• Abhishek Sudke

QUAD: The Indo-Pacific Balance


The Indo-Pacific can be rightly deemed as one of the volatile geopolitical hotspots of today. Following the words of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, the two oceans have indeed converged into one. Indo-Pacific has been turning into a very significant region of the world owing to increased trade between rapidly growing countries such as India, Vietnam, South Korea, and China. The world has taken notice of the improved logistics and manufacturing that the Asian countries are able to provide. However, the Chinese factor contributes to the extensive increase in terms of both the growth and volatility of the Indo-Pacific. The Belt and Road Initiative along with the methods such as the Debt Trap and Chequebook diplomacy that China utilizes to achieve its ambition of a bipolar world with the leading one polar point of the world are extremely concerning for the countries that openly believe in multipolarity.

Countries such as South Korea, India, Philippines, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries in China's neighborhood are seriously worried about China’s expansionist vision and tendencies. These Chinese tendencies span across land, air, space, and most importantly seas. In spite of the growing concern from China, the Indo-Pacific which ranges from India’s West coast till the United States of America's West Coast is riddled with numerous other problems that range from piracy and movement of goods to environmental protection and retrieving natural resources. Almost a decade ago, a group of democratic powers namely - India, Australia, Japan, and the USA came together to discuss the region and its future. The group came to be known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue more popularly, QUAD. The group has been oscillating on the active-inactive poles for over a decade now, and the time has dawned for it to take the high point of cooperation and engagement.

Journey of QUAD

The origins of QUAD can be greatly credited to the Tsunami Core Group consisting of the same four members of QUAD - Japan, India, Australia, and the USA. It was formed in 2004-05 to coordinate the response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. This group was extremely effective due to the determination possessed by the countries of India, Japan, and Australia along with the resources available with the USA to tackle the grave aftermath of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. This antecedent was a significantly visionary owing to the democratic axis that is commonly shared by the members of this group along with the realization that convergence of the great seas required protection in order to ensure free and open navigation for trade and strategic purposes.

In May of 2007, to much joy of the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Quadrilateral met for an “exploratory” meeting in Manila. This exploratory meeting was deemed to possess the potential to turn into something much greater. However, India and Australia who wanted to position a more “balanced approach” to prevent angering China portrayed it to be a mere informal meeting convened to discuss common issues such as disaster relief. QUAD can be visualized as a twofold mechanism - diplomatic and maritime. The former was realized at the meeting in Manila and the latter at the September maritime exercise between the QUAD countries and Singapore. This maritime exercise was an expansion of the annual bilateral US-India Malabar exercise. Yet, this momentous alliance was last seen coming together at this exercise.

The split-up began with Australia showing signs of withdrawal on account of not upsetting China while Japanese PM Shinzo Abe stepped down from Japan’s PM position, and India prioritized the already critical US-India Nuclear Deal over the survival of QUAD. The end of QUAD can be determined to be more of a whimpering end rather than the one with a bang. By the start of 2008, all the leaders including Indian PM Manmohan Singh deemed this grouping to be something that never got started.

QUAD, why now?

One of the reasons for India not pursuing the QUAD in 2007 was also its ambitions of receiving the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s waiver, which was contingent on China and continues to be even today. This showcases China as the reason why two of the three powers dropped out of the QUAD in the first place. These sacrifices by the democratic powers were in vain with China growing more aggressive and assertive in the years following 2007, especially since Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as the President of the People’s Republic of China. China’s endeavors through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has added to China’s aggressive posturing around the world, most importantly in the Indo-Pacific and against democratic powers such as India and Japan that challenge its dominance in the neighborhood. This begs the question, “Is satisfying China worth it anymore?”. In the post-COVID era and China’s posturing in the region, all the neighbors are extremely uneasy of China and the QUAD does not wish to appease China anymore.

COVID-19 is providing an impetus to an already changing world order, where the global order is rapidly transforming into a multipolar world. This has exemplified the status and role of QUAD members in the Indo-Pacific theatre by cooperating in vaccine development, providing relief packages in the form of medicines and other essentials, along with capacity support to the nations in Indo-Pacific and beyond. Before the lockdown, India’s Foreign Secretary also participated in a telephonic discussion with members of various countries in the Indo-Pacific. The participants of this discussion shared an uncanny resemblance to the initial idea of a democratic axis of like-minded countries. The participating countries were - India, Australia, Japan, the USA, Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand. This grouping has been dubbed as the QUAD Plus ever since. This discussion was primarily centered around issues related to COVID-19, but the occurrence provides a déjà vu back from 2004. This takes us back to the initial antecedent of the QUAD origin- the Tsunami Core group and this discussion have opened up avenues for further cooperation between these countries.

The grouping was never meant to be a containment alliance against China. However, it was meant to protect and ensure Free and Open Navigation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, ensuring better security for the members, and facilitating non-coercive trade along with coordination over a range of issues that affect the prosperity of its member states. Now, China’s actions since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis across Indo-Pacific have been concerning for the countries in the region. China’s aggressive posturing has been attributed to Xi Jinping’s aims to keep the Chinese people and the Communist party in his favor, yet they have caused significant infringement over sovereignty of certain nations while significantly affecting the economic prospects of some and suppressed rights and created havoc in the lives of individual people in certain places. Democratic countries such as the QUAD members cannot be expected to do nothing while these decisions are underway in their neighborhood, especially when these decisions would directly affect these countries in the future, if not already.

Chinese endeavors- an impetus for QUAD

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, China has taken a series of actions that disturb the geopolitical balance of this region. China’s military build-up across the Indian border in Ladakh and their reluctance to pull back entirely to the lines that were negotiated initially is appallingly disturbing. This instance strengthened India’s position as a regional power that would stand up to China and not back down. India’s solid stance to not lose any land during the latest Chinese endeavors has given a lot of other neighboring countries a shimmer of hope over the possibility of a counterbalance in the region. These actions along with China’s earlier move of deploying drones along with oceanic research ships in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) could act as a major boost for India to actively take up QUAD negotiations again especially considering that India’s development depends on the Indian Ocean, being free and its shores protected is of utmost priority. The addition of Vietnam to the discussions and possibly the QUAD grouping could be possible through India that already shares a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Vietnam and its problems with China have been underway since the times of Vietnam War and have grown with China’s claims over Paracel Islands pushing it forward with military exercises near the same earlier this month.

In the South China Sea, the US-China conflict significantly intensified with the US frontline Naval Vessel forced out of a disputed region that is claimed by China as its own. China has undertaken a series of operations termed as “freedom of navigation operations” by the US where it flew multiple sorties and patrols near Taiwan and over the East China Sea on multiple occasions throughout this year. Other regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea have been greatly concerned by this while some of these have also called for maintenance of restraint amidst the pandemic. These Chinese actions greatly trouble Japan owing to its disputes with China over the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Reports have emerged that both the countries could be on the brink of a renewed political tension due to recent Chinese actions. The island groups have been administered by Japan since 1972, yet China lays claim on them on grounds unknown to international law. During mid-April of this year, Japan claims to have spotted multiple Chinese government ships near these Island groups and a series of statements were made from both sides indicating a possible political turmoil between both the countries. These actions further push Japan towards the QUAD grouping as a means of strengthening themselves with like-minded countries facing similar problems.

Australia has had its own share of issues with China particularly this year when China threatened to cut imports from Australia after they demanded a transparent investigation into the origin of COVID-19. This issue showcases blatant disregard for fair trade practices from the Chinese end while involving itself into coercive policies and methods such as this on occasions where they could get undermined. China - Australia relations hit a rocky road when China urged its citizens to not travel to Australia and Australia responded by urging its students to study in the country and not go to China. While their relations deteriorated China resorted to considering boycotting Australian goods if Australia pushed for an independent inquiry into COVID origin further. Along this period, Australia banned Huawei- Chinese global giants and lobbied various countries to empower WHO or another body with inspection powers. In response to these, China slapped 80 percent tariffs on Australian barely. These events are sure to push Australia towards QUAD and away from appeasing the Chinese in contrast to their attitude in 2007.

The rivalry and pursuit of dominance between the United States of America and China is the closest the world has come to the times of the Cold War. While the tools of asserting dominance have changed since the 20th century, the USA has been consistent in its ideals and values of free seas and freedom of navigation. Being one of the largest maritime powers of the 21st century, the United States has actively voiced out for the freedom of navigation specifically in the Asia-Pacific since the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia”.

The engagement in the seas spanning the Pacific towards the west has only grown with the Trump administration renaming the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command and following through with the renewed terminology ever since across all public information in connection with the region. In the latest press statement by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the United States reiterated its stance over China’s “bullying” and “illegal” occupation in the South China Sea while declaring, “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.” The use of the term “wider region” rightly points to the Indo-Pacific region where the conditions for the re-emergence of a stronger and more potent QUAD are beginning to occur.

With the former members of QUAD and other members actively pursuing the values of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific with China threatening the same, the QUAD is expected to shape a greater role for itself in the region through further dialogue and discussion at the Foreign Ministers level that was decided at the previous meeting. It is significant that talks on institutionalizing take place in a positive role during these meetings and a meaningful output of an institutionalized QUAD emerges from the same.

The latest rejuvenation of the QUAD seems to give a more optimistic view than ever before. Primarily, the previous QUAD did not work out very well as the members did not wish to anger China which was the emerging manufacturing hub of the world then. Today, the members are on a different footing with China and the Chinese ambitions through the Belt and Road Initiative are further worsening it. Furthermore, in the post COVID era, most of the countries including Japan and South Korea are now moving their manufacturing away from China to countries such as India and Vietnam. Both of these countries, which have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between each other and with India having the same with Japan while the United States supporting South Korea against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could result in the complete ousting of the reasons which split the band the first time.

Institutionalizing QUAD

The significance of the QUAD or any other regional grouping in its up and coming stage largely depends on the manner in which the grouping is (or is not) institutionalized. The benchmark for effective regionalism through integration and cooperation in the European Union and the reason behind this standard is the profound regional impact that the EU has on politics, economics, and strategic decisions of Western Europe. Being the most sophisticated institutional regional body in the world, the impact is due to this institutionalization that allows for more democratic decisions between the members while integrating them better on various levels such as politics and economics.

Institutionalizing QUAD unleashes a way for the current member countries to meet on a periodic basis and discuss the problems surrounding the region while deliberating on ways to solve them. Institutions have the capacity to guide and shape behavior through the logic of appropriateness and consequences: actors adapt to behave in particular ways because they feel compelled to do the same by normative or regulatory constraints and incentives. Institutions have the potential to play a key role in transmitting norms and rules that may influence state behavior and—theoretically, at least—encourage a process of convergence on international best practices through policy learning and transfer.

Institutionalizing QUAD would open new pathways of economic development and efficient policy formulation especially due to the shared values of democracy and rule of law, along with the aim of free and open Indo-Pacific seas and a rules-based order in the region. This puts the members on a much better footing than already existing institutionalized groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Central Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which are greatly divided in terms of ideas and the members are barely on the same page when it comes to certain critical issues. QUAD can be expected to do better than these groupings in this field due to the shared values and common aims.

According to Oran Young, regionalism and regional integration originates from a process of negotiation and bargaining amongst nations with conflicting ideas and values. In a situation like this, leadership is the most important part of the process that finds common interests and reduces costs in institution building amongst the nations. Young explained three types of leadership: structural leadership, entrepreneurial leadership, and intellectual leadership, and gave a formula of ‘at least two’ for successful institution building. However, ignoring one of the three could put the functioning of the institution into serious jeopardy and hence a different approach is extremely important. Feng & He came up with a new ‘leadership-institution’ model, this model states that successful institution building is contingent on two different forms of political leadership in the global sphere: executive leadership and ideational leadership. The executive leadership refers to the state’s ability and willingness to address the operational obstacles in the organization’s functioning such as the ‘relative gains’ concerns and the ‘collective action’ problem during the institutional bargaining. Ideational leadership is the ability of individuals to provide ideas and proposals to change the cooperation dynamic equation in organizational cooperation.

Applying the ‘leadership-institution’ model, there are four different types of institution-building outcomes that can be achieved: deep institutionalization, thin institutionalization, ad hoc institutionalization and non-institutionalization. The table represents the different types of institution-building outcomes that can be achieved in the ‘leadership-institution’ model.

Way Forward

In Indo-Pacific’s case, both executive and ideational leadership was extremely weak in 2007, and hence no institutionalization could take place for over a decade. The geopolitical realities of today are drastically different and the COVID pandemic has significantly changed the attitude of countries and forced them to chart a new way moving forward. Unlike in 2007, India could potentially take a shared leadership role in executive and ideational capabilities according to the ‘leadership-institution’ model today. The United States of America is a natural selection for the role of executive leadership due to the massive pool of resources that the USA houses in terms of economic, political, and strategic viewpoint. However, with Trump’s America First policy and rhetoric, it is not possible for the USA to take up the role of an executive leader to the same capability that it would naturally do like in the case of Wilson or Roosevelt. This would result in weak executive leadership if it wasn’t for India which has taken an active role in making itself the center of a regional political action through alliances and warm ties with countries around the globe. India looks determined to assist the USA in the role of the Executive leader for QUAD.

India has been extremely successful in positioning themselves as a brilliant assist to the executive leadership of the organization through its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) with countries such as Indonesia, United States, and Australia in the last 24 months while the countries of Vietnam, Japan, and the UAE have reaffirmed India about the agreement. Along with the great ties with France for activities in the Indo-Pacific, India also signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia. This marks a historic step for India and its ambition of institutionalizing regionalism in the Indo-Pacific. India is operationally capable of carrying out the duties of executive leadership along with the USA. This chance would greatly test the willingness and capability of the Americans to respond to the Chinese with ways more than just words. India could also play an exceptional role as an ideational leader for the QUAD in the post COVID Era.

Ideational leadership focuses on individual ideas and proposals to promote cooperation, and the COVID Era has opened the doors for Indian entrepreneurs and innovators to become more relevant on the global stage. As a country of billions, India gracefully welcomes the South Korean and Japanese industries moving from China to India, and the same would be instrumental in the young people further strategizing and thinking out of the box to improve regionalism. This combination of Executive leadership and Ideational leadership in the setting of the post COVID era looks greatly promising as all the countries firmly believe in the freedom of seas, democracy, rule of law, good faith, non-coercive trade practices, and above all the respect for sovereignty. However, India needs to act very quickly in order to keep the group together and outline the major areas in which the QUAD would function. While greatly improving the foreign relations, boosting entrepreneurship in the country would exponentially boost the chances of having an institutionalized structure for the QUAD. The next Foreign Ministers meeting would be a summit to look out for, especially considering the deteriorated Chinese relations due to the actions that severely violate the values of QUAD and the necessary balance that Indo-Pacific desperately needs.


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