Another lap of the Quad
17 Sep 2015| and

Trinity Great CourtRecent comments made by Australian Defence Minister Kevin Andrews regarding the possibility of four nation naval exercises involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States suggest that there might be some interest in Canberra in dusting off the ‘Quadrilateral’ security framework. The Minister didn’t invoke the Quad explicitly and he’d understand the likely negative response from Beijing if he had done so. But such an exercise would closely resemble Exercise Malabar from 2007, an activity that paralleled a security dialogue between the four countries in the same year.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe originally initiated the Quad in 2006, which was followed by a brief flurry of interest and a 2007 meeting before it was quietly removed from the international agenda. That was due in no small part to vociferous objections from China, which issued diplomatic protests to all four participants. Early in his tenure as PM, Kevin Rudd unilaterally opted out, consistent with his view that Australia shouldn’t tie itself to North Asian security. Since then, the Quad hasn’t been pursued at the government-to-government level, although second track dialogues between academics and think tanks have explored the pros and cons of reinvigorating the arrangement.

Despite the Quad’s demise, there’s been plenty of activity between the four countries in various combinations, including bilateral and trilateral (‘not-quite-Quadrilateral‘) discussions, exercises and security arrangements. That’s not surprising—economic and security interests overlap significantly, and the four tend to see the world through a similar lens. The problem, of course, is that a grouping of liberal democratic states interested in sustaining the rules-based regional order naturally comes into competition with China—a non-democratic state that has increasingly made its desire for change obvious.

A Quad resurgence will get the same angry response from Beijing as it did the first time around. At the time there was a flurry of unconvincing denials that the Quad was intended as a counter to China, and there’s no doubt that Chinese diplomatic efforts to stymie it paid off pretty well. But that was then and this is now. China’s trajectory was much less clear in 2007 than it is today. Then there was a credible argument for not being unnecessarily antagonistic but in light of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, that line of reasoning is less compelling now. The Quad’s time might have come.

The Quad has increasingly been up for discussion over recent years. Shortly after his return to the top job in December 2012, Abe’s by-line appeared on an op-ed that extolled the positive contribution that ‘Asia’s democratic security diamond’ could make to regional security. It has been claimed that the piece was conceived solely in the Prime Minister’s Office, which effectively sidelined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Abe promoted a failed foreign policy initiative from his first term.

Indian PM Narendra Modi was reported to have raised the Quad with Australia’s then-PM Tony Abbott in New Delhi last September. Modi is also said to have spoken to US President Barack Obama about the Quad at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January this year. That speaks not only to Modi’s eastward tilt towards the US, but also to how Indian strategic thinking is changing as it feels pressure from China at the disputed Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean.

As Opposition Leader, Abbott believed that Rudd got it wrong when he backed out of the Quad to assuage Beijing. While Abbott’s unseating earlier this week brings a degree of short-term uncertainty to Australia’s foreign and defence policies, it does nothing to change our national interest in a peaceful and stable regional order; our values of democracy, freedom and rule of law; or our increasing unease at the challenge China is mounting to the regional status quo.

While the Quad partners largely see eye-to-eye on core interests and values, it’s the growing collective concern with China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping that continues to tighten the alignment. So we shouldn’t be coy: if it wasn’t for China, or if we thought China might be content to settle into a place as a major player in the established order, Quad members would be happy just to send each other Christmas cards. Instead, the spectre of the Quad—including military activities involving the four countries—has been raised, and it’s all about China’s bellicosity, bluster and brinksmanship.

Of course, getting the Quad back up is one thing, but moving it beyond being a piece of strategic signalling and making it an effective player in regional security will be much harder. ASPI is one of the second track ‘Quad Plus’ dialogue partners, and in the lead-up to the next dialogue in February we’ll be thinking about the pros and cons, and the practical possibilities for the Quad.