The Indo-Pacific? The Quad? Please explain …

Australia’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific concept over the past five years drew mild interest from the region and curious discussion. The US adoption of the Indo-Pacific in both its national security strategy and national defence strategy means the construct/label/geographic vision suddenly matters big time.

What does the Indo-Pacific frame portend or predict for the way business will get done around here? Understandings aren’t agreed. The meaning of the Indo-Pacific matters if it’s ‘an organising principle for US foreign policy’.

Australia’s resumed role in the second coming of the Quadrilateral (after a 10-year hiatus) is different, but the arguments rhyme. Again, the discussion gets a major push from the Trump administration.

The Indo-Pacific is an attempt to embrace everybody—but a lot of nations aren’t too keen on embracing the label.

The Quad is a different beast because it bands four democracies—the US, Japan, India and Australia. And the band is reforming because Australia is ready to play. When Kevin Rudd’s Labor government won office in 2007, he withdrew Australia from the band. For Rudd, the Quad was too big a provocation of China.

Exit Oz from the Quad Mark I—then there were three. That’s why officials gathered in New Delhi last week for the 9th trilateral meeting of India, Japan and the US. The 9th trilateral’s purposes are those of the resurrected Quad:

practical steps to enhance cooperation in the areas of connectivity and infrastructure development; counter-proliferation; counter-terrorism; maritime security, maritime domain awareness and HA-DR [humanitarian assistance–disaster relief].

Beyond the ‘practical steps’ explanation, though, everyone knows the bigger story: the boys are putting the band together because Beijing has been a bully.

Both sides of Oz politics have reached bipartisanship on the Quad, as they did more smoothly on the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific consensus was expressed by Labor’s 2013 defence white paper, the Coalition’s 2016 defence white paper and the Coalition’s 2017 foreign policy white paper. Adding to the Indo-Pacific accord, Labor has signalled that it won’t do another Kevin and squib the Quad if it wins office.

Last month, Labor Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles endorsed the ‘valuable complementary role’ of the reborn Quad:

It makes a space for four like-minded trading democracies to share their thoughts on regional security. The high-level discussions add another layer of co-operation to the intersecting bilateral and multilateral activities in place across the region. Defence exercises, particularly naval exercises, with these countries and others in the region also play a critical role in building operational understanding and confidence which in turn is vital for the security of the Indo-Pacific.

The Trump strategies and the 2017 Australian foreign policy paper point to the shared worries of the boys in the band.

Under the heading ‘Power shifts in the Indo-Pacific’, the Australian white paper declares:

China’s power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed that of the US. The future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific will largely depend on the actions of the US, China and major powers such as Japan and India.

Turn to the Trump national security strategy to see a description of ‘revisionist’ China challenging ‘American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity’, wanting ‘to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests’, and seeking ‘to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favour’.

The Trump strategy lauds Japan as ‘our critical ally’, notes Australia’s support for ‘our shared interests and safeguards democratic values across the region’ and welcomes ‘India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner’, declaring: ‘We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.’

The Australian historian James Curran says the banding of the four Indo-Pacific democracies is worthy diplomatic symbolism:

In essence, the Quad has already done the job its proponents want it to do: sending a warning to China. This warning is not to be underestimated given the legitimate concerns about Chinese strategic behaviour in recent years. Such is the meaning behind the euphemism of showing ‘strength in numbers’. The problem with the Quad is that no matter how important or symbolic this gesture, sooner or later the lack of real substance in its strategic intent will show.

Seeking the substance, Ankit Panda offers a close reading of the explanations provided by the four members of the band when they reunited in November, 2017. The Quad knows what it wants to sing about: a free and open Indo-Pacific; a rules-based order; freedom of navigation and overflight; and respect for international law and maritime security.

The Quad challenges China’s assertiveness with high principles and practical exercises. This is the diplomacy of dissuasion, not a new ‘instrument of hard containment’.

ASEAN mistrusts the Indo-Pacific label and is spooked by the Quad. Australia hasn’t had much success arguing that Southeast Asia is at the centre of the Indo-Pacific. The ‘not made here’ aspect of ASEAN centrality makes the association resentful of labels it didn’t invent. South Korea asks quietly about the utility of the Quad. And if the utility answer is hazy, why embrace something that so angers China?

Both the Indo-Pacific and the Quad offer a looking glass moment:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’