The Trump administration has re-raised the decade-old geopolitical concept of the “Indo-Pacific” region and is proposing and pushing a so-called “Quad” — a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan, and the US. Given the dominant maritime nature of the Indo-Pacific, and that all four prospective members are maritime powers, any security arrangement would likely be initially focused on cooperation in the maritime sphere.
Indeed, the Quad concept is in part driven by developments in the South China Sea. The contest there has become a “symbol of China’s inexorable rise.” Moreover, if such an arrangement materializes, it would have significant implications for relations between China, the other claimants and outside powers involved or considering getting involved.
The reputed intent of the Quad is to “balance” — that is, to constrain and contain — the burgeoning military power of China. Its genesis is in part due to China’s obvious rising power and influence in the South China Sea. Indeed, the South China Sea has become the focus of US-China rivalry, and security co-operation — if any — by members of the Quad could also be initially focused there.
Over the past 40 years, China has made a series of assertive moves in the South China Sea, and has been undeterred by protests from other claimants and stern warnings from the US. It has built military-capable facilities and increased its military assets on the features it occupies; it has thrown its weight around when other countries try to unilaterally exploit resources in some areas it claims; and it has rejected an international arbitration decision against its claims there and then carried on as if nothing has happened. More, it has used its increased influence in recent ASEAN meetings to suppress any critical statements against it. China has had many other incremental military and diplomatic advances there that when considered together indicate a trend that has alarmed the region — and the US.
Its latest diplomatic victory was clear from US President Donald J. Trump’s recent visit to the region. He hardly mentioned the South China Sea — at least publicly — let alone confronted China on those issues, as many had hoped. What he said and did not say convinced many seasoned observers that China has gained the diplomatic edge over its rival claimants and the US in the South China Sea, if not the entire region. The results of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and associated summits seemed to confirm this perception. Many analysts agreed that China won this round of the struggle between it and the other claimants for political advantage in the South China Sea disputes. Moreover, the general sense was that this was a clear setback for the US as well — particularly in its public diplomacy contest with China.
According to Australian analyst Hugh White, the strategic purpose of the campaign in the South China Sea is to show America’s lack of resolve. If so, China is “winning” — so far. But the US has decided to fight back — therefore, it has proposed the Quad. As part of what is widely perceived as its China containment strategy, the US military is encouraging, requesting — even pressuring — other members of the Quad to join its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and to support its policy of “fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows” (FSOP) there.
Initially, Australia declined to join US FONOPs in the South China Sea. But there are now indications that Australia might just do so. Its newly released White Paper on foreign policy characterizes the South China Sea disputes as “a major fault line in the regional order.” Some think this means the Turnbull administration is siding with the US, its interpretation of the “rules-based order,” and its forward military presence in Asia and the South China Sea.
When senior representatives of the Quad countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN-hosted meetings, the Indian government downplayed the meeting and did not join the other three in acknowledging the need for “coordination on maritime security.”
Indeed, the White Paper proclaims Australia’s intention to “conduct cooperative activities with other countries consistent with international law.” This certainly gives the impression that it is seriously considering joining US FONOPs. According to Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister of Foreign affairs: “What we are seeking to do is balance against bad behavior. The key is a rules-based order. We urge China to defend and strengthen that order.”
But here Australia is treading on a steep and slippery slope with regard to Australia-China relations. In reaction to the White Paper and Bishop’s elaboration thereof, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticized Australia’s “irresponsible remarks” on the South China Sea issue. In the past, China has signaled Australia to physically stay out of the South China Sea dispute and not to provide increased use of military facilities to the US lest it become a potential “target.”
Japan has also been off-again on-again regarding participation in US FONOPs in the South China Sea. Earlier, when Japan appeared to be considering joining these FONOPs, China bluntly warned that it would be crossing a “red line” if it did so. China then promptly stepped up pressure and tension in the East China Sea. China also warned Japan to “exercise caution in its words and deeds” regarding the South China Sea.
Since 2015, the US-India Malabar military exercise in the Indian Ocean has included Japan. This may be one reason why some think the Quad arrangement could eventually become a security arrangement. But it is quite a political leap from cooperative military exercises in the Indian Ocean to joint FONOPs in the South China Sea. For Japan, this would cross China’s “red line” and perhaps plunge the region into another Cold War. Others think the possibility of Japan or Australia joining US FONOPs in the South China Sea — and the whole concept of a quadrilateral security pact among these nations — is wishful thinking and a non-starter.
As White aptly puts it: “Does anyone imagine that India is really willing to sacrifice its relationship with China to support Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or that Japan would endanger its interests with the Chinese to support India in its interminable border disputes with China? Or that Australia would jeopardize trade with China for either of them, or even to support America?”
His skepticism also applies to Australia, India or Japan joining US FONOPs in the South China Sea. He thinks that would convince China that they are “aligning” against it — and that it would respond accordingly. Indeed, when senior representatives of the Quad countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN-hosted meetings, the Indian government downplayed the meeting and did not join the other three in acknowledging the need for “coordination on maritime security.”
However, some — like the US Council on Foreign Relations’ Ely Ratner — think China would “back down” if confronted by such an “alliance” or even by US military power alone. But the real question is whether any of the supposed US “allies” would take that risk. Obviously, White considers it highly unlikely that they would, because Australia, India, and Japan value too much their economic links with China.
The general conclusion is that the Quad is dead on arrival and the proposed non-US members — unless directly attacked or overtly threatened — are unlikely to help the US militarily in its contest with China in the South China Sea.