Can Quad Survive?

Ships from Quad countries sail in formation during Malabar Exercise 2020. U.S. Navy photo by Markus Castaneda

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic alliance between India, the United States, Japan and Australia, has gained a fresh lease of life after its revival over the past few years but this revival has brought with it fresh problems. The recent bilateral defence meet between Sri Lanka and China showcased how the exclusive military arrangement has irked many states in the region. Can a mere anti-China focus glue the Quad together?

Inception

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad was initiated by the then Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo along with US Vice President Dick Cheney, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2007. The initiative was part of Washington’s “soft containment policy” of China’s rise as an economic power. Quad was facilitated by several joint military exercises dubbed as the Malabar Exercise. However, it resulted in a staunch diplomatic opposition from China which ultimately forced first, Australia, and then, the others to abandon the alliance.

Ten years later (2017) as China’s rise continued and gained greater prominence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet in Manila saw the four nations agreeing to renew the alliance. It was facilitated by joint military and naval exercises.

While China still protests claiming it to be an “Asian NATO,” its deteriorating relations with all the four members make the Dialogue’s dissolution due to Beijing’s disapproval unforeseeable. However, the biggest challenges appear from within.

Vision

The renewed Quad has been hailed by its members as the “democratic security diamond.” Apart from  greater cooperation on issues of “mutual interest,” the crux of the Dialogues’ raisin d’être is a rules-based “Free and Open Indo Pacific.” Extending support for the use of the term “Indo Pacific” instead of the general “Asia Pacific” underlines the US’ continued support for the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy i.e. supporting regional powers like Japan and India to counterbalance the rise of China.

The member states on several occasions have voiced concerns over China’s increasing maritime reach in the region especially the issue of the South China Sea dispute as well as what has been termed as the “String of Pearls” theory.

On March 12, 2021, the first leaders’ summit of the Quad was virtually held. A few of the several issues on agenda were “free and open” Indo Pacific, Climate change, economic and health impact of Covid-19, security challenges including climate change, infrastructural development, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. However, the strategic alliance has neither seen a formal organization nor agreement over a common vision beyond curtailing China’s rise.

Concerns abroad

The rise of the Quad has isolated several of its neighbors, a recent example being Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Recently Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa prioritized relations with China and signed a ‘Military Assistance Protocol.’ Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage stated concerns related to the Quad by claiming it to be an “exclusive military alliance” and hence a “problem.” He further stated that had the Quad focused on economic revival, its rise would not have been a problem.

Similarly, Bangladesh and China too have reaffirmed their bilateral ties. Both countries receive millions of dollars as aid and investment from China and in case of any conflict of interest, are likely to support Beijing but what is interesting is the skeptical attitude of classic American allies like South Korea towards the Quad. Seoul has not only balked at the strategic partnership but has also joined the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which Japan, India and the US have opposed. Though the presence of Japan is one of the reasons for Seoul’s apprehension, it is the exclusive character of the Quad, limited to the four nations, that irks its long-term allies.

Cracks within

The biggest threat to the alliance seems to come from within. Several events strip bare the lack of a common understanding and the narrow vision which plague the Quad. The member states seem to be following their own rulebooks. On April 7, 2021, The US Navy vessel, USS John Paul Jones entered beyond 13 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, which India regards as its Exclusive Economic Zone, without prior permission from New Delhi. India expressed discontent at the move of its ally. The US not just violated India’s maritime sovereign rights but the Commander of the US Seventh Fleet claimed that Washington would continue to undertake such “freedom of navigation operations” labeling India’s rights as “excessive,” maritime claims. The United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) quoted by both sides has been read differently. While New Delhi claims US action is a violation of the UNCLOS as it prohibits a state from entering the Exclusive Economic Zone of the other without prior permission, Washington claims that it upheld the “freedom of navigation” under the same convention.

The very phrase “Seventh Fleet” resounds of a rough era in US-India relations. In 1971, during the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the US under President Richard Nixon sent Task Force 74 of the Seventh Fleet to intimidate India. The threat was averted only after the Soviet Union stepped in. With its legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement and an independent foreign policy, India takes pride in standing up to bullying by powerful nations. Such events, if occur in the future, will not fare well either for the two nations or the Quad.

India faced a vaccine crunch as the country saw a heartbreaking resurgence of the pandemic’s second wave. It turned to its Quad ally the United States for the export of vaccine inputs which had been restricted by the US. The US not just denied to provide inputs but the State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price stated that it was in the “interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.” By claiming a special responsibility towards its own people when the vaccine reserves were sufficient and on top of it claiming that their own conditions matter more than the others, the United States heavily risked its relations with India. Though aid was provided soon after public outrage, Washington’s actions have cast a heavy doubt over India’s expectations from the alliance.

China has “indefinitely” suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, blaming Australia for flaring a “Cold War mentality” against Chinese security interests.  Bilateral relations between the two steeped after Australia banned China-based tech firm Huawei from conducting 5G trials in the country on grounds of espionage. Relations worsened in 2020 when Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of Coronavirus, pointing to a possible hand of Beijing.

Though an anti-China stance unites the four, the question arises, can they really turn their backs on China? It doesn’t seem possible at least economically. As soon as China unilaterally scrapped off the Economic Dialogue with Australia, the Australian dollar sharply fell as low as 0.7701 to the US dollar. China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for 29% of Australia’s global trade.

Sino-Japanese relations have often been described as “hot economics, cold politics.” The recent ASEAN plus three (China, Japan and South Korea) meet saw the finance ministers and central bank governors vowing for greater economic cooperation among the Asian economies.

Although things look hazy on the political front, India too has a valuable economic relationship with China. Beijing emerged as New Delhi’s largest trading partner in the first half of the Financial Year 2020-21. In 2019, China accounted for 5% of India’s exports and 14% of its imports.

Despite the stern trade war, the US and China agreed to enhance economic relations and inked the Phase One Deal. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),  American agricultural exports to China are expected to increase to $31.5 billion in 2021. In that case, Beijing will become the largest market for US agricultural goods. While the economies of most other countries suffered badly, China’s economy recorded remarkable growth in the first quarter of 2021 as its GDP rose to 18.3%.

China also becomes important for Japan and the United States to realize a meaningful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula for it is only China, which can successfully negotiate with North Korea.

The step forward

Be as it may, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an excellent opportunity for democracies to enhance multilateral cooperation, however, certain urgent and concrete steps must be taken.

First and foremost, the member states must sit together and frame a set of mutually agreed-upon principles specifically on rights of navigation to avoid any future clashes on violation of maritime boundaries.

Second, the Quad must move beyond strategic cooperation to broaden areas of cooperation. It must move beyond geopolitics to geoeconomics, enhancing greater and more efficient resource sharing.

Third, it must broaden its base to include other regional players like member countries of ASEAN, South Korea, Sri Lanka, New Zealand among others.

Fourth, the resolution of any dispute with China can only happen through greater economic cooperation. As a superpower, Beijing will put its regional stability and economic prosperity on top of the list. It is in the mutual interest of all actors to negotiate multilaterally.

It was China that brought the Quad together in 2007, it was China that led to its intermission and it was China which brought it back on its feet but in order to survive in the long run, the Quad must move beyond its focus on China and act as a broader forum of multilateral cooperation.

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.