Rethinking the “Quad” Security Concept in the Face of a Rising China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 19

Image: A meeting of the “Quad” foreign ministers, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, at official talks in Tokyo on October 6, 2020. (Image source: Indian Ministry of External Affairs)

Introduction

On October 19, it was announced that Australia would be joining India, Japan, and the United States in the 2020 Malabar Exercises for the first time since 2017. The 2020 Malabar Exercises are anticipated to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea later this year (Press Information Bureau (India), October 19). The announcement of Australia’s participation followed recent high-level meetings in Tokyo between the foreign ministers of the four countries, and signalled a renewed strengthening of the Quadrilateral Initiative (aka “Quad”) security framework—which is aimed at advancing a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” and “preserving and promoting the rules-based order in the region” (U.S. State Department, May 31, 2019).

The Quad concept was initially spearheaded in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japan), August 22, 2007), and paralleled the start of the 2007 Malabar Exercises, which were conducted in the Bay of Bengal and involved a record participating 25 vessels from India, the United States, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. However, support for the new alliance system rapidly waned almost as quickly as it had begun, and the Quad framework quickly fell into disuse—largely overshadowed by other regional trilateral agreements—until it was resurrected in 2017 in response to concerns over a more assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Beijing has viewed the Quad negatively from the start, lodging diplomatic complaints with all four participating nations almost immediately after its founding and generally viewing it as an alliance aimed at containing China’s expanding regional power. At various times, member states have sought to distance themselves from the Quad as they balanced their support for the initiative against maintaining positive economic and political relationships with China, with the framework effectively lying dormant for over a decade.

India’s Growing Support for the “Quad 2.0”

Unlike some ASEAN countries, which maintain exclusive economic zones in the contested South China Sea (SCS), none of the Quad members have a direct stake in the region. However, the PRC’s efforts to exert sovereign control over parts of the South China Sea arguably violates the 1982 United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), which sets the rules for conducting international commerce in open seas. The overseas arm of India’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) is engaged in oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s EEZ, and it is possible that India’s economic interests in the region could one day be threatened by Chinese activities (China Brief, May 29). Additionally, over $5 trillion in global commerce passes through the SCS every year, underpinning the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in the region. If a single nation were to disrupt the peaceful status quo, it would become the collective responsibility of law-abiding nations to secure the area and maintain freedom of movement in the region.

To this end, “Quad 2.0” talks were held on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN summit in November 2017, with the Indian government reporting that officials from Australia, India, the United States and Japan “exchanged views on addressing common challenges of terrorism and proliferation linkages impacting the region as well as on enhancing connectivity” (The Hindu, November 12, 2017). Just ahead of a second Quad meeting which took place on June 8, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out India’s Indo-Pacific vision at a keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, emphasizing the need for countries to “rise above divisions and competition to work together” to maintain peace in the region. Modi emphasized the need for a common rules-based order for the region, saying:

Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength. These rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few. This must be based on faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force. It also means that when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them. This is the foundation of India’s faith in multilateralism and regionalism; and, of our principled commitment to rule of law (MEA (India), June 1, 2018).

At the same time, Modi failed to explicitly censure China’s activities in the region in his Shangri-La Dialogue speech, and did not mention the Quad directly—leading some critics to worry that India sought to elevate the role of ASEAN as a mechanism for regional cooperation at the expense of the Quad. (NDTV, July 13, 2018; The Wire(India), June 8, 2018). India also engaged with Russia and China on maritime dialogues around the same time (The Hindu, July 5, 2018).

Coping with China in 2020

Events this year have changed India’s earlier hesitation about signing on with the Quad. Amid an ongoing global health crisis sparked by a coronavirus that originated in China, India’s tensions with China have increased. COVID-19’s impacts on global supply chains have underscored the dangers of economic dependence on China, and India’s willingness to risk its economic relationship with China was demonstrated by the public’s widespread calls to boycott Chinese goods following a military standoff in the Galwan Province this summer, and later on the eastern border of Ladakh (China Brief, October 19). Citing national security and data privacy issues, India also moved to ban over a hundred Chinese apps shortly after the border conflict broke out, accelerating its trend towards technology nationalism and further hurting its economic relationship with China (The Hindu, September 3).

The June border conflict also hardened anti-China sentiments in New Delhi. One former national security advisor noting that the conflict amounted to a “massive escalation” and an attempt to change the status quo, saying that “Chinese behaviour has been very different to anything in the past…and it is even more serious because it is a part of a broader Chinese behaviour, not just vis-à-vis us, but with other people as well.” (The Wire (India), June 18). A retired chief of the Indian Navy wrote in July: “The time for ambivalence is over and while India will have to fight its own territorial battles with determination, this is the moment to seek external balancing…[a] formal revival and re-invigoration of the Quad is called for” (Indian Express, July 22).

The Quad is increasingly seen in India as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. The influential Hindustan Times argued in a recent editorial that “China wants to limit New Delhi’s power and ambition; it wants India to accept Beijing’s primacy in Asia and beyond.” The editorial urged that New Delhi should “double down on its partnership with the U.S., [and] make [the] Quad…a more permanent arrangement, and be a part of any club that seeks to contain Chinese power” (Hindustan Times, June 17).

Image: A U.S. Navy officer and an Indian Navy officer consult on submarine exercise planning activities on board the Indian Navy destroyer INS Mysore during the Malabar Exercise held in April 2007. (Image source: Defense.gov)

The Malabar Exercises and Enhanced Security Bargains Cement the Quad’s Power

The relevance of the Malabar naval exercises to the Quad’s evolution cannot be understated. First started as a series of annual bilateral exercises between the United States and India in the Indian Ocean, the exercises were expanded to include all four members of the Quad plus Singapore in 2007, and encompassed maritime drills off the coast of Okinawa and in the Bay of Bengal. In 2015, Japan was added as a permanent member to the joint exercises. Australia has requested to participate in the exercises since 2017, but this year marks the first time that it will participate since 2017. Australia’s involvement underscores the increased power of Quad 2.0 in 2020, with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip S. Davidson emphasizing that the Quad represents not only a military, but also a diplomatic and economic counter to China (FDD, October 13).

Australia’s participation was made possible by recent increased ties in the Australian-Indian military relationship. As part of the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, India and Australia signed two landmark defence arrangements in June 2020: the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA), which aims to increase military interoperability through bilateral activities; and the Defense Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement (DSTIA), which provides for defense cooperation between the two countries (Ministry of Defence (Australia), June 4). This agreement followed the first-ever virtual bilateral summit between Prime Minister Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The June defense agreements paved the way for greater cross-service military activity, building on the success of the most complex exercise to date, AUSINDEX 2019, which focused on anti-submarine warfare (The Hindu, September 5).

Three months later, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe held a virtual summit with his Indian counterpart on 10 September—shortly before he left office—and signed the much-anticipated Mutual Logistic Support Arrangement. Going further, during the third “2+2” meeting between the United States and India in New Delhi on October 27, both sides signed the Basic Exchanges and Cooperation Agreement for GeoSpatial Cooperation (BECA), paving the way for India to acquire armed drones like Reapers or Predators for long-range precision strikes against hostile targets on land and sea (Times of India, October 28, 2020). For the first time, the South China Sea was specifically mentioned, with Pompeo using strong language that called China’s policy on the South China Sea “tyranny.”  The clinching of these agreements in such quick time demonstrates these countries’ renewed interest in keeping an eye on China’s expansionist behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, giving the Quad stronger teeth (Times of India, September 10).

The India-Japan MLSA agreement will enhance inter-operability between the armed forces of both countries. The significance of the pact cannot be missed, as it comes amid border tensions with China and Beijing’s aggressive behaviour across the Indo-Pacific region. It is difficult to dispute that the deepening of defense ties in recent years between India and Japan is in response to China’s growing influence across the region. The agreement will provide their militaries with access to each other’s bases for supplies and services. The agreement will also facilitate the smooth provision of supplies and services between the forces on the ground.

India has signed similar agreements with the United States, France, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. The 2016 India-U.S. Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) gives India refuelling facilities and access to American bases in Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Guam and Subic Bay. Based on these agreements, India and the six signatory countries can now support each other’s warships and aircraft—as well as boosting defense ties more generally. Such agreements enhance India’s strategic reach in the Indian Ocean and help to counter China’s expanding footprint across the Indo-Pacific on a bilateral basis (Rediff, September 12).

Japan, under Shinzo Abe, was the original proposer of the Quad framework. With Abe’s departure in September, one might ask whether the Quad 2.0 would lose some of its salience, since he was the most important proponent for this framework? In a word, no. U.S. leaders such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have shown themselves willing to throw their hearty support behind the concept, and the participating members of the Quad all have stronger reasons to support the framework than they did in 2007. [1] Also, Abe may have relinquished office, but will remain in government as a member of the lower house of Japan’s Diet until September 2021 (unless his successor Yoshihide Suga opts for a snap election). Abe will presumably provide Suga with the right support to take the Quad forward. In view of the growing synergy that the Quad members have found on Indo-Pacific affairs, it is unlikely that the Quad’s utility as a security framework will decline in the coming years.

Conclusion

In this evolving scenario, it is in the interests of both India and the United States to hone their military cooperation efforts. For the two other Quad members, Japan and Australia, India’s strong foothold in the Indo-Pacific provides a key counterbalance to China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean. The noted Indian strategic analyst Brahma Challeney has argued that “as long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.” [2] Indian policymakers spent years attempting to appease China, to little avail. As events in 2020 have unfolded and security risks in the Asia-Pacific have become heightened, Indian analysts have reached a consensus that a successful Indo-Pacific policy must include more overt security frameworks that can combat—even contain—China’s growing regional power.

Professor Rajaram Panda was a Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India and Member, Governing Council of Indian Council of World Affairs, and Centre for Security and Strategic Studies, both in New Delhi. He was also Senior Fellow at IDSA and ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. He may be reached at: [email protected]

Notes

[1] For an example of Pompeo’s support for the Quad, see: “Pompeo seeks to institutionalize Quad ties to counter China,” Asia Nikkei, October 6, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Pompeo-aims-to-institutionalize-Quad-ties-to-counter-China. For a discussion of the Quad’s future viability, see: “Assessing the Quad: Prospects and Limitations of Quadrilateral Cooperation For Advancing Australia’s Interests,” May 19, 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/assessing-quad-prospects-and-limitations-quadrilateral-cooperation-advancing-australia#_edn3.

[2] Brahma Challeney, “China Alone”, 21 August 2020, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/indo-pacific-security-quad-chinese-expansionism-by-brahma-chellaney-2020-08