The Quad and a “Rules-based Order” in the Indo-Pacific Region
Photo Credit: Task & Purpose
By Amrita Jash

The Quad and a “Rules-based Order” in the Indo-Pacific Region

Dec. 13, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Making the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) more than a buzzword, on 15 November 2018, leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States met on the sidelines of the 13th East Asian Summit in Singapore. Acting as a four-member coalition, the objective lies in enhancing connectivity and strengthening the Indo-Pacific security architecture. Upholding this resolve, in the recent meeting, the parties agreed to expand the Quad’s ambit by partnering “with other countries and forums in the region to promote a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific”.

Given the interest to graduate to the “Quad-plus” framework with more inclusivity, the meeting “reaffirmed the ASEAN centrality as the cornerstone of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. Being the third in a row, the last meeting was held in June 2018 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Meeting in Singapore, preceded by the first meeting held in Manila in November 2017. These successive Quad meetings suggest that the construction is slowly gaining traction in the international order.

To note, the genesis of “Quad” was first floated in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe under the pretext of the “Confluence of the Two Seas”. But its informal origins can be traced to 2004, when the tsunami calamity in Indian Ocean brought Australia, India, Japan and the US to launch an ad-hoc humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) mission. This initiative for the first time brought the four countries together operationally and hence, the four navies have worked together on several occasions.

The idea soon lost its essence given Beijing’s protest to such a concert of power. But in recent times, with the shift in focus from Asia-Pacific security architecture to that of Indo-Pacific which stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific, the idea is undergoing a revival. In 2017, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted the need for “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers. This was augmented by Japan, India and Australia’s expressed willingness.

However, it was Australia, one of the first countries to officially adopt the term “Indo-Pacific” in its 2013 Defense White Paper. But the term got traction with US President Donald Trump’s Asia trip in November 2017, as he called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a region where independent nations could “thrive in freedom and peace” and all states “play by the rules”. Furthermore, the US has adopted the concept of the Indo-Pacific in both its National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy, and in a more significant move has renamed its Hawaii-based US Pacific Command (USPACOM) as US Indo-Pacific Command (USIPACOM) — thus, extrapolating the relevance of the Indo-Pacific in 21st Century global politics.

Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his keynote address at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue underscored the global importance of the Indo-Pacific region when he emphasised that “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country”. Most recently, in September 2018, India and US in the 2+2 Dialogue made a significant mention in their Joint Statement that the “Indo-Pacific is a free, open and inclusive concept, with ASEAN centrality at the core and defined by a common rules-based order”. With this trend at play, the “Indo-Pacific” under the Quad framework has gained a sudden momentum after an interregnum of ten years — indicative of the growing significance of the Indo-Pacific region.

It would be too simplistic to argue that the Quad is solely aimed at containing China given each of the four players have strong bilateral interests with China. In view of this, it is not pragmatic for the grouping to act as an alliance but to instead function more as a coalition with broad goals.

This expanded geographic perception from Asia-Pacific to that of Indo-Pacific is fuelled by three key factors: first, the meteoric rise of China and its growing assertive influence in the region, as witnessed in its artificial island build up in the South China Sea, its unilateral establishment of Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, the magnanimous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that connects Asia to Africa and Europe, and the Doklam stand-off with India. Second, the relative decline in the US posture in the region which has raised significant concerns over US commitment to continue to be an off-shore balancer in the region. Third, the rise of India’s economic and strategic clout with the simultaneous importance of the Indian Ocean.

With these factors at play, the Indo-Pacific has become the new way to look at maritime Asia pivoted in the competitive and convergent security interests of actors such as Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States — who are the central actors in the region. These factors exemplify the shift from an old partially hegemonic order to that of an emerging multipolar order. This movement towards a new regional order enveloped in the Indo-Pacific framework is causing new security alignments and re-alignments among countries in the region, of which the Quad is an outcome.

What lies at the core in perceiving the “Indo-Pacific” are the differences that exist among the regional players. This is mainly in terms of: rules and principles covering freedom of navigation and over-flight; the “lawful” means of resolving conflicting territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea, as well as rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regarding the exploration and use of marine resources; the deployment and use of military and paramilitary forces into contested areas in both the South and East China seas; and the management of unplanned encounters between navies and other vessels at sea, including coastguards and fishing boats, in these contested areas.

These differences are rooted in strategic concerns, which are mainly driven by the economic and energy interests of the countries at play. To say so, as more than 40 percent of the global seaborne trade passes through the Strait of Malacca; around 15.5 million barrels of global oil trade passes through the Gulf of Hormuz; and 11 million barrels of oil pass through Malacca and Singapore straits. These strategic interests make the security of sea lines of communication a vital need as China’s assertive posture such as in the case of South China Sea impose significant obstacles. In this scenario, the security challenges faced by India, Japan, and the United States vis-a-vis China in the Indo-Pacific region are three-fold: the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and over-flight; and unimpeded lawful commerce, including in the South China Sea.

In view of this, the exclusivity of China brings the Quad under a spot, which makes Quad to be viewed as a new kind of 21st Century security alliance. To which, China raises opposition under the logic of Cold-War mentality. However, the Quad’s quest towards building a rules-based order is implicit to put a check and balance over China’s increasing assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea. However, it would be too simplistic to argue that the Quad is solely aimed at containing China given each of the four players have strong bilateral interests with China. In view of this, it is not pragmatic for the grouping to act as an alliance but to instead function more as a coalition with broad goals. This is further justified given the increasing promotion of the Quad as an inclusive concept, without any specific targeting towards any one country. However, the common objective that the Quad seeks to achieve is to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific which serves the best interest of all countries.

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