If Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and the words of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are to be believed, Washington is set to defend disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea from being ‘overtaken’ by Beijing, as part of an effort to stand up to China more generally. While the Obama administration’s approach was more diplomatic, the perceived lack of consistency and backbone when it came to standing up to China spooked many throughout the Indo–Pacific wanting to see stronger US resolve.
If President Trump proves genuinely ready to step into the fray where his predecessor did not, like-minded states will have an opportunity to take stronger steps to defend the existing regional order. Having said that, there will be no free rides. As Trump has said, regional allies and partners will need to contribute more to their own security.
If that’s the case, it might be time to revisit the Quadrilateral Initiative.
Much has changed since Kevin Rudd unilaterally withdrew from the grouping in 2008. China’s assertive actions to extend and defend its territorial claims in the East and South China seas have undermined its own rhetoric about a peaceful rise. While Beijing’s complete rejection of the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling in its dispute with the Philippines was anticipated, it also exacerbated fears about how China will use its growing military might and political influence.
There are five key reasons to believe that Japan, India, the US, and Australia, would value a resurgence of the Quad, as would many ASEAN states.
First, the revival of the Quad would be a key contribution to Shinzo Abe’s ‘pro-active contribution to peace’ policy initiative. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan’s taken purposeful steps to become a more flexible strategic partner, committed to making a stronger contribution to upholding the existing regional order. That’s included government legislative wins that allow Japan to export defence equipment and technology for the first time since World War II. The Self-Defence Force’s options to render military assistance to the US, and potentially other security partners, in the event of an armed attack was also boosted by the Cabinet’s 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, albeit only in circumstances where there is a clear threat to the Japanese state or its people. But one suspects the definition of ‘threat’ is evolving and will likely widen over time as Chinese power grows.
Second, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has been more forthright with respect to articulating its strategic interests and also less reticent about offending Beijing than was his predecessor. Modi has made thinly-veiled critiques of China’s ‘expansionist policies’, and offered strong support for the position taken by the Trilateral Security Dialogue members—Japan, the US and Australia—on resolving South China Sea disputes based on international law. Concerned about China’s naval encroachment into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has sought to deepen strategic and defence partnerships with both Japan and the US under a multi-alignment strategy that maintains India’s strategic autonomy. It would require relatively small steps to revisit the Quad’s return.
Third, the Trump administration may well favour a revival of the Quad as an explicit counter to China. Trump didn’t pull any punches when it came to comments on Chinese activities including in the South China Sea just days before his inauguration. His explicit distaste of free-riding by allies may well lead Trump to view a Quad as entrenching burden-sharing between two allies with direct stakes in Indo-Pacific stability. By the same token, a Quad would be one way for Australia and Japan to demonstrate to the Trump administration that they take their respective security responsibilities seriously.
Fourth, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper makes clear Canberra’s stake in the longevity of US pre-eminence in the region and in maintaining the existing rules-based global order. Efforts by Canberra to revive the Quad, with particular effort going towards building economic and strategic relations with India would be the most effective means of furthering these strategic objectives. It would also provide a means of ‘mitigating and responding to …strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific,’ an area of focus specified in the upcoming DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper.
Finally, ASEAN nations are now more likely to view the resurgence of the Quad as a means of outsourcing hard-power balancing against China without directly incurring China’s wrath. The four Quad countries are members of the East Asian Summit and could easily meet on the sidelines of the ASEAN-backed meeting. Importantly, the cover of ASEAN centrality needn’t be threatened by the Quad should it remain an informal un-institutionalised grouping.
The resuscitated Quad could initially take a softly-softly approach through a focus on preserving stability in the Indian Ocean. Restricting the scope of the Quad to the Indian Ocean would suit India’s maritime interests and capabilities, thereby encouraging greater buy-in from New Delhi. Steering clear of contested waters would also potentially help avoid perceptions in Beijing that the initiative is part of a containment strategy, which would help enhance the Quad’s saleability to the Australian public and to ASEAN states. Initial activities could include a leaders-level summit between the four countries to discuss maritime security in the Indian Ocean, and building military-to-military links through naval exercises focused on anti-piracy, terrorism and HA/DR. These activities would constitute the group’s baseline engagement, with the implied promise of mission creep should China’s actions become more destabilizing.
The Quad mightn’t be a game changer. But its revival may complicate Beijing’s calculations as it works to challenge aspects of the existing regional order.