QUAD - Turning into Eastern NATO
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 23 Dec , 2021

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad) is an informal strategic forum between four nations – the United States (US), Japan, Australia and India. It is maintained by semi-regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between member countries. The forum was initiated as a dialogue in 2007 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, with the support of Vice President Dick Cheney of the US, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale, titled Exercise Malabar. The diplomatic and military arrangement were widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power and the Chinese government responded to the Quad by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members.

Australia withdrew in February 2008, shortly after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took office, after a joint naval exercise between the Quad and Singapore drew diplomatic protests from China. Other reasons for the discontinuation of the Quad were that in late 2007, more Beijing-friendly Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda replaced Abe in Japan and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to China in January 2008, during which he stated that the India-China relationship was a priority. Under Rudd and his successor Julia Gillard, military cooperation between the US and Australia was enhanced, leading to the placement of US Marines near Darwin, Australia, near the Timor Sea and Lombok Strait. India, Japan and the US continue to hold joint naval activities through Exercise Malabar.

However, during the 2017 ASEAN Summit, all four former members re-joined in negotiations to revive the quadrilateral alliance. With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Donald Trump of the US agreeing in Manila to revive the security pact amidst tensions in the South China Sea caused primarily by China and her territorial ambitions.

The Broad Strategic Framework

The initiation of an American, Japanese, Australian and Indian defence arrangement, modelled on the concept of a democratic peace, has been credited to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Quad was supposed to establish an “Asian Arc of Democracy,” envisioned to ultimately include countries in Central Asia, Mongolia, the Korean peninsula and other countries in Southeast Asia, “virtually all the countries on China’s periphery, except for China itself.” This led some critics to call the project “an anti-Chinese move,” while others called it a democratic challenge to China, mounted by Asian powers in coordination with the US. While China has traditionally favoured the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Quad was viewed as an “Asian NATO.” The arrangement could either lead to military conflict or could alternatively lay an enduring foundation for peace if China was to become a genuine democracy.

Hegemonic China and Global Power Shift

Fears over Chinese military spending and missile capacities had helped drive Australia towards a defence agreement with the US as outlined by the 2007 Canberra Defence Blueprint. It also appeared that the US was backing it as a “counter to a rising China.” A report published by the American think-tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), called for greater American engagement in Asia, arguing that in the early twenty-first century, America’s strategic pre-occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan was undermining its ability to adapt to major power shifts in the Asia-Pacific that are actively challenging America’s traditional balance of power role in the region.

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, President Obama called for a new worldwide concert of democracies to counter the influence of Russia and China. John McCain also called for a “league of democracies” and Rudy Giuliani for incorporating Asia’s militarily capable democracies into NATO. The development of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue took place in the context of Chinese military modernisation, not only geared towards contingency in Taiwan Strait, but also towards “force projection capabilities.”

Beginning of Indo-US Military Cooperation

US-India military cooperation could only kick-start after India’s economic liberalisation in 1991. It began with army-to-army cooperation. India and the US signed a “New Framework for India-US Defence” in 2005, increasing cooperation regarding military relations, defence industry, technology sharing and the establishment of a “Framework on maritime security cooperation”. India and the US conducted dozens of joint military exercises in the ensuing years before the development of a Quadrilateral dialogue, interpreted by some as an effort to “contain” China. Starting with the Boeing P-8I, USA began offering modern military platforms and systems to India.

Australia Vacillates

In February 2008, following his nomination as Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd unilaterally announced Australia’s departure from the Quad. Many in the US criticised Rudd’s decision to leave Quad. Rudd was apparently trying to please China and he did not consult the US s before leaving the Quad. After Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard in June 2010, there was fresh debate. It was considered that Australia’s national interest was best served with its long-standing ally, the US, to retain its primacy in the region. Australia’s decision not to sell uranium to India had weakened Quad – a move also criticised by the Liberal Party. Gillard’s support for a US military presence near Darwin, overlooking the Timor Sea and the Lombok Strait, was a plus. With support from the US, Gillard and the Labour party reversed the policy and backed the sale of uranium to India, despite India not having signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

QUAD Regroups

During the 2017 ASEAN summit in Manila, all four members agreed to revive the quadrilateral alliance in order to counter China militarily and diplomatically in the South China Sea. The meeting included discussion of China’s increased prominence in the South China Sea and may have signalled US President Trump’s interest in reviving a formal Quad. The organisation’s primary agenda now was to promote free and open Indo-Pacific amid China’s aggressive posturing. The Quadrilateral met five times from 2017 to 2019. Tensions between Quad members and China led to fears of what was dubbed by some commentators as a “New Cold War” in the region.

In March 2020, officials from the Quad met to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic. They were joined by New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam for the first time. The 24th MALABAR maritime exercise, hosted by the Indian Navy, was held in the Arabian Sea in November 2020. The navies of India, the US, Australia and Japan participated. Quad navies engaged in a four-day Exercise Malabar off Guam in August 2021.

In a 2021 joint statement ‘The Spirit of the Quad’, Quad members described a shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and a rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas. The Quad members agreed on the need to counter Chinese maritime claims. This was the first Quad Plus meeting that included New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Widely viewed as intending to curb “China’s growing power”, the Quad’s joint statement drew criticism from China’s foreign ministry which said that the Quad “openly incites discord” among regional powers in Asia.

Not Openly Naming China

The Quad has thus far resisted openly naming China as the primary target. Initially for some time, Quad was moving slowly, because Australia and India were unsure as to how much to push China without impacting bilateral security and economic relationships; Japanese and Australian electoral politics also had their dynamics. For the Quad to sustain, there was a need to evolve a harder line on China. Getting Vietnam to join the alliance could greatly boost Quad’s credibility. Vietnam is unlikely to join the Quad if it evolves as a military alliance. South Korea and New Zealand would also be reluctant. An openly anti-China Quad might convince Russia to more closely align with China or Beijing could play the Southeast and South Asian nations against each other to weaken Quad’s objectives.

China’s Unilateralism – Antagonising the World

Beijing has been antagonising more and more countries around the world. Its unilateral approach in the South China Sea, the aggression in Eastern Ladakh, threatening actions against Taiwan, state-sponsored promotion of Huawei’s 5G networks, heavy hand in Hong Kong and arm-twisting of economically poor nations in the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) has angered the world. On July 01, 2020, Australia released a defence strategic update clearly naming China as seeking to exert influence in the Indo-Pacific. This Australian approach is a stark departure from the evasions, platitudes and niceties of normal diplomatic discourse.

India Also Taking Stand

At one point, India appeared an unsure link of the Quad. Since May 2019, India has been taking a stronger stand. In June 2019, India along with all four Quad country leaders, sat together across from Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting. This was much more than symbolic. India’s relationship with China has also deteriorated markedly after the Galwan incident. The two armed forces are standing face-to-face on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. The strong anti-China sentiment has spread to the 1.3 billion Indians. There is a general consensus on the need to ban all Chinese goods and software apps. The damage in relations will not be easily repaired.

Japan’s Strong Support for QUAD

Japan has supported Quad since it first mooted the idea in 2006. Japan needs to build a counter balance to China the most. Tokyo has been driving the partners. Japan recently revised its intelligence sharing legislation to allow for sharing with Australia and India, in addition to the US and UK. Japan also now has a special division in its Ministry of Defence for cooperation with India and Australia on ASEAN and Pacific Island issues. Japan’s annual Defence White Paper, released in July 2020, mentions China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo and coercive approach on Senkaku Islands.

US Strong Support to QUAD

The US finds Quad a good mechanism to maintain a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration is continuing the active anti-China stand in its bilateral relations, attacking it on many issues including trade, intellectual property theft, corona virus spread and fallout, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and human rights in Xinjiang, among others. It has openly called China an adversary that is reflected in its foreign policy, defence structure and statements. It would definitely suit the US to work the QUAD as an anti-China alliance. Having exited Afghanistan, the US will now be able to employ greater resources and energy in the Indo-Pacific. The US has also moved greater military assets including bombers and aircraft carriers in the region.

QUAD Leaders Summit 2021

On September 24, 2021, President Biden hosted Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan at the White House for the first-ever in-person Leaders’ Summit of the Quad. The leaders put forth ambitious initiatives to deepen ties and advance practical cooperation on 21st century challenges. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and its vaccine, they talked of promoting high-standards infrastructure; combatting the climate crisis; partnering on emerging technologies, space, cyber security and cultivating next-generation talent in all of four countries.

Enhanced Military Interaction

The US is looking at more airbases in the region. Air forces from the US, Japan and Australia participated in Cope North 2021 at the Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, from February 03 to 19 to conduct Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations as well as to conduct large force employment and combat air forces training. More such exercises are planned to include India for training exercises and to increase inter-operability. This could be a strong message to Beijing that continues to play hardball in Ladakh. All four nations continue to increase their bilateral defence and security cooperation in the face of rising Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad cannot continue to be just symbolic. It has to create deterrence against China in order to stop its unilateralism. It need not be simply a military alliance but clearly, the world must get the signal that countries would come out in support in case of tension or an armed conflict with China.

In a commentary on August 13, 2020, Jeff M Smith avers that Australia, Japan and the US are already bound by a deep network of formal treaty alliances, overlapping strategic dialogues and intelligence sharing arrangements. Getting India, with the world’s second-largest population, third-largest defence budget, fifth-largest economy and an escalating strategic competition with China into greater alignment with the other three democracies, has been a priority for Quad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accelerated strategic ties with the other Indo-Pacific democracies, including Australia. Since April 2019, New Delhi has an Indo-Pacific division in its Ministry of External Affairs. The Minister for External Affairs, S Jaishankar is a known a supporter of the Quad. India and Australia already have a nuclear cooperation deal; they have conducted joint naval and army exercises. They have hosted their first joint army exercises as well. India and the US have signed several defence-related agreements such as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA). US – India defence sales were facilitated through both the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) processes. In the last decade, the Indian armed Forces have been recipients of top-of-the-line aerial platforms and guns. Indo-US naval exercises saw participation from Indian, Japanese and US aircraft carriers for the first time.

India-China Recent Show Downs and Indian Public Anger

Just a week before President Xi Jinping’s first visit to India in September 2014, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had made a major intrusion in Ladakh resulting in an extended stand-off that somewhat ruined the atmosphere during Xi’s visit. China’s close strategic links with Pakistan, including the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the leasing of the strategic Gwadar port to China are all making India uncomfortable and concerned about Chinese intentions. China’s so called “String of Pearls” strategy around India was to create an anti-India influence through financial inducements to India’s neighbours. China is also trying to needle traditional Indian friends such as Nepal by propping up a Communist regime to work against India. China has also been blocking India and supporting Pakistan in the United Nations and other global fora. In return, Pakistan is turning a blind eye to what is happening to the Muslims in Xinjiang. China is also increasing its forays and presence in the Indian Ocean and now has a military base at Djibouti. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China is trying to get into Iran and Afghanistan, at discomfiture to India. In 2017, there was a 73-day India-China stand-off on the Doklam plateau, when China threatened India in strong language. And the current stand-off in Ladakh which has meant loss of life on both sides has angered the 1.3 billion Indians and is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. There is a strong ‘Boycott China’ sentiment prevailing in India.

Anger against China among Others

Chinese unilateral action in the South China Sea angered a large number of countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Many physically lost territory and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Practically all Quad members are against the Chinese BRI because of the expanding linkages attached to it. In any case, the BRI is saddling most countries with un-payable debt. The US and Australia have been very vocal opponents of the BRI. Japan, though initially unsure, finally refrained from full endorsement and prefers one-to-one financial support.

China Backed and Other Critics of QUAD

There will be political critics in each country. Also, China is working on indebted countries and government-controlled Chinese news outlets to propagate an anti-Quad view. Chinese media often tries to portray the Quad as a US attempt to create an Asian NATO to contain China and that the Quad would undermine the ASEAN’s regional role. Some Chinese scholars feel that the Quad is a guise to constrain China’s rise. If China was to be pushed into a corner, it could force it to further strengthen its military capabilities. Some see Quad as an avoidable provocation. To counter such critics, Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar explains that it was meant as a diplomatic consultation and coordination forum of countries which have convergences.

Future of the QUAD

At its core, the Quad comprises four highly capable Indo-Pacific democracies that are increasingly aligned in their shared concerns on regional security, writes Jeff M Smith. It is their way to tell China, “We’re watching and we’re alarmed.” This is meant more for the very authoritarian Chinese “Chairman of Everything” – Xi Jinping. It is fair that the Quad is currently viewed as symbolic and just an addition to an existing network of strategic and defence cooperation. It is also fine that the Quad is moving at a medium pace. At this point, it is less important what the Quad does than what it symbolically conveys. It can always be re-structured in case of changing threat assessment.

As the Quad gets re-energised, India, which faces Chinese belligerence along its borders, has become a more engaged and enthusiastic partner in the Quad. Yet, doubts and questions continue to shadow the Quad, regarding the group’s identity and agenda. How can India’s stance of the Quad change the group’s fortunes and future prospects? The recent turn of events on Sino-Indian borders have made India a much more committed and enthusiastic partner. Since 2012, Japan has also witnessed a steady stream of escalating Chinese attempted encroachments around the disputed Senkaku islands. Australia has also seen Chinese interference in its domestic politics. Australia is now more worried of autocratic Chinese domination in the region. Australia also led the global charge to bar Chinese telecom operator Huawei for 5G infrastructure. The US, which had conned itself and befriended China in the 1970s against the erstwhile Soviet Union, realised a little late that China would one day take its technological and financial support and pull the rug from under its feet. In fact, America was so blinded in its quest to contain the Soviet Union, that it unknowingly helped fuel the Chinese economy. America now recognising the challenges posed by China and needs regional friends. Both the US and Australia are routinely operating in the South China Sea ignoring Chinese claims. India is currently the lead opposition to BRI. Australia and the US are strongly opposing Huawei on 5G. Effectively, these are Xi’s key initiatives. Clearly, Quad has the ability and willingness to resist Chinese coercion tactics and territorial aggression.

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The Quad held its first ministerial-level dialogue in September 2019 in New York. It was clear that there was similar like-mindedness among the four partners. There was a shared evaluation of the security threats and the threats facing the region. Each Quad member has its own strengths and weaknesses. Each has its own role in different parts of the globe. In November 2019, there was the first Quad counter-terrorism exercise in India. In March 2020, the Quad held a video conference on the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand had also joined this time. Chinese diplomats in many countries are making statements that imply threat on behalf of their “Supreme Leader”. This has happened in India after Galwan and also in Canada. The world is watching this rude behaviour of China and some are getting antagonised. It would now be reasonable to expect that the Quad will expand its activities and attempt to involve other Asian powers in it.

The Quad has significant defence capability in the combined military strength and defence budgets of Australia, India, Japan and the US. It also represents a quarter of the world’s population and GDP. Currently, all the four Quad countries have governments that are favourably disposed toward the Quad. Fairly solid foundations are being set so that a change in government does not upset the apple cart. Of course, nothing stays permanent. The Quad must look at more domains to engage in. Special areas of interest could be space and maritime. The greatest pressure point would be the South China Sea region. Effectively, the four are in a position to encircle China. Like the US, India has started placing restrictions on Chinese imports and investments. India’s foreign policy is also realigning to the new realities. The more Quad members speak in a united voice, the greater the deterrent effect on Chinese adventurism! It is time to make it costlier for China to be belligerent. As Sun Tzu says in his treatise ‘The Art of War’, the goal is to win the war without lifting a weapon.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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