Quadrilateral Security Dialogue
Tokyo meeting was a damp squib
On October 06, a meeting of foreign-ministers of the member states of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, namely Australia, India, Japan and the United States, was held in Tokyo. This meeting came at a time when the United States, India and Australia have all seen growing tensions in their relations with China. However, Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is considered a supporter of having good ties with China. Moreover, during the rule of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Tokyo has seen a steady improvement of ties with Beijing while it also maintains close relationships with the US, India and Australia. Perhaps this is the reason that despite all the hype—Prior to the meeting, US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told media that they were expecting to make some significant announcements in days or weeks following the Quad meeting—the Tokyo rendezvous turned out to be predictable and fairly routine as no joint statement was issued after the meeting. For all of Secretary Pompeo’s fiery rhetoric targeting China, few concrete takeaways emerged from the talks. But the symbolism of just showing up may have been part, if not the main point, of the dialogue.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, recently hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Tokyo for a special meeting of the Quad, an alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the United States which is often touted as an Asian Nato and a bulwark against China. The importance of this alliance for the United States can be gauged from the fact that Secretary Mike Pompeo redacted his tour to East Asia after President Trump tested positive for Covid-19, but still he went to Tokyo to attend this meet. The trip was also important as it came just weeks before the November 2020 presidential elections, where Washington’s worsening ties with Beijing have featured strongly in the campaign.
As we know, under the Trump administration, relations between the US and China have plummeted to their worst in decades. Washington, in addition to indulging into a full-scale trade war, has been making efforts to strengthen ties with allies in the Indo-Pacific region. The situation was so tense that earlier in the year, it became the lead provocateur in the South China Sea which resulted in military build-ups and renewed calls for de-escalation.
The meeting, the Quad’s first in-person since the Covid-19 outbreak, came amid Pompeo’s proclivity towards China-bashing which often features on rhetoric with preposterous assertions as were evident during his earlier visit to the Vatican where he targeted the Holy See’s important accord with Beijing concerning the appointment of bishops. It was also meant to send a message that the four countries are committed to an “Indo-Pacific strategy,” conceived to elevate India as a potential regional counterweight to China. But, India is unlikely to take the US side. It has been buttering its bread on both sides of major-power games ever since the Cold War. It is a country that tends to have higher confidence than its actual strength. Also, New Delhi wishes to become a superpower itself with strong nationalism in its public opinion. Therefore, it has no intent to dance to the US’ tune.
Although Pompeo said that “it is more critical now than ever” that Quad partners “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the (Chinese Communist Party’s) exploitation, corruption and coercion,” this stood in sharp contrast to his three counterparts, all of whom avoided calling out China directly. Media reports suggest that after separate bilateral meetings with Pompeo on the sidelines of the Quad gathering, Australian and Japanese Foreign Ministers did not mention China in their speeches.
In recent years, there has been much speculation about the Quad becoming a formalised body. But it had been constrained by India in particular, which is a traditional stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Moreover, after the recent tensions at the Line of Actual Control, there has been witnessed a thaw—or more rightly ‘Cold Peace’—in Indo-Chinese relations. The first point of the agreement reached between Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 reads, “The two ministers agreed that both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes.” Hence, it is not difficult to surmise that India changed its mind about hosting the Quad meeting because of the Chinese pressure along the Sino-Indian border.
On the other hand, Japan has been pursuing to become a normal state and a major power for a long time. Historically, it has been following greater powers in diplomacy. Yet the country won’t cling too tightly to Washington and will rather leave some room for adjustment of its policies. Moreover, both of Japan’s goals, be it to become a normal state or seek major-power status, need the support of China to be realized.
Take the Taiwan question. Japan is willing to endorse the US posturing verbally. But it has no interest to fight China in a real war for the Taiwan secessionist forces. For Japan, the South China Sea affairs and the Taiwan question are merely about its own southbound shipping lines, and China won’t take any move to obstruct normal maritime navigation in the waters.
Australia seems to be a loyal follower of the US government. It wants to promote its own global status by promoting the Quad alliance. But how much strength does Australia own with its limited economy and population? Moreover, if Canberra is bent on infuriating China, Australia will only face the dire consequences.
The US attempts to formalize the Quad into a Nato-like alliance, or an “Asian NATO” are also doomed to fail as Nato is a military alliance, and the first question the US will face is whether to encourage Japan to amend its pacifist constitution. Doing so would trigger huge uncertainties, even violent turbulence in the region. By not doing so, how could the US order Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to carry out activities that go beyond Japan’s constitution?
Australia could only offer little support in terms of military cooperation. India, on the other hand, would only create more challenges rather than help in terms of formalizing a military alliance with any country, as its weapons are created and bought from different countries. If the US wants to count India in its “Asia Nato,” it would need to persuade India to give up its Russia-made weapons and substantially invest to change the standards of Indian firearms to the US standards. Substantial amounts of money and work will also be needed to create a modern Indian command system.
Japan and Australia seem to face lesser obstacles in the above-mentioned technical field. Yet, they are strange bedfellows. White supremacy in Australia is most notable among Western countries. Deep down in their hearts, Australians tend to look down on all other races. Would Japan simply bear it?
More importantly, the Quad or “Asian Nato,” the key to formalizing a new alliance depends on the US’ own capacity. However, the weirdness of this issue is that if the US is strong enough, it does not need a new alliance at all. The fact that the US dreams of it only proves its declining ability. To unite its allies, the US would need to offer some interests, yet it has almost nothing to offer now. Common values are not enough to make others take the side of the US.
So, it appears that the future of Quad depends heavily on how the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific will play out.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist.