Why the Quad Won’t Ever Be an Asian NATO

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The most recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Singapore last November suggests that the U.S., India, Japan and Australia regard the initiative as a geostrategic multiplier in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the evident convergence, there have been few signs of a genuine renewal of the Quad’s purpose since it was resuscitated in 2017 after a decade-long hiatus.

This is underscored by the absence of a unified declaration following the Quad’s meetings in 2017 and 2018. Although individual statements released by the four members after the meetings agreed on the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, they overlapped on few points of detail. And although Quad boosters assert that its foundations are stronger today than they were a decade ago, the absence of a single joint statement betrays the inherent limits of the initiative.

The recent revival of the Quad was triggered by the return of Shinzo Abe as Japanese prime minister in 2012. Shortly after returning to office, Abe wrote an essay promoting a ‘democratic Asian security diamond’ to forestall Chinese ‘coercion’.  The proposal endorsed the view that the U.S., Japan, Australia and India should cooperate to ‘safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific’.

India’s threat perception vis-à-vis China has increased in the decade since the Quad was first initiated, pushing it closer to Washington and U.S. allies in Asia like Australia and Japan. The increase in Chinese naval deployments in the Indian Ocean and the rapid modernisation of China’s nuclear weapons program, including its sea-launched ballistic-missile capabilities, have exercised Indian planners and provoked a greater emphasis on the link between national strategy and maritime force projection. These concerns have been overlaid by India’s apprehension about the growing reach of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Australia’s concerns over China’s strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific and its overt militarisation activities in the South China Sea have been reinforced by revelations of interference by Beijing in Australian domestic affairs. Disclosures of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Australia have included attempts to bribe high-level officials, pressure for Chinese-language media outlets to toe the line on key issues, monitoring of Chinese students in Australian universities, and recruitment of sympathetic advocates to articulate the CCP’s position in the media.

These factors have coalesced to create a more permissive environment for Australia’s participation in the Quad and other minilateral security initiatives. The Quad has the support of the opposition Labor Party as well as the Coalition government.

For the U.S., returning to the Quad after a 10-year hiatus dovetails with the Trump administration’s preference for a more explicit acknowledgement of competition with Beijing, not just in the strategic arena but also in the economic domain. Washington’s continuation of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea—notwithstanding the clear risks of military escalation—and the Trump administration’s appetite for zero-sum confrontation with Beijing over trade, signal a renewed determination by the U.S. to contain Chinese great-power ambitions.

While Trump is less focused than his predecessors on promoting the idea of a concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad aligns with his disdain for large-scale multilateralism and his fixation on burden-sharing with allies and security partners. Perhaps more importantly, the Quad maps closely to the Pentagon’s vision of developing America’s Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships ‘into a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains’.

However, given the Quad’s history, there are serious doubts about whether it can be sustained. As La Trobe University’s Nick Bisley has argued, ‘there is not a single vital national interest that all four share’. Perhaps tellingly, in contrast to 2007, the resurrection of the Quad in 2017 elicited very little apparent concern on the part of Beijing. This reflects China’s broader reaction to U.S.-led minilateral initiatives, as distinct from specific initiatives taken as part of U.S. bilateral security alliances, which tend to attract vociferous condemnation from China.

Beijing probably feels reasonably confident that underlying divisions between U.S. allies will prevent an Asian NATO from emerging and that most, if not all, American allies in the region (and those not allied to the U.S., such as India and Indonesia) will avoid formal multilateral security commitments because of their acute dependence on Chinese trade and investment. Ultimately, Beijing’s reading of minilateralism’s (and, by extension, the Quad’s) prospects may be close to the mark.

All four parties have clear incentives to constrain, and in some cases push back against, Beijing’s growing assertiveness, but that won’t necessarily sustain the Quad beyond its recent resurrection. There’s little indication that members are serious about mapping the Quad’s future in detail, and while perspectives within ASEAN are mixed, Singaporeans (perhaps surprisingly) remain the most sceptical about Quad.

One school of thought may be that the Quad parties will discover a renewed purpose only if Beijing uses force in a regional contingency. That may be credible, but it’s more likely that the U.S., Japan and Australia will focus all their efforts on leveraging existing bilateral security alliances in response to a major uptick in Chinese military activity. And it is difficult to envisage India seriously buying into a conflict in the South China Sea when even Japan and Australia place caveats on how much their alliances with the U.S. formally commit them to do in certain scenarios.

In the final analysis, we’re likely to look back on the Quad’s resurrection in 2017 as another false dawn for the development of meaningful security arrangements outside formal alliances in the Indo-Pacific.



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