Second track on Indo-Pacific and the Quad

The vast construct of the Indo-Pacific and the limited grouping of the Quad (the US, Japan, India and Australia) share a few significant traits.

Both are attempts to define and direct the emerging regional power system. Both suffer from the significant defect that key members aren’t sure about the meaning of the new club—or even whether they want to belong to it. And both cause intense arguments.

At the point where the arguments start, the huge differences between the Indo-Pacific and the Quad rear up and crash through those shared features.

The Indo-Pacific is supposed to include everyone, while the Quad—four democracies groping towards a grouping—has reconvened to push back at China. (See ASPI’s new paper on Quad 2.0.)

The Indo-Pacific, in the picture painted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is ‘a natural region’—free, open, inclusive—and not ‘directed against any country’. He adds that ‘A geographical definition, as such, cannot be.’ That’s elegantly put, but this isn’t just geography, and as for it being ‘natural’, well …

The ‘free and open’ language projects the Indo-Pacific as the dream. The Quad faces towards nightmare scenarios.

The dream-versus-nightmare contrast explains why India is happier to talk up the Indo-Pacific than the meaning of the Quad.

In the 2019 regional security outlook from the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), Rahul Mishra says India is more attracted to the Indo-Pacific but the Quad’s fortunes will rise if times turn bleak:

While China plays a critical role in shaping India’s security perceptions, relations with Japan, the US, and countries of the region are gaining prominence in influencing India’s overall security perspective. In that context, India’s commitment to the Quad would also depend on how far these four democracies could move forward together on the security front.

Mishra comments that to become a substantive voice, the four members will have to deepen their commitments to the Quad and expand its membership: ‘Asia’s past tells us that no regional political or military construct can sustain itself without the active participation of key Southeast Asian states.’

Before any ASEAN state would even touch the Quad, the bleak scenario will have to deliver many more shocks to the regional power system. At this point, ASEAN hasn’t even wholly embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific.

On the Quad’s prospects, the co-chair of the Australian committee of CSCAP, Anthony Milner, comments: ‘One very senior ASEAN diplomat said to me a few weeks ago: “You’d have to be insane to think that the Quad is going anywhere.”’

CSCAP lives on the second track (where discussion is blunter than the official first track) and argument buzzes about the Indo-Pacific, the Quad and regional architecture: in November, at the CSCAP steering council meeting in Perth; in December at an Australia–India CSCAP bilateral hosted by the Delhi Policy Group, followed by a roundtable involving Australia, the EU, ASEAN and India; and in Kuala Lumpur a fortnight ago at a CSCAP retreat for two working groups looking at the future of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the shape of the rules-based order.

Reflecting on ASEAN views, Milner says that although an Indo-Pacific strategic framework makes some sense for Australia, for others in this region the label puts two oceans together to squeeze out Asia—or ‘two oceans drowning Asia’. His view is that ‘Asia’ or ‘Asia–Pacific’ covers what we’re talking about, since Asia most certainly includes India.

The trouble is that if Asia becomes the label of choice, that echoes China’s ‘Asia is for Asians’ language, excluding the US; Indo-Pacific and Asia–Pacific are explicit in embracing the US role.

From his New Delhi CSCAP talks, Milner reports a mixed picture on Indian perceptions of the purpose and prospects of the Quad. Some in India, he says, are ‘gung-ho’ for the four-nation process, while others put far more emphasis on building the relationship with China.

‘Australia would be very unwise to assume India will be serious about the Quad’, Milner says.

Japan, too, is putting far more effort into its China interests than in directing the Quad. Milner echoes former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s fears that Australia could find itself home alone at the Quad party, jilted by Japan and India and at the mercy of a capricious US president.

‘I think Australia runs the risk of being in an idiotic position’, Milner says. ‘We could end up being seen as the only enthusiasts in the Quad. Some in the region are puzzled or bemused that we have gone so far in poking China, considering the scale of our economic relationship with China. We are looking rather lonely.’

The other co-chair of Australian CSCAP is Ric Smith, former senior diplomat and secretary of Australia’s defence department, who sees the Quad more at the interesting than the idiotic end of the scale:

There’s a great risk of outsiders to the Quad over-egging it: there have been three fairly low-key meetings of officials from four governments that share a range of interests, and none of them have canvassed anything remotely like a new bloc let alone an alliance in the region. There can be no harm in consultation between ‘like-mindeds’. But some Southeast Asian governments are predictably anxious about ideas that ‘weren’t invented here’.

The editor of CSCAP’s security outlook, Ron Huisken, thinks the Quad is a bit of quiet conceptualising that unexpectedly shot up the hit parades—both as a target to be hit and as a statement about the nightmare scenario:

The Quad, I believe, was intended as a sleeper, a kind of understated, long-range signal to China not to break the furniture in the region because it could lead to the Quad becoming real and hard. Geopolitical fine-tuning of this kind is notoriously difficult. India, in particular, will risk nearly everything before abandoning non-alignment and accepting that it may not be the second of two massive and ancient civilizations in the world that is capable, like China, of charting a wholly independent course.