By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Over recent months, the ‘Quad,’ the nickname for a regional mechanism comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India and ostensibly established as a security forum by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe almost a decade ago, has increasingly evolved into a central tenet of the US’s new military strategy vis-à-vis China.

Using words taken from the US National Security Strategy document, China is regarded as a “revisionist power” that must be contained and whose increasing influence counterbalanced through alternative economic and military means.

The Quad largely went dormant following the withdrawal of Australia during the tenure of the dovish Kevin Rudd as prime minister. But Abe, Australian and Indian Premiers Malcolm Turnbull and Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump agreed in Manila last November to revive it. China – and the rest of the world – were delivered a bristling message on the sidelines of the Asean and East Asia summits in Manila last November.

It was a message that was reinforced two weeks ago at a summit in New Delhi in which naval chiefs of the four countries, known formally as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, shared the stage to grapple with what regional news reports termed as “Chinese unilateralism,” which needs to be countered through reviving the Quad, which is seen in China as nothing less than an “Asian NATO.”

Representative of the member countries expressed their views, but the reported star of the show was Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command in Hawaii and the next US Ambassador to Australia. Targeting China in perhaps the most explicit terms, Harris said: “The reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific, they are the owner of the trust deficit in the region,” adding that China’s intent is not only to dominate singlehandedly the South China Sea but also to rival if not match the American military power and force it out of the region.

Harris’s words were corroborated by the Australian navy chief who called upon the members to take concrete action against the PLA’s Navy. 

A revival is, therefore, clearly in place here. But there are different objectives working behind it. For the US, the primary motivation is that it wants to maintain its erstwhile position in the region as the guarantor of security, a position that has been considerably damaged by the Trump administration’s own scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While TPP itself could have been an effective alternative to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the Quad revival is taking place as a military strategy signifying that the US wants to keep its focus on the military aspects of its engagement with the region, and that it aims to maintain economic relations on bilateral terms, as emphasized on a number of occasions by the Trump administration.

For instance, Japan has its own concerns, which are not just militaristic. While the US seems intent on keeping the Quad a security arrangement, a successor-alternative to the “Asia Pivot” and rebranding it as a pivot to the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s aims are more diverse.  

Tokyo has already pledged US$200 billion as an alternative to China’s BRI and promised to invest this money into building infrastructure around the world. Japan, using the Asian Development Bank as the primary vehicle of investment and loans, seems to be intent upon countering China and its ambitious Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but nonetheless remains interested in maintaining a sound economic relationship with China.

This is purely economic competition, not simply containment of a “revisionist power.” China is already Japan’s second-biggest export market and Australia’s No. 1 export market as well. Wouldn’t containing China then mean a potential economic loss? And wouldn’t a military containment of China establish a conflict of interests between the Quad members? It’s hard to deny.

As for Australia, it was only a few months ago when Canberra signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China, regarding BRI, signaling Australia’s increasing accommodation with China’s economic overtures.

Then there is India, which had a tough last year with China due to the border standoff between Indian and Chinese armed forces over Chinese construction of a road on the Bhutan border. There have been other provocations including a contest for influence in the Maldives.  But in fact their bilateral relations have eased and both countries have increasingly started to show sensitivity to each other’s interests. While this easing doesn’t necessarily imply a major transformation, it does indicate that India is not simply following in the US’s footsteps leading to military containment of China.

As has been reported, the Modi government recently took the extraordinary step of preventing its officials from attending functions marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in India. Clearly, India was showing a lot of sensitivity to the understanding that had was reached between both countries during the recent visit to China by India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale. As such, while the official Indian readout on Gokhale’s discussions in Beijing included aspects of bi-lateral interests, the catchwords were “mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns and aspirations.” 

Therefore, the US campaign to rope India into its new containment strategy has its limitations. For one thing, while all the Quad member countries except the US want to continue to use the US presence as a counterweight to China, they are more interested in balancing their relations with China than simply taking part in a strategy that stands little chance of success. For another, China’s rapidly increasing economic and military presence in Asia, although it has its own pitfalls, is likely to inhibit other, lesser countries from supporting the Quad.

On the contrary, a military revival of the Quad with its emphasis on countering China might divide the region further and take it towards a highly tense, zero-sum competition. India’s revised China strategy indicates that it would continue to prefer to follow an independent policy vis-à-vis China rather than toe the US line and end up facing stand-offs in the Himalayas.

China, sensing this buildup, has already responded by increasing its defense spending, calling the increase a necessary ‘element of peace,’ thus proving that the adversarial and aggressive depiction of China would do little to develop non-aggressive and non-military relations between the US and China on the one hand, and between China and other regional countries, particularly the Quad members, on the other. Therefore, from the very beginning of its nascent revival, the Quad seems to have been set on a self-defeating path.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel