Why the Quad is Important for Australia
In an effort to confront China’s ‘One Belt One Road,’ Australia introduced measures to prevent China from gaining additional influence in the Indo-Pacific. While these measures may help Australia to set boundaries, the Quad – a security partnership of Australia, the US, India and Japan – have so far been unable to implement a regional strategy. Australia withdrew from the framework in 2007 under Kevin Rudd’s leadership on the basis that the Quad could potentially damage relations with China. Since it was re-established in 2017, the Quad has met several times, but meetings have largely been figurative.
The Australian government announced $3 billion in funding for the Pacific – which consists of infrastructure finance for transport, energy and water. This was implemented to counteract China’s investment initiatives in the Indo-Pacific of $2.3 billion between 2006 and 2016. Secondly, the US and Australia have agreed to bolster their ‘pivot ‘in the Pacific by making upgrades to the Manus Island Base. This is complemented by strengthened defence ties between Japan and Australia in Darwin this year. By agreeing to participate in joint exercises and regional maritime security, Australia and Japan have committed to overcoming security challenges in the South China Sea.
Although these measures are late – late is better than never.
Australia and its allies have been slow to react to China’s creeping dominance in the South China Sea. Since China took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, satellite images reveal China’s military presence have moved into Bombay Reef.
The delayed political response to China’s influence in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific is largely underpinned by the benefits of China-Australia trade. Having being caught between China and the US, Australia has tried to avoid aggravating China in order to sustain trade ties. In 2017, China was Australia’s most significant trading partner accounting for $183 billion or 24% of total trade.
While abstaining from this priority would hinder economic growth, Australia must endeavour to sustain its economic relations without jeopardising security interests. The issue is that China may enforce ‘economic warnings’ during times of conflict and political tension. In the context of Australian Parliament introducing foreign donation and interference laws, which were largely perceived to have been against China, Beijing introduced measures to scrutinise wine imports in early 2018. Further anxiety over trade disruption was felt in November 2018 as Barley exporters were targeted on claims of anti-dumping. This was implemented merely days after Australia and the US agreed to upgrade Lobrum base at Manus Island.
If more serious provisions were to be enforced upon Australia’s exports, China could potentially use its economic leverage to exert some degree of pressure on Australia’s security policy. To be clear, Australia must be acutely aware of China’s ability to use economic instruments to realise geopolitical goals. All great powers, even the United States have, in some capacity, used geoeconomics to obtain political outcomes.
Although Australia’s $3 billion package may enable Canberra to show muscle in the Pacific, a coordinated regional strategy would better serve Australia’s national interest. The Quad can be used as the backbone of a multifaceted strategy – a mix of economic diplomacy, particularly through enhanced investment and trade ties, as well as cooperation in the form of technological and military exchanges.
This strategy is already taking shape as the Quad has pledged to enhance freedom of navigation and promote an economically connected Indo-Pacific. To realise this objective, Quad participants agreed to increase investment in infrastructure, tourism and energy as part of a trilateral partnership in July this year. But India avoided this trilateral initiative.
Strategically, Australia can play a part in strengthening India’s security policy and in turn the Quad as a whole. For one, Australia can play a role in navigating the economic-security nexus that has softened India’s policy towards China. This involves Australia playing a part in improving India’s economic opportunities through trade diversification. The recent diplomatic meeting between Prime Minister Morrison and President Ram Nath Kovind saw endorsement of Peter Varghese’s 500-page report on the need to bring Australia-India relations closer together. By building on existing trade relations, India and Australia may be able to diversify their trade relations and become less susceptible to China’s influence. This doesn’t mean excluding China, but rather evolving trade relations to the multilateral level by working with ASEAN and RCEP partners.
Moreover, the Indian Air Force engaged in Australia’s Pitch Black Exercise – the Royal Australian Air Force’s biennial air warfare exercise – illustrates a degree of India’s openness towards regional military collaboration.
Overall, however, India was reluctant to commit to joint geopolitical initiatives as New Delhi included Japan and the United States as part of the Malabar naval exercises, but excluded Australia earlier this year. India resolved its dispute with China over the Doklam border crisis where both sides had placed ground forces. Another reason for India’s softer approach are again underpinned by economic factors. Similar to Australia, China is India’s largest two-way trading partner. New Delhi still confronts a $52 billion deficit with China and has to work closely with Beijing to reduce this deficit. This is justifiable as any hast moves towards militarising in the Indo-Pacific would disrupt ties with China.
In this sense, Australia shouldn’t try to contain China through the Quad, but rather reach lines of cooperation and mutual understanding. The Quad’s development should be gradual and focus on building the economic networks that can become the vehicle for security and stability.