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The Quad and China: A New Rivalry in the South China Sea

Oct 27, 2020

In his first major foreign policy move, Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hosted the latest Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in Tokyo. Chief diplomats from Japan, Australia, India, and the United States held a high-profile meeting to discuss shared strategic interests, chiefly the rise of China. 

In many ways, the enigmatic Suga signaled a policy of continuity rather than change. His predecessor and longtime mentor, Shinzo Abe, was among the chief architects of the power grouping, who tirelessly advocated for closer strategic cooperation between the triangular alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia, and a rising India. 

If anything, the new Japanese leader has heavily relied on the Abe era ‘Asia hands’, including the brother of the former prime minister and the newly-appointed Defense Minister, Nobuo Kishi. Known as a China hawk with pro-Taiwan sympathies, Suga’s top defense official will clearly push for expanded military cooperation with the US and like-minded powers. 

On paper, the Quad is neither a multilateral organization nor a military alliance. But its rise, fall, and re-emergence in recent years underscores common anxieties about an increasingly assertive and capable China, especially in the South China Sea and the broader ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. 

Perturbed by what it sees as just the latest manifestation of a US-led containment strategy, China has warned against "exclusive cliques", which intensify regional tensions. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations wonder about their place and interests amid a raging New Cold War, raising concerns over a dangerous escalation in the hotly contested South China Sea. 

The “Asian” NATO 

Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was undoubtedly the driving force behind the Quad. During his first stint in power in the mid-2000s, he actively courted India, which he saw as a critical ‘swing state’ in the 21st century emerging geopolitics. 

The defining moment that set Quad into motion was arguably Abe’s 2007 speech at the Indian Parliament, where he spoke of the “Confluence of the Two Seas,” since “peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.” 

Half a decade later, during his second stint in power, Abe would push for a “Democratic Security Diamond”, namely an alliance of like-minded democratic powers across the Indian and Pacific oceans. Not long after, former U.S. Navy Pacific Commander, Adm. Harry Harris, who happens to be of partly Japanese descent, generated great buzz by repeatedly emphasizing the centrality of the “Indo-Pacific”, a vital geopolitical arena that stretched from “Hollywood to Bollywood”. 

Reading between the lines, it became increasingly clear that Japanese and US officials had nothing short of an “Asia NATO” in mind to consolidate America’s network of alliances and partnerships. Three key and interrelated factors, however, kept this potentially provocative vision in check. 

First, India, under the ostensibly liberal Congress Party, shunned any overt alliances with the US against China, in keeping with its Nehruvian principle of ‘non-alignment’. Moreover, Australia, then under the administration of Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd, was similarly reluctant to undermine its booming strategic and economic ties with Beijing. 

Meanwhile, the Bush and Obama administrations, both desperately struggling against imperial overstretch in the Middle East and later a financial crisis, were confined to an engagement strategy with China. There was simply no appetite nor sufficient wherewithal to pick a fight with China, which rapidly became America’s top trading partner and source of financial investments. 

Things rapidly changed, however, with the Donald Trump presidency, which has openly embraced an era of ‘great power rivalry’ against China and, to a far lesser degree, Russia. Soon, Washington launched an all-out trade war with Beijing and, even more crucially, expanded its naval deployments in the South China Sea. 

Rising tensions with China has coincided with the Trump administration’s full endorsement of Abe’s “Indo-Pacific” vision, with top US officials openly calling for an ‘Asian’ NATO. As for India and Australia, both countries are now led by more conservative leaders, who have adopted a tougher stance on China’s tightened security cooperation with the US. 

In September, the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun promoted the Quad as a means “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world” since the region is “actually lacking in strong multilateral structures” and what is needed is “ultimately to align [our interests and moves] in a more structured manner”.

“Remember even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over NATO membership,” Biegun added, unabashedly trumpeting the prospect of an Asian NATO under the aegis of the Quad. 

Wither the ASEAN 

Though far from a military alliance, recent years have seen a rapid expansion in naval and strategic cooperation among Quad members. Just recently, Japan and India signed an Acquisitions and Cross Servicing Agreement, or the Agreement on Reciprocal Provision of Supplies and Services, which facilitates closer military cooperation between the two powers. 

India has signed similar agreements with Australia and the US in recent years, just as the Quad members regularize their joint naval exercises and enhance defense inter-operability across regional waters. An area of strategic priority for the Quad is Southeast Asia and, more specifically, the disputes in the South China Sea, where China has rapidly expanded its strategic footprint in the past decade. 

Naturally, the Quad’s direction and Trump administration pronouncements have raised eyebrows not only in Beijing, but also among Southeast Asian countries. 

In response to the latest Quad meeting in Tokyo, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s hope that “relevant countries can proceed from the common interests of countries in the region, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace, stability and development, not the other way around."

What’s often unmentioned in discussions of the Quad is the reaction of Southeast Asian nations. Some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members such as the Philippines and Vietnam may quietly welcome growing military pushback against China by the US and likeminded powers; but as a whole, the regional organization fears the loss of its ‘centrality’ and a New Cold War at its own expense.

This explains why, for instance, non-aligned nations such as Indonesia, which also happens to be the de facto leader of the ASEAN, have tirelessly advocated for an alternative “Indo-Pacific” vision, which emphasizes cooperation rather than containment. Building on the efforts of her predecessor Marty Natalegawa, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has repeatedly called for “open, transparent and inclusive” security architecture, which espouses “the habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law.”  

Her efforts culminated in the regional body’s adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which calls on the ASEAN to “continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions” and openly discourages any activity that exacerbates “mistrust, miscalculation, and patterns of behavior based on a zero-sum game.” 

In short, the regional organization views China as an indispensable stakeholder in regional affairs, discourages great power rivalries, and is opposed to any new initiative, which will sideline the ASEAN’s hard-earned ‘centrality’ in shaping the 21st century Asian geopolitical landscape. Above all, the ASEAN fears a dangerous military escalation, which could lead to war in the South China Sea and undermine decades of unprecedented prosperity and relative stability in Southeast Asia. 

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