INDO-PACIFIC POLITICS

Quad Immobile But What’s The Way Forward?

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi 22 March 2019

“The Quad cannot be dead since it was never born. At the most it is stillborn.”
When your perceived enemy dismisses you in those words, it can hurt. But the Chinese perception of the Quad, as described in an Op-ed in the English language daily Global Times earlier this week, may reflect an uncomfortable reality.

The article quoted the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as saying that the Quad maybe shelved for now. It also quoted India’s naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba as saying during the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi in January this year that “there wasn’t immediate potential for a Quad.”

When one looks at it, there’s been a singular lack of movement from the Quad (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) but for two meetings at the joint secretary level in November 2017 and June 2018. There was another meeting in November last year on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit with each Quad member issuing separate statements.

That appears to have been the norm so far. The Quad has never come out with a joint statement as to its intentions and the way forward. It is internally divided with each member pulling in different directions. Thus, India has blocked Australia’s participation in the trilateral Malabar exercise over its suspicions about the inroads China has made in that country; Japan has an understanding with China on the Belt & Road; the United States is seeking to strike a deal with China on trade.

So, it would seem that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s description of the Quad in March last year, as “foam on the sea” that would soon dissipate, was valid. Is the Quad indeed stillborn?

It’s important to understand that the Quad rose in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. This was when the navies of the four member states anchored a massive relief and rescue effort. So the original basis of the Quad was humanitarian and disaster relief, an issue on which national governments generally find it easy to cooperate with other countries.

The security dimension of the Quad is a more recent phenomenon, dating to 2007 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his vision to the Indian Parliament, of connectivity between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It surfaced again in 2017 when the U.S. called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as an organising principle of its Asia strategy.

But finding a consensus on security is never easy. Although India supported the Quad idea in the wake of the Doklam standoff with China, it is the only member state to share a land border with China, so it cannot afford to needlessly provoke the dragon. Add to that, in the event of a confrontation with China, there is no guarantee that any of the Quad members would come to India’s aid. During the Doklam crisis, India stood alone.

Since then India has moved to mend fences with Beijing. The Wuhan informal summit last July appears to have enabled Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping to arrive at an understanding on the future course of their relations. Note Modi’s words: “I firmly believe Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”.

India has also underscored that ASEAN (the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations) is at the heart of its Indo-Pacific policy, which suggests that the Quad may have less scope.

There are some who suggest that rather than the existing Quad, India should influence the forming of a new grouping perhaps more relevant to its requirements, with Japan, U.S., Indonesia and Singapore. The last two are ASEAN members and have stakes in the Pacific and Indian oceans. India is yet to articulate its views on such a grouping which given its obvious security outlook, could raise hackles in Beijing.

But it’s no less true that ASEAN has shown itself incapable of defending its regional interests vis a vis the “nine dash line” articulated by China. ASEAN has been a bystander as China went on to claim large swathes of the South China Sea, forcibly take over islands of other ASEAN member states and militarise them. Today, China despite being outside ASEAN is able to manoeuvre successfully through proxies within the group to assert its interests.

So if the Quad is not functional and “ASEAN centrality” is fine as an argument but hard to implement in security terms, what is the alternative?

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  • The issues concerning Quad Security Dialogue have been well brought out by the author, though I am yet to come across any other attribution of its origins (informal or otherwise) dating to 2004, linked with the aftermath of the Boxer Day Tsunami disaster. Commonly, it is believed that the origins of Quad date to 2007. The author has raised an important question, which observers in many countries, especially Quad countries, would also be wondering, “whither Quad”? Of late there have been many critical reports and views about the salience of Quad, and whether it really has a future. Clearly, pessimism about the Quad is growing.
    This may disappoint nationalists and conservative strategists in Quad nations, who would have liked to see the Quad Strategic Dialogue evolve into a quasi-military alliance against China, by now. But their hopes were misplaced due to inherent issues, and the sheer contradictions in the strategic outlook of the member states of Quad made the grouping a mere conversation of indeterminate interests. The four democracies closed ranks with the larger concerns about China’s irrational strategic behaviour in the background, but they failed to clearly articulate mutually reinforcing ideas about what they wish to do, and achieve together. Mark J. Valencia might have provoked some indignation by the fatalistic title of his recent piece, ‘The Quad: Whistling by its Grave’ (IPP Review, 20 Mar 19), but the facts he puts forth to support his hypothesis are undeniable. Despite the optimism of Jeff Smith, Graeme Dobell, Dr. Ian Hall, Abhijit Singh, etc., Quad has to reckon with its unique sets of problems, well articulated in ASPI’s The Strategist by Huong Le Thu (New perspectives for the revived Quad, 14 Feb 2019). It would be fair to accept that Quad has a peculiar structural problem, which has to do with its title – it designates membership of just four. This in itself serves to severely limit its expansion, with no scope of induction of more like-minded nations, and thereby makes it remain moribund in action orientation. The current Quad can therefore be compared with a ‘four ball’ of Golf players with vastly differing ‘handicaps’, it severely limits their ability to participate in a competition as a team, or even enjoy the game.
    Then what is the alternative, as Surya Gangadharan asks in the end of his summarising? Here is a proposition. Link the conceptual motivation behind Quad to the aspiration of ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’, and let this be reflected it in its title. A suggested title is ‘Friends of Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP)’, or FFOIP, for short. Let the existing Quad be the founding members of this Security Dialogue, and they could take the initative to propose the first meeting of FFOIP on the sidelines of the IISS organised annual Shangri La dialogue at Singapore. The invitation for a prospective member to join FFOIP should be strictly by consensus, among existing members. Possible consensual additions could be Vietnam, Singapore, and South Korea. Maybe, Indonesia too. The FFOIP could meet as required, but perhaps mandatorily once a year on the sidelines of the Shangri La dialogue at Singapore, which is an annual feature and provides the right setting.
    By subsuming Quad into FFOIP, there would be certain element of continuity in the efforts made so far, and the group will evolve further as a pressure group against Chinese assertiveness and revisionism in the Indo-Pacific. By making it more flexible, the unreal expectations of Quad evolving into a military alliance will also be tempered once for all. It’s high time to accept the reality of Quad and get it moving, in a more sustainable form, and in a more meaningful direction.

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