Development of the Strategic QUAD Entente

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the December 2020 issue of the Defence and Security Alert

“…The world had an international economy but a national polity[1]…” This condition though a true representation of the troubled order in the South China Sea, was in fact one of the key findings in the examination of the international anarchy that prevailed just prior to the First World War and indeed was its primary cause. Economics demanded that people maintain contact with the rest of the world which not only increased dependency but also enhanced prosperity. However, in the absence of a benign hegemon to oversee the movement of goods and services, nations began to carve out a part of the world system for exclusive exploitation leading to violent struggles and the formation of alliances that bolstered individual interests.

This article proposes to examine how best the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) can counter and balance the revisionist and expansionist ambitions of China.  

NATO as a Template: Not quite a Balance of Principles

Military alliances are related to collective security systems but can differ. The variance is explained by noting that historically, alliances “were designed to advance the national interests of the parties, and provided for joint military action if one of the parties became involved in conflict; whereas a collective security arrangement is directed solely against aggression. It seeks not to influence any ‘balance of power’ but to strengthen the ‘balance of principle.’

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in response to the military threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO’s creation also served three corollary purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, structuring a collective security arrangement and encouraging European political integration.

Significant to the Treaty and our enquiry is Article 5, where the signatories agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all”. Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty had important support purposes, Article 2 allowed civil cooperation while Article 3 laid the foundation for joint military preparedness.[2]

In the 1960s, Cold War tensions re-ignited as a catastrophic conflict was narrowly avoided in Cuba and American involvement in Vietnam escalated. Despite this, by decade’s end what had been primarily a defence-based organisation came to embody a new phenomenon: détente, a lessening   of tensions by acceptance of the status quo. Détente had many faces. One of its most perilous was the shift in strategic doctrine to “Flexible Response” which sought to replace Massive Retaliation’s finality. Adopted in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Flexible Response offered a baffling posture of military responses that suggested control over escalation where none existed.

NATO, in the end analysis, fulfilled the post-World War II demand for an ideological bloc to thwart a common existential threat; its collateral aims were economic revival and integration. It must be said that the Treaty met its objectives yet it was driven by the starkness of survival.  

Revisionist China, a Ringside View of its Shenanigans

The international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days; gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.” Xi Jinping today, has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and bring China to its central place as a global power and, indeed, rejuvenate the nation. Further, Xi’s ‘Thought’ and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was, in imperial fashion, added to the Preamble of the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Xi’s message encapsulated in “His Thought” resonates with the central theme of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership. It is never clear whether his constituency is the worker and the peasant (which it certainly appears not to be) or the Chinese netizen; at which time there is an apparent cleavage in society which underscores the unreality of ‘His Thought’.

China, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitated a territorial embroilment in the Ladakh/Arunachal region of India, begun a global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of his vision of a rejuvenated China. Willy Lam, Xi’s biographer declares “at any rate Xi is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances, he has become emperor for life.”

 In the SCS, claims defined by the 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016 and historically the claim’s ancestry has been discredited by the fact that Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage ended in 1433, significant as they must have been, all Chinese maritime activity in the region was thereafter banned by royal edict. Yet, Xi has ordained ownership of 3.6 million square kilometres of the SCS, and has shown no qualms of using military power to make fast his hold.

In Ladakh, ever since the Doklam incident of 2017 and the current Galwan crisis, three factors would appear to have played on Beijing planners. First, the growing pugnacity of the “Quad” and the coalescing fall-out it has amongst the littorals of the SCS. In addition, hindrance that Quad’s intrusive presence poses to progress of the maritime segment of the BRI must cause some misgivings. Second, the rapid pace of, long neglected, infra-structure development and Indian military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Arunachal is an augury of response to any military misadventure. Third, the BRI is critical to the generation of a Sino-centric global order, India’s steadfast rejection of the continental segment on grounds of sovereignty infractions undermines the very idea. The three seen together have, no doubt, aroused Beijing to use their military to test India’s resolve.

Is there a favourable presumption that may be made with regard to Xi’s motives, that, in fact total power in his hands may be for the good of China? The turbulence that we are witness to in the SCS, the brinkmanship in Taiwan and Ladakh, strife in Hong Kong and Tibet, intentions to revise global governance, the Uighur atrocities, illicit trade practices, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future”[3] are disconcerting and would suggest anything but making agreeable assumptions about intent.

The Quad-Quest for Common Strategic Ground

The Quad was resurrected in 2017 with the aim to support a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region’. While there are differing discernments among the four countries on threat perceptions, military capability, strategic priority and intensity of retaliation, these variances place confines on cooperation but do not preclude it.

Amongst Quad states there exists not only broad consensus of strategic perceptions but also an agreement that recent Chinese policies and actions are a threat to the status quo. However, there are apparent disparities between the Quad states on nature of impact. Principal among these are their differing threat perceptions — this is the core impediment to collective undertakings that limits the scope of any action the four countries might take together. This is also what differentiates the NATO from the Quad. Divergence in threat perceptions is based on a range of factors, including the existence or absence of direct territorial disputes with China, perceptions of the potential risks of retaliation by Beijing, the economic and military capabilities that each state can bring to bear should retaliation occur.

It would now be appropriate to examine individual interests at play in order to highlight common ground.

Individual Interests

Japan perceives militarization of the East China Sea and territorial threat to the Senkaku Islands to be a part of China’s “two-ocean” strategy that aims at redistributing forces in the Indo-Pacific region by expanding its naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, where it seeks to secure its SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and bolster its Maritime Silk Road. The development of this strategy will not only inhibit freedom of navigation but would also upend the strategic balance across the Indo-Pacific. Japan would like to complicate China’s two ocean strategy by forcing it to stretch its naval resources thin over a broader geographic area.

India’s refusal to back down during the Doklam and the more recent Galwan standoff was a successful counter to Chinese continental ‘nibbling’[4]. China may have considered such a stratagem that involves incremental territorial annexation to be perceived as not significant to justify military retaliation. However, in taking a firm stand and appropriately mobilising its strike elements; India demonstrated the resolve to counter with force any action to disrupt the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India’s perceptions of the oceanic threat from China have also increased considerably, with the extension of PLAN power projection capabilities into the Indian Ocean as a part of its “Two Ocean Strategy” and to secure its Maritime Silk Road. India views such moves as deliberately threatening its strategic space.

Despite Australia’s opting out from the Quad’s first avatar in 2007, over the last three years it has challenged Chinese policies that have transgressed rule based order. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes and supports the resolution of differences based on international law. Thus far Australia’s actions have targeted economic entities It has banned the Chinese telecom giant ‘Huawei’ from the 5G deal, introduced legislation to champion an international investigation of the origins and accountability for the uncontrolled spread  of the Wuhan virus pandemic.

The United States views itself in a direct clash with China which it describes as a “revisionist” authoritarian state that seeks to re-write the rules of the US-led post-war order “while exploiting its benefits”. In response, the 2019 US Indo-Pacific Security Strategy Report[5] makes clear that its priority is in reorienting its own forces toward the Indo-Pacific region. The US trade war with Beijing has already demonstrated its resolve to challenge China’s economic practices. It has cut China’s supply of semi-conductors that enable 5G systems; setting back China by over a trillion dollars’ worth of network deals. No company is allowed to sell semiconductors made using US software or equipment without a licence if Huawei was involved at any stage of the transaction[6].

Common Strategic Grounds

It is unrealistic, for reasons examined earlier, to imagine the Quad intervening in continental conflicts with China. Perhaps with greater maturity it could adopt a collective indirect approach to imposing economic and social sanctions ala Washington in the 5G semiconductor episode. However, it is in the maritime domain that common strategic grounds exist, be it to check and curb unfair practises associated with the maritime Silk Road, violation of conventions laid down in the “Law of the Sea” or illicit claims and indeed in the freedom of navigation.

The pandemic has exposed the risks associated with dependence by all four states on trade with China. Policies and plans on how to establish alternative supply chains for strategic and critical sectors are currently underway. In addition, the devastating economic and health fall out from China’s lack of transparency over the origins of the virus, and failure to limit its spread beyond China’s borders, has reinforced the importance of adopting a collective approach to hold Beijing accountable.

Further, the implications of the Maritime Silk Road for the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific are now rapidly unfolding. China’s ‘debt to lease-trap’ diplomacy through large infrastructure lending for strategically important but commercially unviable projects to countries unable to repay. The most notable example is of Sri Lanka which was forced to give Beijing a 99-year lease on Hambantota Port in partial repayment of its extensive debts. Governments in Malaysia and the Maldives are now attempting to avoid the same fate in response to infrastructure deals with China.

The Next Step as a Conclusion

Quad should now take the next step of enhancing military cooperation amongst each other to signal intent to counter and thereby deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

The Quad has the opening to institute measures against China that anticipates and counters policies which undermine the existing rules-based order. The opportunity must be seized lest globalization be held to ransom by nationalism.


End Notes

[1] Palmer and Colton, A History of the Modern World 7th edition, p704

[2] A short history of NATO (https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_139339.htm)

[3] China national defence in a new era white paper July 2019

[4]https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/grand-strategy-is-total-french-gen-andre-beaufre-on-war-in-the-nuclear-age/

[5] The US Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region, 1 June 2019, 7, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

[6] Chip and phone supply chain shaken as Huawei faces mortal threat https://www.ft.com/content/bdd2a70f-ecd2-4aff-b6c7-c0624bfdeebb , 18 August 2020

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