Author: A Chong, Singapore
The 2020s may well be remembered as an era where defensive alliances strove to avoid naming the enemies they were set up to deter. Such is the strategy behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States established in 2004 as an association of democratic powers to offer an alternative pole of power to China in the Indo-Pacific.
Fast forward to 2017, the Quad regained significance when the United States relaunched its Indo-Pacific vision of Asian cooperation, with the Quad as its linchpin. In 2004, as in 2017, thwarting China’s diplomatic inroads into its Asian peripheries was the Quad’s overarching mission. This is worth keeping in mind amid the low expectations widely interpreted of the Quad’s first in-person summit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which took place on 24 September 2021.
The difference between the two benchmark dates lay in Australia’s initial pivot towards Chinese trade, investment and tourism. India had also vacillated between outright hostility towards Beijing and nuanced deterrence against it. It took the advent of the Trump administration to re-energise the Quad as an anti-China vehicle. By that time, Japan was gradually seeing value in framing relations with Beijing as both friend and enemy, ripe with cooperative possibilities between the two ends of the spectrum. The current Biden administration appears to have hardened its support of the Quad while deftly playing down a Cold War posture towards China. These fissiparous tendencies ironically served the Quad well by not straightjacketing its members’ foreign policy flexibility while putting China on notice that an anti-China alliance remained latent.
Meanwhile, China witnessed President Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2013. Despite incremental moves towards strident nationalism under his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, it was Xi who shifted Chinese foreign policy to a more pronounced and combative nationalistic posture. Red hot economic growth buoyed Xi’s legitimacy and underpinned his avowed aim of definitively turning the page on China’s century of humiliation. Xi’s vision of the land and maritime transcontinental linkages of the Belt and Road Initiative found almost unbridled receptivity across Southeast and South Asia.
Under former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, Australia entertained Chinese investment to expedite infrastructural upgrades in Northern Australia. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi even sought to overlook the multiple Sino–Indian military skirmishes in the Himalayas to host Xi at summits with the purpose of enticing Chinese trade and investment. ASEAN too felt comfortable encouraging these trends of ‘coopetition’ to the point of drafting an all-inclusive and politically correct declaration titled the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’.
When Quad leaders met at the White House on 24 September, they pledged cooperation and support for expanded vaccine delivery and climate change amelioration. They also stepped-up international sharing of technical standards, 5G information technology diversification and deployment, horizon-scanning and technology supply chains. All of these are standard liberal promises that are par for the course in most Asian diplomatic circuits. But most importantly, they chimed in with ASEAN’s discourse of ‘ASEAN centrality’, inclusive regionalism and the avoidance of naming the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the Indo-Pacific.
Against this pattern, the announcement the week before the Quad summit of the AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States) trilateral partnership and nuclear submarine deal represents a strategic disruption that potentially negates what the Quad is trying to achieve vis-a-vis China. Functional cooperation in Asia in tandem with omnidirectional economic cooperation has been ditched in favour of triggering a potential arms race redolent of the Cold War. AUKUS explicitly signalled its intent to deter China militarily. Disturbingly, the fine details spelled out through the grouping’s desired submarine capabilities suggested that concepts such as countervailing retaliation and mutual assured destruction are in play.
This flies in the face of evidence that ASEAN and most of China’s Asian neighbours have long grown accustomed to living with and managing China’s expectations about its ‘peaceful ascent’ as a great power. ASEAN’s posture of preaching and practising open and inclusive regionalism had even earned ringing endorsements from Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and New Delhi since the mid-1990s. Even more recently, the assorted French, German and European Union declarations on the Indo-Pacific reiterated support for the peaceful fluidity of great power relations.
The Quad also served this imperfect but durable neighbourhood peace. But the advent of AUKUS may well undermine this state of relative tranquillity — to the chagrin of much of the Indo-Pacific.
A Chong is a political commentator based in Singapore.