The call by the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at their recent virtual summit for a free, open, inclusive and healthy Indo-Pacific region has rattled China. The Quad is an instrument to ensure a rules-based Indo-Pacific, but it will need teeth to be effective in that role. While the Quad in its present form may not be structured to check adventurism, it certainly has the potential to become a most effective instrument for doing so. The reaction from Beijing indicates that it has put China on notice.
- The call by the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) countries for a free, open, inclusive and healthy Indo-Pacific region at their recent virtual summit has rattled China.
- The Quad’s determined collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic – co-ordinating the vaccination effort and producing one billion doses by 2022 – attracted global attention.
- The Quad is an instrument to ensure a free and open, rules-based Indo-Pacific, but it will need teeth to be effective in that role.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Summit held on 12 March 2021 did not name China directly, but Beijing seemed nervous and rattled about the event; its mouthpiece newspaper, Global Times, speculated that the US, Japan, India and Australia were hyping the “China threat” even before the event. Apparently, China saw a major challenge to its dream of a China-centric Asia- Pacific in the Quad’s call for a free, open, inclusive and healthy Indo-Pacific region that is ‘anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion’. China’s hope that the four-country group has not formed a cohesive force from within may need to be reconsidered, after the Quad leaders agreed to a joint statement, committed to holding an in-person leaders’ summit by the end of 2021 and agreed to pursue important goals through three focused working groups. The announcement of forthcoming naval drills among Quad-plus countries and the willingness of some NATO members such as the UK, France and Germany, to join the responses to challenges in Indo-Pacific, have further added to China’s discomfort.
Benign Agenda but Clear Messaging
Besides jointly expressing the need for a free, open rules-based order rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, the key item that attracted global attention was the Quad’s collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of synergising the vaccination efforts for the region, with India as manufacturing hub, assisted by the others to roll out one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by 2022. The other two agreed-upon issues to be addressed by working groups are emerging critical technologies and climate change. The agenda seems benign, but Beijing did not miss the connection of freedom of navigation, overflight and the concerns over “aggression” and “coercion” against members of the Quad by China in its first summit meeting. No-one named China directly over the course of the summit, but Beijing knows that its challenge to the rule-based order, evidenced by its rejection of the judgement brought down against it by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision regarding its territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and continued coercion of countries in the Indo-Pacific region, have placed it in the Quad’s crosshairs. China’s response of describing the Quad meeting as ‘selective multilateralism’ and ‘COVID politics’ demonstrates its frustration with the emergence of an alternative global vaccination collaboration, something that it had sought to profit from in terms of goodwill, influence and money.
The Quad’s list of shared challenges to be addressed also includes cyber-space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief (HADR) initiatives, some of which appear to target Chinese alleged activities like cyber-attacks and the transparency of the World Health Organization. The Quad’s emphasis on supporting the rule of law, freedom of navigation, overflight, propagating democratic values and territorial integrity has added to Beijing’s frustration, since it initiated a propaganda blitz through the Global Times, alleging the superiority of its political system and calling India (the only non-NATO member/partner) a negative asset for BRICS and the SCO for failing to understand Chinese goodwill.
China would like the world to believe that there are wide divergences in the agendas of the four Quad democracies, but the Quad’s evolution appears to ameliorate some of them. There is greater acceptance of divergent definitions and focus areas within the Indo-Pacific region, with India’s focus on the western Indian Ocean region touching Africa and the Gulf countries along with other areas of Indo-Pacific, which remains the focus of all Quad members. With foundational agreements like COMCASA and BECA signed between the US and India, and their naval exercises, the operability of India with other Quad members, operating within a NATO military alliance framework, has improved.
India is the only country in the Quad that has an unsettled land border with China. China has done its best to create some apprehension in the minds of the other Quad members by keeping its relationship with India fluctuating between tension and harmony, with incidents like Doklam, Wuhan, Mamallapuram and Ladakh. After the Doklam and Ladakh standoffs, it is quite clear to New Delhi that Beijing cannot be trusted, which has brought relative clarity to India’s thinking. China’s willingness to use any means necessary to insert itself at the apex of the international system and the economic entanglement of each of the Quad members with China, forces them to create a resilient supply chain, digital and technological ecosystem, with minimal dependence on that country.
There has been consensus among the Quad countries regarding support for the ASEAN countries’ centrality in the Indo-Pacific concept, but their inclusion into the grouping remains a debatable issue due to China’s enormous influence over several of them. Some of the ASEAN countries most affected by China’s aggression, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have occasionally raised a feeble voice against that aggression, expecting the world powers to check China’s adventurism, as they find it difficult to stand up to Chinese might by themselves. That has emboldened China to continue its incremental encroachment in the SCS and elsewhere in the region. China has always tried to deal with every country on bilateral terms, using its Comprehensive National Power to its advantage. In forthcoming bilateral engagements with the US, Japan and India, it will likely continue to work to weaken the Quad by making some bilateral concessions.
Will the Evolution of the Quad Continue?
The Quad emerged in the wake of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, as the Tsunami Core Group, which was a credible HADR response to that disaster. A series of Malabar exercises expanded its remit to include anti-piracy, and other maritime missions. The members of the Quad have projected themselves to be committed to an open and transparent network which ‘will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.’ The Quad is, therefore, yet to acknowledge that it has a role in checking the adventurism of China in the Indo-Pacific and could even operate jointly as a military force, but the series of naval exercises to improve interoperability between the grouping’s members indicates a military intent to deter any challenge to a free and open Indo-Pacific. In fact, the Quad members have chosen to be diplomatically correct by claiming that the grouping is not directed towards any particular country. The Quad has finally become a summit-level meeting, triggering a series of top-level engagements towards the common purpose.
China’s “Incremental Encroachment Strategy”, which it exhibits in the SCS, East China Sea and Ladakh, is a serious concern not only to the countries directly affected by overlapping EEZs or unsettled borders, but also to the rest of the world, as China continues to convert features/atolls into military bases. It then expects other countries to accept those features as islands and apply the “Baseline Principle” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-III) to claim its 200 nautical miles of EEZ, thus converting the SCS into a “Chinese lake” over a period of time. It poses a threat to freedoms of navigation and flight and could lead to some restrictions like an Air Defence Identification Zone in the SCS. Any such action by a country to restrict shipping or overflight is a violation of international law that must be challenged in the UN Security Council.
It is necessary to implement a Free and Open Indo-Pacific predicated on a “rules-based” legal framework. Every member of the Quad, except the US, has ratified UNCLOS III; the US needs to ratify it in order to have the moral ground to implement it. China is reasonably confident that the US or another country will not use military force to dismantle their infrastructure in the SCS. It is, nevertheless, increasing its naval capability at unprecedented pace. In that context, it is necessary that the Quad strengthens beyond participating in the Malabar exercises and gets some teeth in the form of maritime capacity-building of its members, further improvement of interoperability and capacity to dominate choke points sensitive to China. The Quad will therefore need a formal structure and a secretariat to take it forward.
The Way Ahead for the Quad
COVID-19 vaccines will be manufactured in India, financed by the US and Japan and provided with logistical support from Australia. The intention of the Quad to synergise medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing, critical emerging-technology and future developmental capabilities is a step in the right direction. Sharing innovative technology and building capacity to cater to climatic challenges will serve the interests of humanity. These statements have good optics and, if sincerely implemented, will certainly make the Quad an effective grouping.
Quad members must continue freedom of navigation exercises and military posturing in the Indo-Pacific, just as China continues to do. If the current situation worsens, there could be a need to position a “UN Maritime Military Observers Group” to prevent the accidental triggering of conflict, which is possible in a region that has a high density of combat ships on freedom of navigation missions.
The recent summit did not signal expansion, but it needs to have the flexibility to incorporate like-minded democratic countries, as other countries could wish to join the Quad in the future. That is more than likely, since the Indo-Pacific region is becoming the economic centre of gravity and the manufacturing hub of the world. The visible support of other navies, like those of France, the UK, Germany and other NATO members, could prove a deterrent to peace-spoilers. The Quad in its present form may not be structured to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become a most effective instrument to do so. Chinese reactions indicate that it certainly has put China on notice.