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All shot and no powder in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

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Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Kurama, which is carrying Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sails in smoke during its fleet review at Sagami Bay south of Tokyo, 18 October 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai).

In Brief

Australian advocates of the so called ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ (which brings together the United States, Japan, India and Australia) must now feel as if the wind is well and truly in their sails.

Late last year, the Turnbull government’s Foreign Policy White Paper signalled that Australia is open to working more within ‘plurilateral arrangements’ (though it did not directly name the ‘Quad’).


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Shortly afterwards, President Trump’s National Security Strategy took the more direct route by affirming that the United States would ‘increase quadrilateral cooperation’ with Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra. The summary of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy made no secret of Washington’s intent to expand Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships.

There is now even something of an esoteric tussle over who first started using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, as if authorship automatically confers Kissingerian laurels.

It is little wonder then that, upon the sight of seeing four generals from the respective Quad countries sharing the stage at a recent security conference in New Delhi, one Australian observer present (grasping desperately for Blairite grandiloquence) marvelled at watching ‘history being made’. And then in the next breath stated that the grouping was little more than the swapping of notes on each countries’ respective strategic concerns.

The release of the new Pentagon and White House strategic documents is perhaps the most crucial factor driving these new and heightened expectations for the Quad. US Asian allies, once nervous at the prospect of a Trump presidency, have been somewhat calmed by the more traditional noises emanating from the White House (especially the sentiments expressed in the President’s swing through the region late last year). Trump was even talking the language of shared sacrifice and solidarity. The transactional impulse remains strong, but it is being uttered with much less venom than it was on the campaign trail.

After all the concerns that attended the period before Trump’s election about the content of his regional approach, there is tendency now to see in these documents the reassertion of a more traditional US Asia policy. And to believe that the United States has renewed strategic confidence and certainty about how to meet the threat posed by a ‘revisionist’ China. Likely trade action against Beijing by the Trump administration this year would seem to support the view that the more hawkish and interventionist elements in Washington’s national security community have the President’s ear.

After the disappointment and suspicion engendered by Canberra’s withdrawal from the Quad in 2007, there is little doubt that the coming together of these four democracies again is a diplomatic development worthy of note. In essence, the Quad has already done the job its proponents want it to do: sending a warning to China. This warning is not to be underestimated given the legitimate concerns about Chinese strategic behaviour in recent years. Such is the meaning behind the euphemism of showing ‘strength in numbers’. The problem with the Quad is that no matter how important or symbolic this gesture, sooner or later the lack of real substance in its strategic intent will show.

For Australian leaders, the Quad sometimes appears to be the love that dare not speak its name. During his recent summit in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Malcolm Turnbull did not mention the Quad — at all. Its absence was all the more notable given the rather lacklustre communique to emerge from the trip. Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne expressed the woolly hope on a recent visit to Delhi that the Quad could develop into ‘something of use to all four countries’ while also not being seen by anyone in the region as ‘any kind of attempt to limit their activities’. No one, least of all Beijing, is fooled by ministers or prime ministers speaking with forked tongues.

In an interview with The Australian Financial Review, Abe was emphatic that the Quad ‘does not mean necessarily engaging in any military activities’. He stated that it had to do with ‘raising our voice’ about the importance of cooperation, especially where that cooperation concerns freedom of navigation, maritime enforcement capabilities and the promotion of international standards in infrastructure and ports. Joint military exercises are one thing, but Tokyo and Canberra remain unwilling to follow the United States into the contested 12 nautical mile zone around contested territories in the South China Sea.

This begs the question that continues to dog the Quad. Its advocates habitually fall over themselves to refute any kind of suggestion that it aims to become an Asian NATO or that it may be an ‘alliance in the making’. They tend to say what the Quad is not rather than what it is. For all the commonalities and shared values, each country knows that when it comes to the brass tacks of respective national interests — particularly where those concern China — divergence abounds.

Some potential positive outcomes might come from a more formalised Quad, but not the kinds that are beloved of Canberra’s security hawks. One is that it would surely release Australia from the obligations it has accepted to be by Washington’s side during any China–US conflict over Taiwan, since India would never accept such an obligation.

It is easy to flick the switch to hyperbole at the sound of military top brass talking tough. But beyond the importance of the declaratory statements, the real strategic ballast in the Quad is hard to discern.

James Curran is Professor of Modern History at Sydney University and Non-Resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

4 responses to “All shot and no powder in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue”

  1. I think at this point the SCS issue is overhyped, and everyone needs to settle down a bit.

    A Code of conduct is being completed, which came through diplomatic efforts that notably …did not really involve US nor Australia. This should be a wake-up call to any sensible person. Right from the outset the whole “pivot” was botched. Also to be noted is what was happening around the world in 2011 and 2013, the initial period of pivot. I’d list 3 things that had huge impact to the break down of the situation
    1. 2011 US intervention in Libya, which effectively reduced Libya to a failed state. China was directly affected – billions invested in Libya that evaporated, emergency evacuated citizens via military transport, and the way US brazenly abused the UN resolution.

    2. 2011 Diaoyu Island dispute. US re-affirmed its military commitment to Japan at the expense of China. Needless to say what effect this had on China – what would Australia do should China affirmed similar military guarantees to disputed islands right off of Australia coast on behalf of say, Timor Leste? What would the defense community and more hawkish politicians in Australia do in accordance with resources at Australia’s disposal?

    3. Syria in 2013. US was about to enter another war after Libya. This time it was stopped at last minute – anyone still remembers all the last minute military build up and intent for war? This is right after Libya. Russia and China stopped it both diplomatically in the UN and militarily on the ground. Its against this backdrop of events the SCS tensions flared.

    To me, these 3 events had a significant impact on the unfolding of events in SCS in subsequent years. However somewhere down the line the narrative led by the US and Japan became over simplified, and being shoved down the tunnel of hawkish – and selective – interpretation of events, when in actuality the situation was far more nuanced than their tone suggested.

    Going forward, the SCS issue should proceed primarily down the diplomatic track to stabilize the situation , then deepen engagements to reach final settlement that is satisfactory for all sides. Begin small, maintain stability, and deepen engagement to exchange and understand views should be the three benchmarks.

    Humanity faces so many urgent issues – climate change, environmental degradation, ever more drug resistant diseases, drastic social changes due to new technologies, unresolved social issues, ever increasingly powerful tools empower individuals to do both good and unimaginable damages that was not possible for small groups or individuals before….we have so many issues that need to be resolved to ensure our future is not dark and gloomy, it will be a pity if our energies were wasted on confronting each other because we unconsciously walked into confrontations through ignorance and misunderstandings due to lack of comprehensive engagements.

    As for overly simplified hawkish rhetoric…well let’s just say hope it stays as rhetoric.

    • Eric, that point about the code of conduct would have merit – if China had any intention of abiding by a Code of Conduct. Which they don’t.

      • Would that be similar to the fact the US beats the drum about China adhering to United Nations Law of the Sea Conventions, the very same Convention that the US has failed to sign and ratify because they themselves do not want to be restricted? I mean come on…Do as I say not as I do.

        This is about power projection and the attempt to remain a dominant hegemony when the world was moving to more multilateral and multi-regional agreements that would weaken the US hegemony. Soft power is pushed through western media and attempts are made to back it up with hard and military power. I say attempts because outside fostering coups, intimidating nations with much less resources and using the global economic system as a tool of conflict the US has not won any war since their illegal bombing of Japan in 1945.

        Right now they do propaganda well and have the ability to restructure narratives, that is the primary saving grace.

        This is before we even address your main point; you have no idea if China intends on abiding by any agreements reached. Hyperbole and fear mongering assumptions. Best argument available.

    • I would add a more recent fourth, more recent set of circumstances which have fueled this Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: North Korea’s advance into nuclear weapons capabilities. This prospect has fueled intense anxieties in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington DC. While these concerns are understandable in many respects, the rhetoric being thrown around, primarily between Trump and Kim but added to by others, has made things worse rather than better.

      Perhaps the ‘deep engagement’ Eric proposes can take place around this issue with N Korea? Begin small, maintain stability, and deepen engagement among the PRC, ROK, USA, Japan, Australia, India, along with Russia and others to find a way to resolve these differences without going to war. This is admittedly very complex and challenging. But it could provide a model for how the countries can then work on the SCS issues more constructively as well.

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