Who said China is too big to be contained?
United States could tip the balance in favour of the alliance of democracies
The first time around it collapsed when two of its members found it inconvenient to go ahead. And now, after a decade, in which China has militarily consolidated itself in the very region that the Quad had hoped to challenge, the chimera is once again being chased.
Mooted as an alliance of democracies, it seeks to upend everything we know about international relations, where the drivers are national interests, rather than values. Even that titanic struggle against evil in World War II pitted a partial democracy (the US), an empire (the UK) and the communist Soviet Union against the Nazis and the Japanese militarists.
Ordinarily this would not matter much since the Quad would largely be a talking shop with some joint naval exercises thrown in. But parallel to this, US President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have drawn up an overarching vision of the policy they have in mind to replace the now abandoned "pivot." They are pointedly wooing New Delhi into what could well be a military alliance. Trump's effusive remarks about India and the pointed re-christening of the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific are the soft sell. Like it or not, or hide it or not, the term now seems to be a means of including India in the military calculations of US strategy in the Pacific.
In Manila for the Asean anniversary and East Asia summits, the leaders of the four countries met each other individually while their officials will convene separately as the Quad. Clearly, there is some amount of caution in not provoking a hostile response from Beijing, whose response has actually been fairly mild. Following the meeting of officials, the Indian foreign ministry spokesman said, "A free open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and the world at large." But some nuances were visible as the Indian statement avoided mention of the North Korea issue, while the US, Australian and Japanese ones focused on it.
It was during Tillerson's visit to India on October 25-26, that Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said that Washington was "looking at a working level quadrilateral meeting in the near term." The idea was to bring together countries that share the same values "to reinforce those values in the global architecture." She, of course, denied that the idea was aimed at China, though she did say that it would "coordinate" efforts of countries seeking infrastructural development through means that "don't include predatory financing or unsustainable debt (read: China's Belt and Road Initiative).
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first pushed the idea in 2005 with a view to developing a broad front to balance China shortly after first coming to power that year. When anti-Japanese demonstrations hit China in 2004-05, Tokyo was shocked. It had for long assumed that Chinese animosity towards Japan for its World War II atrocities had been smoothened by the substantial economic aid that Japan had given China in the 1980s and 1990s, and the massive trade between the two. But the Chinese had merely been biding their time.
As for the US, it first mooted the "pivot to Asia" strategy to rebalance 60 per cent of its naval assets to the region. It sought to buttress this with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite initiating the move to re-establish the Quad and change the nomenclature of Asia Pacific to 'Indo-Pacific', it's not quite clear how Trump will operationalise his policy. Would it mean a more muscular set of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea? And how would it differ from Obama's pivot, which has already been undercut by the US abandonment of the TPP?
India was leery of the Quad the first time around, but now it says it would be ready to discuss the new terms of engagement for a revival of the proposal. This time around, the Japanese have said they would take the initiative to promote substantive cooperation between the countries in defence, maritime security and infrastructure development. Tillerson has also indicated that the Quad would also seek to promote a rival project of connectivity and infrastructure development that would not be predatory and unsustainable.
At the public level, everyone says that China is too big to be contained. But that cannot negate the nature of international politics, which is based on maximising national, rather than collective gain, and the relentless pursuit of national interest. No matter what Japan, India, the US and Australia say, the name of the game today is containing China. There is nothing particularly sinister about this. China has not shown itself to be a power that is peaceful or restrained. It has taken recourse to threats and bullying at the drop of the hat. Note the manner in which it sought to browbeat Bhutan on the Doklam issue, penalised South Korea for deploying the THAAD and pushed South-East Asian nations on the basis of its nine-dash line maritime boundary, which has no basis in international law.
The question is whether the Quad process is based on an honest assessment of the challenge, and an equally honest commitment of all those involved. In many ways, India and Japan are the frontline where China is concerned, but would a Quad mean that they would support each other militarily?
The only power that can balance China is the US and the world can't be sure where it's headed.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation