04 Jan 2018

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue died a quick death when it was first initiated in 2007 due to pressure from China. However, the original members have come together to revive the initiative. What does this mean for the security of the Indo-Pacific region?

quadrilateral security dialogue

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, comprising of the US, Japan, India and Australia, has made a comeback. It was first created in 2007 at the prompting of Japan and it lasted less than a year before Australia pulled out due to its economic links with China and the pressure it was facing from them.

However, in November this year, senior officials from the four countries met ahead of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila to discuss a shared vision for increased prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific region and to work together to ensure it remains free and open", indicating that the initiative has been brought back to life.

The use of the term Indo-Pacific instead of Asia-Pacific is more than mere semantics, and indicates the rise of India in US strategy in the region. Although the leaders insist that it is not a military alliance against China, there is a clear intention to have greater strategic unity in the wake of China's growing power.

Being perceived as an anti-China alliance led to the demise of the Quad ten years ago. Now that it has reconvened, what are the implications for members and countries in the region?

Changing regional dynamics with the Quad

Contrary to China's claims that the Quad is an Asian NATO', the Quad claims to promote freedom, liberty and democracy and to make sure liberalism prevails over totalitarianism in the region. This grouping of like-minded democracies holds a number of benefits for its members.

Firstly, it provides a platform to share assessments of Chinese capabilities. Although it is not meant to be an anti-China alliance, the possible negative consequences of China's tendency to disregard international law and its increasing military capabilities pose a security problem not just to the region, but to the rest of the world. The Quad therefore allows large powers to come together to offset China's hegemony and figure out ways to deal with China's flouting of international laws.

The Quad also allows members to boost their maritime security as a collective, especially at a time when China has been growing more assertive about claiming sovereignty in the South China Sea. Joint naval drills can counterbalance China's rising power by allowing the region's leading democracies to work together. Annual Malabar joint exercises are already being carried out between the US, India and Japan and there is now further potential for greater coordination on issues such as maritime domain awareness, disaster relief and search and rescue.

This is also where Australia's inclusion is perhaps most significant. Although India has been lukewarm about allowing their participation due to concerns over it previously dropping out of the alliance, the US strongly backs Australia's naval presence in the region, as its naval capabilities would greatly aid in maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea region.

How Southeast Asia stands to gain

Current regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit and APEC are seen as relatively weak as they have not produced enduring results by themselves. With the involvement of larger powers, the capabilities of these institutions could be boosted.

In the case of APEC for example, having stronger links with India would help to offset the overwhelming influence of the Chinese economy. Additionally, organisations such as ASEAN could be reassured of larger powers in the region that could help keep China at bay, especially with the territorial tussles in the South China sea.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has seen China promising billions of dollars in infrastructure for trade routes in Europe and Asia, including a railway project between China and Thailand, and industrial parks in Malaysia. Although greater infrastructural connectivity could tremendously benefit Asia in the long run, there are concerns over Beijing's possible political motives.

Additionally, there is a worry that Southeast Asian countries benefiting from China's generosity will make them feel indebted towards it, therefore requiring them to possibly make compromises that may not be in their favour. Therefore, increased regional connectivity by means of the Quad could provide more alternatives that could possibly be more transparent and sustainable than the BRI.

Possible problems that could arise in the region

It is important to keep in mind that in the ten years since the original iteration of the Quad fizzled out, China's capabilities have developed tremendously. Beijing has already warned that the alliance should not target or damage a third-party's interest. If the Quad begins to appear as a containment strategy, this may antagonise China and create a security dilemma in the region.

Relying on the US could also pose problems of its own. The current US administration's unpredictability and President Trump's seeming recklessness could undermine the Quad's efforts at ensuring regional order. Not only could China be provoked into taking negative action, but there is no guarantee that the US will come to the aid of the other Quad members in the event that a conflict does occur.

Additionally, there could be an exacerbation of already existing tensions between Quad members and China. Mutual distrust is at an all-time high between China and India,, as demonstrated by the recent Doklam stand-off, and there have also been territorial disputes between China and Japan. Japan also suspects that China lent support to North Korea in its latest missile tests. If China feels threatened by the alliance, these tensions stand to get worse.

However, it ultimately depends on how the Quad presents itself and its intentions. As some proponents of the Quad have indicated, it is harmless as it is not a military alliance, and it does not make sense to not engage in structured security dialogue just because one country may end up in dispute with China.

Will the Quad survive this time?

Though the Quad could help create a new international balance which Southeast Asia stands to gain from, care needs to be taken not to antagonise China as this could have adverse effects on the region. Each country's economic links with China means that containment is not an option.

At the same time, countries and governments in the Indo-Pacific should assert themselves against China's territorial claims and attempts at interference. The Quad would provide the additional support required in the region to counter China's claims.

Moving forward, once the Quad has established itself, there are even possibilities for other states with interests in the region, such as the UK, to get involved, as suggested by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. The experiences of these states can be drawn upon to enhance policy development and cooperation on concerns such as counterterrorism.

Although primarily a security dialogue for now, closer ties and increased dialogue would also allow for greater cooperation on issues such as trade, infrastructure development and regional connectivity. If the Quad presents itself and its strategies clearly, it could pave the way for a whole new power dynamic that could benefit all countries in the region.

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This piece was written by Prethika Nair.