Why are we still imagining the Quad?

Article by Zac Rogers, PhD Candidate Flinders University

Australia’s Defence Minister Marise Payne has confirmed the government will consider supporting an informal grouping of states that includes India, Japan, and the United States to address the strategic challenge reiterated recently by China’s SAM deployment in the Paracel Islands. We’ve been here before. Known as the Quadrilateral dialogue, it was originally floated in 2006 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in response to Beijing’s creeping assertiveness in the South China Sea. That time around, Beijing feigned, and we flinched. We pulled out of the talks after Beijing issued formal diplomatic protests to all four participants. The argument at the time was that the Quad would needlessly provoke Beijing, as the perceived threat of encirclement risked encouraging more assertive behaviour. As Rory Metcalf has pointed out, Beijing has taken that route anyway. How will history judge that little move?

Building networked maritime security in East Asia to counter China’s assertiveness with what the US Navy calls ‘flexible deterrence options’ is a sound strategic idea. Seek safety in numbers, impose diplomatic pressure and threaten economic costs, spread the burden, and the risk, across like-minded maritime democracies. It’s actually become something of a buzz phrase for think tanks and governments alike over the past few years. Nobody quite seems ready, however, to enunciate what networked security actually is, or how it differs from a more traditional alliance regime. We live in hope.

Or not. Any genuine networked security model for maritime East Asia can only improve on the existing situation if it is underpinned by technically capable, politically willing, organisationally aligned military partners. Here, something like a burgeoning network is emerging across the ADF, the JSDF, and US military. In procurement and doctrine, it’s already more than half built, while the concept is still in its infancy. This might be part smart long-term strategic vision, and part the sheer gravitational pull of US military dominance on its allies. Moreover, it represents the confluence of geopolitics and technology. Either way, it’s a strategic concept sitting in waiting to be leveraged, or at least to be genuinely explored, beyond think tank buzz and government rhetoric. And it’s a Trilateral, not a Quad.

No slight on the Indians. Indian participation will be welcomed in time. It offers India a side-door through which it can begin to influence its biggest maritime security challenge in the shape of an ever-improving PLAN blue-water capability. For the Pacific states, India’s participation offers to add cost and complexity to Beijing’s strategic desire to eschew competing against strength in the Pacific, in favour of a ‘look west’ Indian Ocean stop-gap. This is India’s path to pursue if it so desires. While India was reportedly the sticking point last time, Modi has expressed greater enthusiasm for the concept. But for now, India’s distance from the South China Sea and its traditional westward orientation suggests its inclusion in a Quadrilateral configuration only weakens the concept as an urgent strategic marker.

And this weakness will matter. When Beijing noticed us flinch, it undoubtedly spotted a seam to which more pressure can, and will, be applied. Beijing can be confident, in the end, of a similar outcome. Consider a counter-factual for a moment. Why is the Quad already not a thing? China’s military spending has been increasing by roughly 10 per cent year on year since 1996. The logic of non-alignment for India is 25 years past its time. Japan has only recently begun to reinterpret Article 9 to enable it to contribute to its own defence in a way expected of any other nation in its position. Australia has eyed networked military operations for nearly two decades, with interoperability with US forces a guiding theme. 2030 is the current goal of the ADF’s NCW Roadmap. What new political, military, technical, or organisational impetus has emerged that will finally galvanise these disparate threads?

I didn’t think so. If we think networked security is a genuine strategic pathway, then let’s find out for sure. If we decide to invest further down this track, the Trilateral is the go. Say so, don’t say so, it doesn’t really matter. Beijing reads encirclement anyway. Just don’t continue to expect any strategic gain to be had from reiterating the Quad. It lost its perceptual power the last time we exposed its fragility. The only metric that matters is the one in Beijing. Potential diplomatic demarches aside, how deterred do they seem?

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website. 

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