From Sea Foam to Concrete Threat: The Quad as a Spearhead

4 November 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


The recent meeting of US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and US Secretary of Defence, Dr Mark Esper, with their Indian counterparts, Minister of External Affairs, Dr K. Subrahmanyam, and Minister for Defence, Rajnath Singh, the so-called 2+2 meeting, ended as expected with the two sides signing the last of the “foundational agreements”, the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement or BECA. According to the terms of the agreement, the two countries will share classified geo-spatial data and strategic intelligence and give India access to US satellite and sensor data. India could use that data, for instance, to more accurately target enemy assets and track targets in the Indian Ocean. In other words, India can now ensure that its missiles are more accurate against targets in Pakistan and China (or, for that matter, in the Himalayas), and track Chinese ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean.

To be clear, the BECA was not the only item on the 2+2 agenda. As Mr Pompeo said:

We have a lot to discuss today, from co-operating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.

While the Covid-19 pandemic may have been discussed, however, the security issues that relate to China, including the BECA, dominated the discussions.


By signing the BECA, India has joined Australia and Japan, its Quad partners, in accessing US military data. That has the effect of strengthening the loose alignment, even coalition, that was first suggested by then Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and which subsequently consisted of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. After the Rudd Government withdrew Australia from the arrangement so as not to annoy China, its largest trading partner, New Delhi also put the Quad on the backburner and cut Australia out of its Malabar naval exercise that it conducts with Japan and the US. It also did so because it, too, did not wish to antagonise China. It was likely that lack of synergy on the joint Indo-Pacific strategy that media reports claimed aimed to contain China that led China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, to comment that ‘they are like sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean’.

It is ironic, therefore, that it is China’s belligerence that has caused the Quad to be revived. China has caused each of the Quad’s members to take note of its belligerent attitudes towards them. Beijing has angered Washington because of its mercenary approach to trade and intellectual property issues, New Delhi due to its territorial encroachments, the same with Tokyo and Canberra by its commercial and trade retaliations to the former’s call to investigate the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, its operations to influence Australian politics (see here for a detailed analysis of this issue), and its efforts to enhance its own influence in Australia’s zone of influence in the South Pacific. It is that commonality, together with the perception of the four Quad democracies that China is working to introduce its version of authoritarianism as a substitute for liberal democracy, that has caused the Quad to be revived. That outcome has led Mr Wang to backtrack on his former statement, claiming now that the United States is attempting to ‘build an “Indo-Pacific NATO”’. Implicit in that charge, albeit unstated, was the rider, “to contain China”.

Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, was to follow, however. India has re-admitted Australia to the Malabar exercises, thereby allowing all Quad members to come together to allow their navies and other forces to enhance their interoperability and co-ordination. The Quad is, however, only one element of the overall push to balance China. The four Quad democracies are simultaneously revamping and re-energising their military forces. While research into and development of military systems is an ongoing matter in the United States, those efforts are now being shaped with a view to countering China. Washington is developing very accurate hypersonic missiles, long-range anti-ship missiles to counter China’s growing naval fleet, land-based missiles to counter China’s missile arsenal and an enhanced overall missile arsenal to counter China. Australia has announced that it will spend $270 billion to beef up its defence acquisitions, including long-range missiles. Apart from conducting its first test of an indigenously-designed hypersonic missile, India is modernising its air force and, in light of China’s intransigence in Ladakh, has purchased around 140,000 assault rifles on an expedited basis from the United States. Just as importantly, if not more so, India has shifted its focus from Pakistan as its primary threat to China, leading it to re-orient its forces along its northern border with China and in the Indian Ocean. Japan, for its part, has built the first of a new class of submarines using the sophisticated Soryu-class as a template to produce an outstanding stealthy submarine.

Adding to Beijing’s worries, Mr Pompeo stated categorically during his visit to New Delhi that:

We visited the National War Memorial to honour brave men and women of Indian armed forces who sacrificed for the world’s largest democracy, including 20 killed by PLA in Galwan Valley […]

and added, ‘The U.S. will stand with India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to liberty’, with clear reference to China. It is very likely that Washington will provide India with the resources it may need should India request assistance in the event that China attempts to escalate the current standoff in Ladakh.

Mr Pompeo travelled to Sri Lanka from New Delhi in an attempt to persuade Colombo to reduce its ties to Beijing. Mr Pompeo did not, interestingly, couch his request in the usual diplomatic terms, saying that Colombo had ‘difficult but necessary choices’ to make. He was, in other words, informing Colombo that it had to choose between the United States, its largest market, and China, its largest financial donor. That is, indeed, a very difficult choice for Sri Lanka, as the Foreign Secretary, Jayanath Colombage, pointed out. Sri Lanka is officially a non-aligned country, which is the reason it gives for preferring not to take sides. In reality, however, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has always favoured close ties to China and, just before Mr Pompeo’s statement, called for a free trade agreement with China. He used the occasion to note that, contrary to common perceptions, China was not drawing Sri Lanka further into a “debt trap”, thereby implying that Sri Lanka would side with China if it were forced to choose and signalling to Beijing that it was open to more investment inflows. In any case, Mr Rajapaksa appears to be modelling himself on the lines of Mr Xi, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, by concentrating power in himself, thereby making Sri Lankan politics authoritarian-based. Beijing will undoubtedly use Mr Rajapaksa’s tenure to draw Colombo closer, thereby ensuring that India will be forced to contend with a Chinese presence to its north and south and another Chinese ally, Pakistan, to its west. India would then have few options other than to align itself further with the United States, which could validate ex-President Clinton’s contention that South Asia is the most dangerous place in the world.

Mr Pompeo has already entered into a defence agreement with the Maldives, with India’s blessing. The Maldives lie along a major sea route for China’s imports of energy products from the Middle East and Africa, which could enable the United States and India to curtail, at the least, China’s energy reserves in the event of a conflict, thereby forcing it to rely on Russia and the Central Asian republics. That would alter the relationship between Russia and China to a large extent.

Washington is, additionally, selling large amounts of military technology and weapons to Taiwan.

The United States is, in short, taking active measures to counter Chinese belligerence. A Quad with teeth could be just the beginning.

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