato said recently that Japan considers ties with China as “one of our most important bilateral relationships”. This leaves America and India. A strong and growing economic and military bilateral relationship between India and the US would terrify China. The Quad merely generates concern.

India has every incentive to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific without a tenuous membership of an ill-defined intergovernmental grouping. Quad 2.0 should learn the lesson of history and quietly follow the path of its predecessor.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.