After Afghanistan: time for the Quad to take centre stage
7 Sep 2021|

The defiant words of that old rabble-rouser Thomas Paine provide a fitting rallying cry for Western leaders after the US-led retreat from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Taliban.

The West now faces a witches’ brew of complex and daunting strategic problems crowding in on it, magnifying and deepening Western anxieties. So leaders might take comfort from Paine’s famous ‘Common sense’ pamphlet addressed to the continental army fighting for American independence in 1776.

‘These are the times that try men’s souls,’ Paine wrote. ‘The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of men and women. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph’.

Certainly US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Australian PM Scott Morrison and those of their ilk have faced times that have tried their strategic souls. They have faced a devastating pandemic and accelerating climate change while fighting the Taliban in vain for the future of Afghanistan. At the same time, violent Islamist terrorism has been an ongoing, often bloody, threat.

And throughout it all the United States, leader of the liberal democratic West, has been increasingly mired in deep political divisions that brought the country close to violent insurrection and political gridlock in the dying hours of the appalling Donald Trump presidency.

At the same time, China’s coercive military, political, diplomatic and economic policies have complicated the democratic will. While resisting China’s efforts to dislodge US-led power in the Indo-Pacific region, Western leaders and their Asian allies have struggled to manage other challenges clearly beyond the capabilities of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

For Australia, and others, threats posed by Chinese aggression and by America’s domestic difficulties are the gravest of these challenges. But the cumulative effect of the challenges, and their tendency to act on each other with unexpected consequences, makes the current global environment especially perturbing. A question arises: how many such crises can modern nations, with all of their political, diplomatic, economic and military resources, handle simultaneously before a fatal miscalculation occurs?

Among other things, largely futile international efforts to trace the origins of the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan in China have increased tensions between Beijing and Western powers. Now the US retreat from Afghanistan, and US dysfunctional domestic politics, have inevitably raised doubts about the future value of Australia’s alliance with the US. The international push to cut carbon emissions has intensified the effects of China’s economic bullying of Australia, notably its trade sanctions against Australian coal exports.

At the same time, a surge in Islamist terror attacks worldwide is being widely predicted following the US retreat from Afghanistan. Whatever the incoming Taliban regime says about ruling peacefully, it is a vicious movement with a record of shameless oppression and violence;. The Taliban respects no human rights and will do nothing to oppose Islamist terror that is not directed at themselves.

Tyranny, as Paine said, is not easily conquered. So how might democracies and their allies most effectively resist and contain the threat from bullies and extremists now strutting the global stage? In fact, the democracies are well placed to push back if they can muster the will to expand embryonic institutions that are already in place and (most importantly) if they can gain the active engagement of the US after the Afghanistan debacle and Trump’s dangerous post-election lies.

Buoyed by its rising power, China rejected the authority of liberal international forums when it dismissed the 2016 ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea lacked any basis in international law.

Since then, there has been an international tendency especially by timid Indo-Pacific states to appease China by maintaining silence about the 2016 judgement. The alternative (provided that the US and its allies and friends are prepared to be more than sunshine patriots) is to balance China’s power by creating an alliance so formidable that Beijing will realise that its interests will be better served by moderating its attacks on the rules-based global order, the liberal trading system and freedom of navigation through the Indo-Pacific region.

Such an alliance, happily, exists already in embryo. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India is an initiative created to balance Chinese aggression, but it needs to be larger, stronger and more focused. First proposed in 2007 by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the Quad has conducted joint military exercises and held meetings with New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Its creation and doubtless its potential military strength prompted China to declare that it ‘openly incites discord’.

Yet enlargement of the Quad is an entirely reasonable response to China’s predatory and threatening attitude towards powers including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The time for appeasement and ambivalence is past. The complex global environment—including the evolving China–Russia axis—now requires an expanded Quad to balance the activities of authoritarian powers.

Perhaps significantly, the Quad has already cautiously started to consider wider challenges by pledging this year to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also has obvious interests in building cooperation on addressing global warming, terrorism and other issues haunting the international order.

Forging an expanded Quad will be difficult given China’s predictable coercive responses. But in Paine’s words, this is no time for liberal powers to shrink from service to country and (he might add) to human rights. Nor may Western powers seek the love and triumph evoked in ‘Common sense’, but the loss of Afghanistan magnifies the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based maritime order in a chaotic world.

International security relations have always been anarchic terrain. There is no Leviathan to keep order, but now, post-Afghanistan, an expanded Quad could help modify, perhaps ameliorate, the multiple threats that are trying people’s souls in a troubled world.