Interest in reviving the defunct U.S.-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral strategic dialogue is mounting. Concerns about provoking China were a principal reason behind the “Quad’s” initial failure. But recent events in the South China Sea have underscored the need for increased coordination.
In May 2007, officials from the foreign ministries of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States met to discuss the creation of a “quadrilateral strategic dialogue,” known as the Quad. Although the four countries held naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007, the initiative quickly withered, largely due to heavy pressure from China. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh denied that the Quad had a security component when he met with Chinese premier Hu Jintao at that year’s Group of Eight summit. In early 2008, the new government of Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd definitively rejected the proposal amid warming ties with China.
But recent revelations that China has placed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea and is building a radar network that spans the region seem to have revived the Quad as a strategic concept. On March 2, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, used the occasion of a speech in New Delhi to suggest that the U.S-India-Japan trilateral dialogue be expanded to include Australia. All four countries, Harris said, are “united in supporting the international rules-based order.”
Can the Quad overcome the obstacles that doomed it last time? The four countries’ current strategic outlooks suggest that the time is ripe for a revisit. Admiral Harris’s speech indicates that the idea has some currency at high levels of the U.S. government. Building ties with other Pacific democracies could eventually allow the United States to share the burden of regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea—to go, as Admiral Harris put it in Delhi, from “exercising together” to “operating together.”
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who originally conceived the idea of the Quad as part of a “concert of Asian Democracies,” is back in power in Tokyo with a strong mandate and firm control over his party. Japan is highly enthusiastic about building its strategic partnership with India, and the Quad would provide a high-profile forum for extending this relationship to Pacific security issues.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has announced an Act East policy to increase its presence in the wider Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, has adopted a more assertive posture vis-a-vis China, and has increased defense ties with the United States. But India is still hoping to harness its own economy to China’s growth and to receive the $20 billion in investment promised during President Xi Jinping’s September 2014 visit to India.
Australia, by many accounts the most reluctant member of the group last time around, in February released a new defense white paper that foregrounds the importance of its relationship with the United States and says that “Australia’s security and prosperity relies on a stable, rules‐based global order that supports the resolution of disputes through peaceful means, facilitates free and open trade, and enables unfettered access to the global commons.” In September 2015, recently elected prime minister Malcolm Turnbull named managing China’s rise as the greatest global security challenge Australia faced.
Admiral Harris’s proposal also comes as the four nations have developed a remarkably similar perspective on the importance of the rule of law in the international system, particularly when it comes to maritime disputes. Australia’s white paper aligns the country’s strategic outlook closely with documents like the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean, which enshrines the two nations’ shared commitment to freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Similarly, Japan’s National Security Strategy describes “the maintenance and protection of international order based on rules and universal values” as part of Japan’s national interest.
Yet one of the main obstacles to forming the Quad in 2007 has actually grown in importance. In the past eight years, China has only become more important to the economies of the four, accounting for more than 20 percent of Australia and Japan’s total trade.
Concerns about Chinese retaliation caused Australia to withdraw from the Quad when its total goods trade with China was less than $44 billion (in today’s U.S. dollars); in 2014 bilateral trade was more than $128 billion. This trend may have peaked, however; Australia’s exports to China reached their height in 2013 and have fallen every year since, including by more than 18 percent year-on-year in 2015. The ongoing slowdown in China reduces its influence over trading partners just as its actions in Asia become more aggressive.
The second main obstacle to reviving the Quad is India’s inbuilt suspicion of alliances. Although India embraced the Quad concept in 2007, it has proved reluctant to commit itself to action in the South China Sea. A few days after Admiral Harris’s visit, Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar gave a press conference in which he ruled out the possibility of joint Indo-U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea, noting that India has never carried out joint operations with another nation.
Reviving the Quad—and risking provoking China—carries serious risks for India. As a prominent Chinese professor of international relations pointed out to the New York Times, China has a variety of levers it can exploit to retaliate against India, including China’s growing economic and security relationship with Pakistan. Furthermore, the principle of maritime law that undergirds the most recent U.S. FONOP—the right of naval ships to transit in peaceful passage through another country’s exclusive economic zone without prior notification—is not a principle that India is comfortable fully endorsing. If consistently applied, it could someday allow Chinese warships to transit regularly between existing or planned Chinese-built ports in western Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and southwestern Pakistan—a route that would parallel India’s west coast. Signing on to the U.S. agenda in the South China Sea would make it more difficult for India to protest such activities in future.
These issues don’t doom the Quad—after all, India was willing to consider the proposal under the previous government, which was both more cautious and more suspicious of the U.S. than India’s present leadership. But they do counsel patience and a willingness to be open-minded about what the goals of the dialogue would be. The four countries should focus first on regular, low-profile communication as a group—working to achieve a true dialogue, one that addresses economic issues alongside strategic ones. Regular meetings could lead to more explicit cooperation, such as pooling capabilities for maritime domain awareness, and would build trust between the participants. Will Australia, India, Japan and the United States truly move from exercising together to operating together? In the end, it will probably be China’s actions that determine where the Quad goes next.