The year 2020 not only marked the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic that gripped the nations all across the globe but also a rise in small groupings of countries to tackle associated health concerns. Be it Quadrilateral Security Dialogue 2.0 or the AUKUS grouping of Australia, the UK and the United States formed in September 2021, countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific region have started to find a resort in small, informal groupings that address specific issues. Such groups of small countries are termed ‘minilateral’ or ‘plurilateral’ and Indo-Pacific has become a melting pot of such groupings.
Indo-Pacific, a confluence of two oceans — the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, has gained significant attention due to its geographical location. Today, almost all major powers such as the US, the EU, France, Japan, Australia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) etc have curated an Indo-Pacific strategy. Furthermore, the ‘not-so-peaceful’ rise of China as a major power in the region is an important turning point in the dynamics of major powers in international relations in the early 21st century. Clearly, Beijing’s belligerent activities in the region have raised concerns of several Indo-pacific nations. Consequently, like-minded countries have started to cooperate with specific issues and target-based approaches to tackle the conventional and non-conventional challenges, for example, piracy, IUU Fishing, climate change etc., arising in the Indo-pacific region.
Against this backdrop, it becomes pertinent to understand the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and the role of minilateral groupings like Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) in making the region more secure and resilient.
Why the Indo-Pacific?
The coinage of the term Indo-Pacific is not derived from a geographical merger of two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. In fact, the term Indo-Pacific is an ‘imagination of space’ that is stemmed from a political parameter and geographical demarcation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in 2007, set forth the idea of the Indo-Pacific as a ‘coming together of two seas’, but as of today, almost all major powers in the region are focusing on the Indo-Pacific region.
The shift from the more established term ‘Asia-Pacific’ to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ explains that the two oceans cannot be treated separately because of the changing dynamics in the region. While Asia-Pacific denotes the part of Asia that lies in the Pacific region (north-east Asia, South-east Asia and South Western Pacific), the Indo-Pacific, on the other hand, provides a more amalgamated concept that covers major powers in the region (ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan, the US), island nations with abundant natural resources, important sea lines of communications, major trade routes, strait of Malacca, Strait of Taiwan, Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb as well as the South and the East China Sea. The Indo-Pacific region, stretching from the African shores to the shores of America, is, therefore, a theatre of opportunity for many nations across the globe.
Emergence of Minilateralism
The Indo-Pacific region has become the centre of world economic activity as it is home to large economies like the US, China, Japan and India. The evolving trade environment in the Indo-Pacific, the US-China trade war, and the economic dependency of multilateral institutions on China have highlighted the limitations of these multilateral forums and pushed countries in the Indo-Pacific region to find alternatives to advance its goals in the region.
In addition to China’s economic advancement in the Indo-Pacific, China’s heavy militarization and assertive claims have challenged the current balance of power in the region. With an aim to become a ‘world-class’ military power by 2049, Beijing has set the target to modernize its military by 2035. China claims most of the South China Sea, China’s Nine-Dash Line further asserts claims over three island nations in the Indo-Pacific, China and Japan have territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands and in 2020, China surprised New Delhi, once again, with its troops encroaching sovereign territory.
Therefore, to contain the rise of China and meet the security challenges of the region, countries have started to form smaller, informal groupings to deal with the dynamic concerns of the region. The Covid-19 pandemic further reinforced the opinion that the role of multilateral forums has become limited and an urgent need has arrived to bridge that gap for finding effective solutions. In order to bridge the gap between multilateralism and bilateralism, the countries have started to form minilateral groupings like Quad and AUKUS etc.
Relevance of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)
In 2004, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean brought four nations together to meet the unprecedented crisis in the region. The initial success of this minilateral grouping made these four countries in the Indo-Pacific region — Australia, India, Japan and the United States, ponder over the idea of forming an informal security grouping of like-minded countries that would provide a mechanism to tackle the dynamic challenges that arise in the region. Japan, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was the first country to express, in 2006 during a visit to India, forming a security dialogue in the region. Following in the year 2007, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila, the four Quad countries met for the first time. However, the Quad 0.1 grouping faced an initial failure since Australia, a close economic partner of China, was hesitant to continue being a member of the Quad grouping because of Chinese sensitiveness over joining a possibility of Quad being an ‘Asian NATO’ in the Indo-Pacific region to contain the rise of China.
However, as the security concerns unfolded in the Indo-Pacific region among the major economies, a simultaneous possibility of the revival of Quad 0.2 prevailed. Consequently, in the year 2017, the security grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States was revived. The First Quad summit in November 2017 led the objectives for the Indo-Pacific that promotes cooperation based on values of peace, stability and an inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Some of the common challenges discussed in the region included terrorism and enhancing regional connectivity.
The Quad gatherings like- the ministerial meeting of Quad (2019), Malabar Exercise 2020, Quad leader’s first virtual Summit (March 12, 2021), First-in-person Quad leader’s summit Sept. 24, 2021), Quad foreign Minister’s meeting (Feb. 11, 2022), and the most recent Quad Joint Leaders’ Summit (May 24, 2022) in Tokyo, Japan etc. indicate that the Quad is an emerging minilateral grouping that envisions cooperating on rising dynamic challenges in the region such as climate change, Covid-19, illegal fishing, piracy, infrastructure development etc. On the other hand, Quad grouping with three of its countries leading the space domain — the United States, India and Japan, have vowed to strengthen space cooperation by exchanging satellite data and enhancing capacity building.
Clearly, Quad has become an important forum of democracies that aims to function on a wide range of issues, ensuring more target-oriented and relatively faster decision-making mechanisms to meet the needs of the hour. Nonetheless, the centrality of ASEAN in the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy indicates that minilateral groupings like Quad are not an alternative to multilateralism but rather a bridging gap between bilateralism and multilateralism for meeting the emerging challenges of the region and explore possible opportunities for cooperation.
Future possibilities for enhancing the Quad cooperation
While the Quad construct has provided a mechanism to respond to changes in the security environment in the region, the grouping should consider increasing interactions with countries like Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and New Zealand which are important players in the region.
Secondly, the Quad grouping has the potential for enhancing defence technology cooperation. Though Malabar Exercise, initiated by India, is an important naval exercise in the region, aerial and military exercises can be further initiated for strengthening defence ties and interoperability training among the member countries. Thirdly, intelligence sharing can be further incorporated like the ‘five eyes’ mechanism of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. In addition, Quad could also boost collaboration with other minilateral and multilateral forums in the region like AUKUS and JAI on the one hand and ASEAN, Indian Ocean Rim Association and East Asia Summit on the other.
Lastly, to effectively counter the Chinese threats and other non-conventional security concerns of the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad and other Indo-Pacific countries need to enhance their economic as well as defence cooperation in the region. For this, amplifying cooperation with the newly emerged Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and well-established forums like ASEAN, as well as security groupings like AUKUS and intelligence-sharing minilaterals, for instance, US-Japan-ROK, is essential.
[Photo by The White House]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an Assistant Research Fellow at Public Policy Research Centre, New Delhi.