‘Quad’ Meet in Tokyo Signals Growing China Unease

All four members face troubles with a newly aggressive Beijing

By: Neeta Lal

The 2017 resurrection of the so-called Quad nations of Japan, the US, India, and Australia from a decade-long hiatus is indication that the group, which has met five times since its resumption, is growing increasingly concerned about maintaining the liberal rules-based international order that China has been systemically eroding.

The summit this week in Tokyo between the group’s foreign ministers is an effort “to collectively affirm the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” with discussions focused on the post-COVID 19 international order, the need for a coordinated response to challenges emerging from the pandemic as well as an array of regional issues, cooperation among members and potential defense and national security synergies.

The members once again reiterated their support for the centrality of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the region in the face of China’s attempts to make the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.

All four Quad member countries themselves are locked in contests with Beijing on some issue or other. China’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, its growing military assertiveness as well as its unilateral decision to alter the status quo in the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized manmade islands, have been a sore point with Tokyo in recent times. All these were highlighted by Japan's annual defense policy paper in July.

Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also minced no words when he told Japanese media in the runup to the summit that the world is “possibly becoming even more unpredictable and uncontrollable due to heightening selfish nationalism and growing tension between the US and China.”

He said he will pursue diplomacy that is based on the Japan-U.S. alliance as a cornerstone and "strategically promote the FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific)" while establishing stable relations with neighbors including China and Russia. The "Free and Open Indo-Pacific, launched by Japan and the US, is tailored primarily to keep China in check.

US Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell echoed Suga when he said that Quad’s aim is “to establish, promote and secure Indo-Pacific principles, especially as People’s Republic of China tactics, aggression, and coercion increase in the region.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s “reckless economic policies and its ruthless suppression of environmental activists China irresponsibly exploits natural resources around the globe, threatening the world’s economy.”

Australia-China bilateral ties too have been troubled, particularly in the wake of Australia’s support of an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. Not known for its subtlety, Chinese state media dubbed Australia as a “dog of the United States.” Beijing promptly suspended some beef imports on a technicality and slapped tariffs of 80.5 percent on Australian barley. China also launched an anti-dumping probe into Australian wine imports.

India has faced a series of growing problems that have awakened it to the need for multinational cooperation including China’s “string of pearls strategy” of tightening relations all across India’s lower flank, in Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as fomenting trouble along the 4,000 km Line of Actual Control between the two countries, most recently with a border incident in Ladakh that took the lives of 20 Indian army troops.

Beijing has always criticized Quad as an ‘exclusive clique’ out to scupper its rise and has dubbed it as a great threat to global peace and security. Petulance notwithstanding, Quad’s supporters hail the formation’s resolve to keep Beijing’s continuing economic and military belligerence in check. Against a backdrop of US President Donald Trump striking a blow at the roots of internationalism and multilateral cooperation, synergy between Quad’s members assumes greater significance, say analysts.

Many say the Quad signals a unified resolve to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The Tokyo meeting could well be the moment when Quad begins to turn from abstract idea to credible political coalition, said an editorial in The Indian Express.

“What is transforming the Quad today from talk shop into a purposeful strategic framework is China’s growing unilateralism and brazen effort to establish regional and global dominance. China seems to believe that it can keep pushing India on a range of issues and yet claim a veto over India’s relations with other powers, including the US, Japan and Australia,” it said.

Political analyst Darshana Baruah wrote in a recent paper for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new geographic space — bringing together the Indian and the Pacific Oceans — represents the new strategic reality of the twenty-first century.”

However, the grouping has its fair share of detractors too, who dismiss it as “false dawn for the development of meaningful security arrangements outside formal alliances in the Indo-Pacific.”

Analyst Salvatore Babones writes in The Wire that “…a free and open Indo-Pacific doesn’t need the Quad. India has every incentive to counter Chinese expansionism in South Asia, with or without a tenuous membership in an ill-defined intergovernmental grouping. It might do so more effectively with US military hardware, but it can more easily afford Russian equipment. Of course, the United States would like to develop India as a market for its defense exports. But if US defense sales to India are the main motivation for pushing the Quad, then Australia and Japan hardly need to be involved.”

Be that as it may, some Indian analysts say the Quad offers India a good opportunity to share a platform with like-minded countries who share their wariness of China.

“India has always been mindful of upsetting China with a robust participation in the Quad,” explains Dr. Shekhar Pandey, director at a Delhi-based think tank. “However, China’s relentless aggression on all fronts is forcing it to rethink its stance. The Chinese are refusing to back off from the Ladakh frontier; they are continuing their military partnership with Pakistan and have lost no opportunity to scupper India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Even the bilateral trade relations that are often touted as the bedrock of a strong bilateral partnership is hogwash because China has failed to address the mounting trade deficit.”

On the contrary, Pandey said, the Quad offers multiple benefits to New Delhi including addressing the stability of regional and global supply chains that are affected by the pandemic and helping bolster its own fight against Covid by building alternative supply chains, collaborating on Covid treatments, vaccines, and other related areas.

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