An alliance between Asia’s leading democratic powers would have profound consequences for regional security.
With growing alignment between the US, India, Japan and Australia, it is time to start thinking about the future of the ‘Quad’, the informal strategic dialogue between the four Indo-Pacific powers.
– A future Quad alliance is likely to be symmetric in nature, requiring the allies to contribute equally in the event of armed conflict
– The threat of a Chinese military attack, as well as accommodation of Beijing in some areas of conflict, could prevent Quad allies from committing to mutual defence
– The casus belli for the Quad is more likely to resemble ANZUS Article 3 and 4 (mutual consultation) than NATO’s Article 5 (mutual obligation)
– Quad members are likely to designate areas of mutual obligation where the risk of entrapment is low, particularly in the Indo-Pacific maritime theatre
After years of setbacks, the US, India, Japan and Australia revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’) 2.0 in 2017 and elevated their diplomatic relationships. This resulted in the first-ever meeting between the four foreign ministers in New York this September, a symbolic leap from the traditional defence minister-level meeting. Although this does not mean that the participating nations are keen on a formal alliance, it does suggest such an arrangement is under consideration. China’s rise and assertiveness seem to have pushed them closer — although not all the way — into alignment. Should a Quad alliance evolve, it will have dramatic implications for the region.
NATURE OF QUAD: SYMMETRIC ALLIANCE
There are two common arguments about the ‘glue’ binds the Quad: the threat of China and the reliability of US security commitments to the region. The former assumes that external threats cause the formation of alliances, but Quad members have yet to sign a mutual defence treaty even though each is increasingly challenged and even threatened by China. The latter assumes that alliance cohesiveness depends on the US taking the role of the ‘balancer’, by offering the bulk of security commitment to Quad members against China in a potential armed conflict. This assumption overlooks the fact that the Trump administration has been campaigning for alliance burden-sharing. This stance could last beyond the next US presidential election, as even the Obama administration was concerned about this issue. Deepening political divisions and economic disenfranchisement mean that the American body politic will likely continue to challenge the traditional assumption of the US as the regional security guarantor.
The need for greater alliance burden-sharing suggests that each Quad member must contribute more to the alliance, rather than simply relying on the US. This suggests that a future Quad alliance would be more symmetric in nature — Quad members would contribute more equally in their mutual assistance.
CHINA’S WEDGE STRATEGY
Because Quad members could no longer simply depend on Washington, they cannot reliably pass the buck when individually threatened by China. This means that Australia, the weakest link in terms of military capacity, may need to work harder in contributing more to defence. Australia may find it relatively ‘easier’ than India and Japan to defend against China due to the difference in geographic proximity to China. But given growing concerns about China’s engagement in its traditional backyard (the South Pacific) as well as suspicions about potential military outposts in Pacific island countries, the assumption that Australia can still safely use its northern ‘sea-air gap’ to its advantage may no longer apply. Because it would be pulled into a conflict involving any Quad members, Canberra would need to be confident about its ability to defend its continent against a potential Chinese assault before committing to the Quad.
On the other side of the planet, the US faces a surprisingly similar dilemma. Suspicions are mounting in Washington that China may be engaging in a ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy with Venezuela, with the objective of establishing a military base in Venezuela. As Venezuela’s social and economic crisis drags on, Caracas may be unable to uphold its end of the debt-for-oil repayment deal it struck with Beijing in 2008. This has raised concerns that Venezuela could become another Sri Lanka (Colombo signed over control of a key China-funded port after failing to meet its loan obligations). Beijing may use the prospect of such a base as a bargaining chip to pressure Washington to stay out of the South China Sea dispute. The US has considered Latin America as key to its security since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, while China has attempted to craft the South China Sea into its own lake. A US–China settlement on the Venezuelan crisis, though unlikely, would have profound implications to the future of Quad, given the prospect that Washington may not commit to the defence of Japan, India and Australia were they to engage China militarily in the South China Sea.
India and Japan, being geographically the most exposed to China, would naturally contribute more to the Quad. The threat of a proximate great power may lead them to conclude that immediate reinforcements are necessary to maintain the balance of power and deter a conventional attack at a time of heightened tensions. Although India and Japan are outpaced by China in defence spending, they could develop asymmetric capabilities tailored towards denying China a quick victory, giving the US and Australia time to deploy assets to aid them. This may include building submersibles and mobile land-based systems, as well as key enablers that rapidly detect, identify, track and neutralise invading sea, land and air forces. To overcome the asymmetric challenge, Beijing could accommodate India and Japan to stall for time and keep them out in its conflict with Washington. There are signs that this is already happening — China is seeking to negotiate and manage its conflict with India in Docklam and with Japan in the East China Sea.
CASUS BELLI AND GEOGRAPHY OF COMMITMENT
For the Quad to be cohesive, the four nations would need to mitigate the risk of China driving a wedge between them. Should the countries failure to unite closely, a casus belli of any formal text would likely resemble Articles 3 and 4 in the Australia, New Zealand and the United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), which only acknowledges that the parties will “consult together” and “act to meet the common danger in accordance with constitutional processes.” However, a more unified Quad may agree to wording similar to NATO’s Article 5, which contains an explicit collective defence obligation that declares an attack on one is an attack on all and obliges that all parties assist the victim state. Mutual consultation is easier to agree to than mutual obligation — the former would reduce the risk of entrapment, but means a greater prospect of abandonment.
As a compromise between these two positions, Quad members could designate specific areas as “an attack here is an attack on all.” They are less likely to do so in areas where the risk of entrapment is high, namely areas where disputes between individual Quad members and China could spill into conflict (at Docklam for India, in the East China Sea for Japan in the South Pacific with Australia). None of the allies would have pressing interests to be obliged into committing to such far-flung regions unless the military balance in that area is so tipped in China’s favour as to ‘chain-gang’ the Quad members into mutual defence — that is, they would compelled into mutual defence to preserve the local balance of power between each ally and China.
Quad members are, however, more likely to oblige themselves to commit in areas where they already have common geographic interests — in particular, the broader Indo-Pacific maritime theatre encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This relates to the idea of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. Although each member has their own interpretation of the concept, they all agree to, at the minimum, defend maritime sea lanes of communication against potential blockade or harassment. The challenge they would face is overcoming the distance of commitment, given the vastness of the theatre of operations.
The Quad faces daunting challenges in building a cohesive alliance. Signs of unreliability during the initial formation and experimentation phase could seriously undermine trust and support for one another. This could prevent Quad members from fully developing an alliance, causing the Quad to remain a web of overlapping strategic partnerships that do not compel mutual consultation or obligation.