Though the United States has reinforced its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region in a more resounding manner than before, the United States cannot and should not singlehandedly take on the challenge of protecting the rules-based global order.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (The Quad) got a new lease on life with the completion of the 2020 Malabar Naval Exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Overlapping concerns of a rising Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region prompted the informal grouping of four states (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) to conduct joint military exercises after a 13-year hiatus. At a time when U.S. influence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, is starting to fade, and with China actively expanding its influence in the region, the Quad – a coalition of democracies, can be an effective means to balance the rising Chinese regional hegemonic aspirations. Though the United States has reinforced its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region in a more resounding manner than before, the United States cannot and should not singlehandedly take on the challenge of protecting the rules-based global order. The Quad will enable the United States to share the responsibility of keeping the Indo-Pacific open with other like-minded nations in the region as their own capabilities rise. However, a Quad partnership that is primarily focused on the development of a military alliance to contain China will collapse just like its predecessor because of the members’ economic interdependencies with China. Instead, an alliance that is focused on the holistic development of the region and offers an alternative to Chinese overtures will align the members’ national interests and strengthen the partnership of democracies. The prospect of a failed state in the most dynamic region of the world should alarm the members of the Quad.
Lord Palmerston, a 19th century British statesman, rightly pointed out that states don’t have permanent allies, just permanent interests, and a mismatch of national interests and alliance objectives could lead to the disintegration of the Quad just as it did in 2007. The Quad was initially formed as the “Tsunami Core Group” in response to the December 2004 Tsunami that struck the region. The partnership was formally established in 2007 as the “arc of democracy” with a mission to protect common maritime interests in the region. However, the Quad rapidly disintegrated soon after when Australia got cold feet about the partnership given its relationship with China. The Indian administration at the time also had to deal with domestic protests against the partnership along with balancing their own relationship with China. India’s foreign policy based on “strategic autonomy” and self-reliance would give them second thoughts about forming a military partnership with the United States at the helm. In addition, Japan and Australia recently signed on to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership along with China to formalize a massive trade deal for the region. Unlike the Cold War era where NATO allies were not economically intertwined with their arch nemesis, members of the Quad have varying levels of dependencies on China for the growth and sustainability of their respective economies. The opportunity cost of provoking China through military partnerships for these members would be astronomical and it would jeopardize their respective domestic development goals given the impact of Chinese investments.
China has its own ambitions for the region, and those ambitions run antithetical to the current international laws and norms that are based on the so-called liberal world order. In order to overcome its own “Malacca Dilemma,” China needs to guarantee access to critical sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy to ensure this access includes developing hard power by militarizing human-made islands in the South China Sea and outmaneuvering the mess of overlapping territorial claims by regional countries, along with enhancing soft power to control critical infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s plans to finance a canal worth over $30 billon across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand will allow China access to new ports and other critical infrastructure that will amplify Chinese influence into Southeast Asia.
But China’s assertiveness has ruffled the feathers of regional democracies pushing them closer towards the United States. India had already been perturbed by Chinese activities to tilt the Indian subcontinent towards Chinese influence, but the recent border clashes with China for the first time since 1962 has alarmed India to a greater prospect. China’s impending water wars on the Brahmaputra river is also threatening parts of India. Similarly, Australia has been grappling with China’s “wolf warrior” diplomatic maneuvers and the brazen interference in domestic matters that threatens the very legitimacy of the Australian democracy. Japan has also felt the brunt of a revisionist China that is challenging the Japanese de facto sovereignty claims over Japanese islands in the East China Sea. The United States shares similar concerns to these regional democracies about a rising Chinese hegemon who is looking to create spheres of influence that is devoid of U.S. influence through systematic territorial expansion projects. This set of overlapping concerns have brought about talks of a new military partnership among regional democracies, which has also been dubbed as a likely “Asian NATO”.
If the Quad desires to become a durable partnership to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, it should look further than joint military maneuvers or forming a military alliance.
Unfortunately, historical precedent provides scant cause for optimism that a NATO-like organization would be successful in meeting its objectives of containment of Chinese regional hegemonic ambitions. A mismatch of allies and national interests torpedoed regional alliances such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). SEATO was formed in 1954 to deter the spread of communism in the region, and it failed in that objective. SEATO struggled with the vastly differing levels of commitment to the region and the alliance by its members. CENTO, which was organized to resist Soviet aggression and fill the power vacuum left in the aftermath of the Suez Canal crisis, suffered from all of the same structural defects of SEATO, but was further hampered by a disinterested membership. Certainly, both SEATO and CENTO suffered from structural defects, but perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from both of the failed military alliances is that countries should not create or join alliances unless they have a unified vision for how to define and deal with the threat.
If the Quad desires to become a durable partnership to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, it should look further than joint military maneuvers or forming a military alliance. The Quad should instead focus on international development that enhance the soft power credibility of the partnership in a region that is characterized by weak institutions and dilapidated infrastructure. The partnership will stand to gain from enhancing its soft power in the region because any future conflict with China will be characterized by ambiguity rather than an overt use of hard power. One common interest among all four members of the Quad is to push back against the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region. Though it will be difficult to match the huge sums of money that China has invested in the BRI, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an excellent springboard for the Quad to challenge the rising Chinese influence. By leveraging American vaccine innovation along with Indian vaccine manufacturing capability, the Quad can offer a more appealing alternative to the less-effective Chinese vaccine for the regional countries, especially Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma where China has made gains in influence.
The Biden Administration’s plan of developing a Quad Covid-19 vaccine distribution strategy for countries in Asia is a leap in the right direction. Such a vaccine distribution strategy will not only boost the credibility of the Quad partnership on the world stage, but it will also drastically improve the trust among the members, and it will provide a framework for institutionalizing their relationship with commonly agreeable objectives. An institutionalized partnership for mass vaccine rollout could also serve as a blueprint for a future transition of supply-chain networks away from China. The Quad should use this opportunity to formalize the partnership in a treaty that is focused on regional development objectives as a check on China’s soft power ambitions. The now defunct 20-year Treaty of Peace between the Soviet Union and India could offer an outline for a possible Quad Treaty because it provides the needed flexibility for members of the Quad to focus their efforts away from antagonizing China, but at the same time allowing room for the formation of a military alliance should hostilities break out. Once the Quad is successful in institutionalizing a partnership and has built trust amongst themselves, the scope of the partnership could expand to include future joint military maneuvers, such as the Talisman Sabre. The founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, rightly pointed out that though nothing can stop the rise of China, the United States needs to stay engaged in the region as a “counterbalance to the Chinese giant” for stability and prosperity. The Quad offers the United States an excellent opportunity to extend its influence in the region and counterbalance China. But, a Quad partnership that is solely focused on militarily containing China is destined to fail. Chinese government officials are well aware of this fact and they have compared the Quad to “foam in the ocean, destined to dissipate soon.” Instead, a partnership of democracies that is focused on the economic, political, and human development of the region and offering an alternative to coercive Chinese overtures will align the members’ national interests all while promoting stability and prosperity in a region that will define the future of U.S. power and influence.
Tony Palocaren is a U.S. Army officer and an instructor of International Affairs at the United States Military Academy, West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Flags of The Quad. L-R The United States, Japan, India and Australia
Photo Credit: Flag pictures created by www.slon.pics – www.freepik.com