The Platform

Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy

Recently, the notion of a free and open “Indo-Pacific” has become the undercurrent of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Even before the term “Indo-Pacific” gained traction, upon its mention by former President Donald Trump calling for a rules-based order in the region, it was Australia that first adopted the term in 2013.

Dubbed the “Asian Century,” the 21st century has witnessed a major shift in global architecture which has lent a renewed strategic importance to the Asia-Pacific. The region is a hub of energy trade – with a vast majority of global oil shipments and one-third of bulk cargo passing through it. Malacca Strait and Bab al-Mandab have become indispensable to economies like India, China, and Japan who rely on these sea routes for a bulk of their energy needs. Subsequent U.S. administrations, from Obama, Trump, and now Biden, have made clear America’s intentions for a secure, independent, and open Indo-Pacific governed under the rules-based order. This notion forms the central theme of the Quad, an alliance of India, Japan, the U.S., and Australia.

The alliance, hailed as a strategic and military grouping, essentially came together as a core group for humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. The idea of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” was mooted for the first time by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former prime minister, to promote democratic freedom and the rule of law. At this point however the Quad had no specific agenda or coherent principle for convergence and the effort fell apart as domestic political scenarios changed in the member countries. However, the story of Quad is that of gradual convergence and not of rapid institutionalization. It was the time between the proposal and the revival of the ‘big four’ that laid down the purpose for Quad. This can largely be attributed to China and the improvement of bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral relations between them.

Role of China in Quad’s revival

The rapid rise of China, unilateral drawing of sovereign boundaries violating the territorial integrity of sovereign nations, aggressive protection of its assets, and unwarranted aggression in the South and the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean has made it a cause of concern for most nations in the region. China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea is a territorial concern for its neighbours especially the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands with Japan.

That coupled with China’s increasing military presence and repeated incursions under the garb of anti-piracy operations in and around the disputed territory created discomfort for Japan. A unilateral territorial invasion has led to massive border issues along the LAC with India including the Doklam standoff and a clash at Galwan Valley. Another cause of disquiet was the increasing Chinese military bases in the Indian Ocean including those in Djibouti and ports acquired under its debt-trap diplomacy like Gwadar, Hambantota, and Kyaukpyu posing a direct security threat to key chokepoints.

The Indian Navy guided-missile corvette Kulish leads ships of the U.S. and Indian navies during a military exercise. (James Evans)

Australia is ill-at-ease due to the suspected involvement of the Chinese Communist Party in its internal political matters. This has created a rift between Australian-Sino relations. So much so that Tokyo and Canberra finalised a Reciprocal Access Agreement to increase military engagement and ease deployment of forces in case of an imminent security threat while voicing concerns about the Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Beijing’s economic growth and military prowess have single-handedly threatened Washington’s supremacy as a world leader. Its retaliatory sanctions on U.S. goods led to a trade war that harmed the global economy.

Connecting the dots

As key players in the Indo-Pacific felt a common threat of “aggression” and “coercion” in the concerned geographical area, the Quad found a converging goal that was lacking initially. China denounced the group as “Asian NATO regressing to the cold war mentality” and warned against forming “exclusive cliques.” It is no secret that the idea of the Quad challenges Chinese ambitions. The question however remains regarding the viability of the Quad as a multilateral forum and the methods that need to be undertaken for maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific.

A forward-looking approach

The underlying threat perception that binds Quad is based on the idea of defending the status quo of liberal rules-based order – a construct solely based on Western global hegemony. It is also based on denial of the fact that China is already a superpower and not just an American rival-in-making. Cornering a powerful China won’t deter its economic clout. It must be accepted that China holds considerable stakes in the global economy and it cannot be threatened or boycotted out of it.

Economic negotiations contingent on military actions

As far as China’s unilateral belligerence is concerned, the need of the hour is shrewd diplomacy wherein economic-security bargaining will go hand in hand. Several market giants are moving their operations out of China and others have prevented Chinese companies from accessing their markets. Here the Quad can provide market space in return for military accountability from China. Bringing China to the negotiation table and making it realise the importance of proving its trustworthiness will go a long way in initiating dialogue. This can be regularised as a 2+2 dialogue including the external affairs and defence ministers from all five countries, including China. That coupled with the engagement of senior civil officials and high-ranking defence officials will widen the scope for fruitful bilateral and multilateral consultations as a step to deter unilateral escalations.

Regional engagement

Maintaining the centrality of ASEAN countries by involving them in the Quad plus forum will be a step in the right direction. The focus must be on the creation of maritime infrastructure to enable regular combined patrolling of high seas and key chokepoints to push containment without hostility considering it will be a regional exercise with the involvement of surrounding countries.

Need for an accurate estimation of China

China’s Xi Jinping had called for “equality of civilizations” and warned against “stupid” and “disastrous” clashes between civilizations. Chinese flexion of its military prowess is a blatant attempt to come to par with American military presence globally. The Quad must remind the Chinese of its jargon while acknowledging their role in furthering globalised development. Cornering a country as advanced as China might prove more counterproductive like that of America’s maximum pressure tactic on Iran. Negotiations on sanctions are necessary since China cannot be isolated like North Korea.

Future road map

While the Quad remains a forum without institutionalised agendas currently, it can rise to the occasion and demand that China proves its trustworthiness as a global power. The Quad must withstand political winds and proceed with a solution-oriented forward-looking approach without regressing to ancient hegemonic world order. The onus falls on the Quad to prove that it isn’t another forum for voicing bilateral woes without a steady course of action.

Tanya Vatsa is a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow India. Currently a Gandhi Fellow with a year and a half experience as an assistant advocate.