By Phillip Orchard
China’s maritime presence is slowly spreading, and as it does, the outlines of a loose coalition to stop that spread are gradually taking shape. Last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo would propose a revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a 2007 defense cooperation initiative also involving India, Australia and the United States, during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan on Nov. 5-7. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly urged India to take part during his recent trip to New Delhi. On Oct. 29, India and Japan began anti-submarine warfare exercises. And on Oct. 31, Indian media reported that four-way talks would take place this month on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.
Given their overlapping interests in ensuring stability in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean basin — as well as their growing naval capabilities with which to do so — the four countries form a natural grouping. Yet, we’ve been at this stage before: The 2007 dialogue fell apart after only a year amid Chinese opposition, and the idea of a robust naval alliance remains far-fetched. Still, momentum for four-party defense cooperation appears to have returned, a reflection of the fact that the strategic interests of the countries in the region never stopped converging.
Slow to Develop
It didn’t take much pushback from the Chinese for the original version of the quad to fall apart in 2008. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the George W. Bush administration pitched the idea in 2007 to coincide with joint naval drills in the Bay of Bengal involving all four countries (and Singapore). Beijing balked at the framework, filing diplomatic protests with each of the four countries before even the first round of talks was held. A diplomatic protest isn’t typically something that can detonate a defense framework – or at least a coalition underpinned by geopolitical realities – on its own. But Chinese opposition was enough to unravel the nascent coalition for two primary reasons.
The first is that the quad was not intended to grow into a robust defense alliance. None of the participants were keen to establish an “Asian NATO.” Japan, India and Australia have ample overlapping interests and little reason to be suspicious of each other’s long-term intentions. But they’re separated by several thousand miles, and their respective naval build-ups have been focusing on developing the capabilities to address threats in largely discrete spheres. Japan, the country spearheading the effort, also faced major legal limitations on its ability to come to the aid of allies. Thus, none were capable of doing much for each other in the defense realm. Ultimately, all three parties would lean heavily on the U.S., not each other, to respond in a crisis, limiting the value of a multilateral coalition. For its part, the U.S. was bogged down in the Middle East and was only beginning to turn its attention to emerging maritime threats in the Asia-Pacific.
U.S. and Japanese (R) navy ships are pictured docked at a harbor during the inauguration of joint naval exercises with India in Chennai on July 10, 2017. Photo by Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images
This reality underpins the second reason: Given these flaws, a formal four-party coalition with the expressed intent of containing China was seen as needlessly provocative and detrimental to efforts to keep Beijing focused on the mutual benefits of the existing regional order. In particular, Australia was striving to cultivate deeper trade ties with China, a core market for Australian commodity exports that became critical to the Australian economy following the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. Thus, following a change in government in Canberra in 2008, new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled out of the quad.
India, itself facing domestic pressure over the issue and historically wary of alliances, was quietly relieved that Australia made the first move. It’s not that India’s domestic headaches or Australia’s commercial interests with China outweighed their long-term alarm about growing Chinese maritime assertiveness along critical trade routes. Rather, the quad framework itself was simply too insignificant to take priority over more immediate concerns – particularly if many of the benefits of cooperation could be reaped through other bilateral and trilateral settings that had not drawn Chinese ire.
Nonetheless, the doomed fate of the initial quad framework belies the fact that strategic interests in the region have been converging for some time, triggered by China’s rise. Indeed, all four parties have very gradually been building up military cooperation anyway ever since the initial version of the quad collapsed. Within two years, for example, Australia began hosting rotations of U.S. Marines at a base in Darwin. Japan and Australia signed a defense pact last year, while India and the United States began implementing their own landmark deal last month. The India-led Malabar joint naval exercises have expanded every year and are expected to include all four countries in the near future.
So would a resurrected Quadrilateral Security Dialogue be any more substantive than its doomed predecessor?
To be clear, an Asian NATO is still not in the cards. Familiar constraints would hinder its development even if it was the goal: Though Japan, India and Australia have each been investing heavily in naval modernization, none would be in a position to rush to each other’s defense if a major conflict broke out in Northeast Asia or in the Indian Ocean basin. Nor are any of the parties interested in getting dragged into a conflict not of their choosing. Once again, any robust naval alliance would rely heavily on the U.S. — still the world’s only naval superpower — to fill in the gaps and do most of the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, all three remain wary of provoking economic or domestic blowback or being left exposed by a fragile coalition. At this stage, the talks are likely to focus on low-level areas of cooperation such as coordinating the growing amounts of infrastructure and security assistance each of the four countries has been giving to weaker states in the region.
But two notable things have changed since 2007 that have altered the cost-benefit calculations. First, China has continued to push south through the South China Sea toward the Strait of Malacca, a critical chokepoint for global maritime trade and the place where all four countries’ security interests overlap the most.
Japan’s dependence on energy imports through the strait is a major driver of its gradual push to shed its constitutional constraints on offensive military capabilities, its growing security assistance to Southeast Asian states, and the more regular presence of Japanese warships in Southeast Asian ports. India, likewise, relies on the free flow of commerce through the waters, and it is eager to find ways to counter China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean basin. Australia is less reliant than the others on the South China Sea and the Malacca for trade, but as a remote island nation whose economy is heavily dependent on seaborne trade, it is fully dependent on the U.S. to guarantee that trade. Thus, it has historically tried to prove its value to its alliance with the U.S. by eagerly participating in U.S.-led security initiatives, no matter how distant. In Southeast Asian waters, it would be relatively well-placed to support potential operations from the south.
Second, the deteriorating security environment in Northeast Asia underscores the sense among India, Japan and Australia that they cannot fully rely on the U.S. to secure the waters should a major conflict break out in the Western Pacific. This isn’t to say trilateral cooperation can fully replace what the U.S. brings to the table, or that the U.S. presence in the region is about to diminish significantly. But the four countries are preparing for worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they may be.
If the U.S. gets tied down in an unpredictable conflict and becomes too overstretched to dominate the waters farther south, then Japan, India and Australia would need to try to fill the void. The purpose of joint drills and military cooperation agreements is to have communications, intelligence-sharing and joint operational mechanisms in place before such an event takes place. And their respective naval modernization efforts will certainly improve their capacity to do so.
China is a long way from developing a blue-water navy that can dominate waters that far from home, and it faces substantial economic obstacles to its ability to do so. But the pace of its naval development is nonetheless forcing states to consider the possibility that the Chinese break out of their internal constraints. Thus, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is being resurrected, this time on firmer grounds. To the extent that the Malacca Strait becomes the locus of cooperation, look for Singapore — which has quietly become one of the United States’ most important defense partners in the region — to become more involved as well.
The four-party framework may not amount to much more than dialogue. But with cooperation already deepening across the proposed coalition, whether the talks themselves take place isn’t really the point. What matters is the underlying forces compelling Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. to prepare for the potential of a darker day.