The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad 2.0) has quickly gained global traction since its revival in late 2017, becoming a key platform within and for the Indo-Pacific region. Although the Quad has profoundly desisted an anti-China narrative, it is viewed as a grouping seeking to balance out China's growing unilateralism and assertiveness in the region. To this effect, the just concluded second ministerial meeting of the Quad held in Tokyo - amidst unprecedented health, economic and security crises - held immense significance.
Since the onset of the pandemic, China has pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy coupled with military adventurism, resulting in deteriorating ties with countries like Australia, US, India and Japan among others. With the US blaming China for mishandling the virus in its early stages (Trump notoriously refers to COVID-19 as ‘China virus'), hostilities have heightened, putting the entire region on edge. China has dramatically increased its expansionism efforts too: Beijing repeatedly intruded into the South and East China Seas, and sought to change the status quo with India along their disputed border leading to a still on-going military standoff. In Hong Kong, Beijing imposed an unprecedented and rather precarious national security law, allowing government unrestricted authority in the name of national security. In Taiwan too, Chinese fighter planes have intruded the airspace, raising prospects of a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait with the possible involvement of the US, owing to its support to Taiwan.
The Tokyo Quad meeting came amidst a changed security and economic setting as the region faces a real possibility of an outright conflict and the prospect of a new, long-drawn Cold War. With reference to this, the Quad “reaffirmed their collective vision of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” and agreed to deepen cooperation in humanitarian assistance, health security, maritime safety, counterterrorism and cyber affairs. Importantly, the consultations had a clear tone of coordinating a better response to China's unilateral aggression and neutralizing its growing influence.
This renewed focus on counter-balancing China, especially amidst the pandemic, has the potential to transform into an economic strategy. All Quad nations are witnessing economic troubles as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with a realization of the drawbacks of their unsustainable dependence on China. To realize its aims of driving “strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive” growth, the Quad must go beyond infrastructure investment and providing economic recovery strategies with synchronized implementation plans. Considering China's entrenched global integration, the Quad will need to reduce its dependence on China by creating a more viable and attractive alternate global supply chain nexus. Coordinated efforts in this direction have already begun through the India-Japan-Australia led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI); US' potential inclusion at a later stage can be incorporated with Quad providing a platform to bolster SCRI's working.
The future of Trump's presidency remains undetermined with the US Presidential elections due to be held in the coming month, which may bring a change in US leadership. Despite his somewhat stormy Presidency, Trump's emphasis on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy has become a cornerstone of the Quad framework. It was under Trump that Quad gained much-needed impetus, with the former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighting the need for Washington's increased engagement with Asian democracies to reinforce liberal values in a global security architecture. On the heels of the Tokyo meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made Washington's strategy explicit by reiterating the importance of “institutionalizing” the Quad as a way of countering China's “exploitation, corruption and coercion” – showing the Trump administration's strong commitment to translate the Quad into a regional collective security framework with the central aim of balancing China. Although the US-China strategic competition is unlikely to recede even with a change in the Oval office, whether Biden's election to office changes the heated nature of the conflict, and whether the Quad will be accorded the same priority remains to be seen.
More importantly, the Tokyo meeting marked Japan's first Quad engagement under the Prime Ministership of Yoshihide Suga, who recently assumed office post Abe's resignation. Abe was the linchpin of the grouping: he conceptualized it in his book Utsukushii Kuni-e (Towards A Beautiful Country), and officially expounded the same in his 2007 landmark speech ‘Confluence of the Two Seas'. Abe became a critical driving force behind the grouping's transformation from a mere vision- to an informal dialogue- to finally, a strategic consultation framework between the four nations. Abe's close personal camaraderie with all the three leaders, especially Trump and Modi, was instrumental in bolstering the underlying foundations of the grouping. To that effect, the Tokyo meeting was viewed as a diplomatic test of Suga's abilities to navigate such a platform and find a renewed synergy amidst unpredictable times.
However, while all states value the platform as vital to further their Indo-Pacific calculus, they have largely differing strategic interests in the region. While the US pursues a hawkish foreign policy approach, India, Japan, and Australia seek an inclusive region with China as an active – but unaggressive – participant. Under the changing security environment, this meeting was vital in facilitating a frank exchange of outlooks and moving towards a strategy harmonious with that of all countries.
Another significant point for the Quad meeting 2020 was the informal expansion of the Quad into a ‘Quad-Plus' framework, with ASEAN centrality. The extended the platform includes New Zealand, South Korea, Israel and Vietnam, specifically intended to exchange strategies on combatting COVID-19. While this was by no means a formal expansion of the platform, it did raise questions on whether such an expansion could and should be initiated.
China remains a driving factor for the Quad; therefore, any expansion would be crucial to its interests. As China's sphere of influence expands, a global democratic coalition – like the ‘Quad-Plus' – would be critical in striking a bargain with and winning against an authoritarian Eurasian order that China is fast heading, with a prospective grouping of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Pakistan. However, states like South Korea and New Zealand are also closely intertwined with Beijing through trade ties. China's “wolf warrior diplomacy” has already shown the hefty price of antagonizing the economic powerhouse, making states hesitant to join a grouping that Beijing views exclusively as an anti-China platform.
Promoting strategic balance in the region through expanding the Quad's outreach and supporting ASEAN-led architectures must be a central focus moving forward. The grouping must present a comprehensive economic package that offers states an alternative to China, advocating greater transparency, reliability and freedom to choose who they want to conduct business with. An expansion of the platform with the inclusion of states committed to democratic and internationally embedded values is vital to assuaging the threats from China.
Interestingly, the Tokyo Quad meeting comes just as the Chinese President Xi Jinping is gearing up for the vital Fifth Plenum of the Nineteenth Communist Party Congress conference, to be held starting October 26th. The conclave is expected to not only set the country's future agenda by agreeing upon a five-year economic and social development plan but also likely to be an assessment of Xi's performance until now. With the Chinese economy taking a downturn amidst a long-lasting trade war with the US and the pandemic's impact this year, China is witnessing increasing domestic unrest at home.
It will therefore be vital for Xi to present a robust international image as a way of demonstrating China's continued dominance at the global stage. To this end, China has recently upped its rhetoric regarding the platform, calling the grouping ‘an anti-China frontline', a ‘mini NATO', and an extension of US' undue interference in the region. China's key aim is to ensure that the Quad does not gain traction outside of its current composition. For this, Xi hopes to ensure that small and middle power Asian states do not declare alliances, remain neutral or fall firmly into China's camp.
*Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is a Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.