China is making its presence felt after being relegated to the geopolitical sidelines for much of the previous two centuries. China has begun to reassert its place which it perceives to be at the center of global affairs . Market reforms and integration into the global economy have given Beijing significant coercive power. China has complemented this in recent years by developing military muscle. These developments have stirred anxieties across the Asia-Pacific resulting in concerned nations forming a pact to contain China. The alliance formed has been called the QUAD.
The QUAD has an interesting past. The 2004 boxing day tsunami was a catastrophe of a kind rarely seen in modern times. An earthquake measuring 9.2 in magnitude occurred North West of Sumatra bringing a 30-meter wave that devastated coastlines across the Indian Ocean. Nearly 230,000 people across 14 different countries lost their lives within hours. As aid started pouring in from across the globe, Australia, India, Japan and the United States took the lead in coordination relief efforts. Over the next nine days, this coalition helped contribute over 40000 troops, humanitarian workers as well as dozens of helicopters, ships and transport planes. It was an inspiring multinational effort and a welcome departure from the cynical calculus that often dominates international affairs. The mission ended in January 2005 when the UN assumed responsibility.
The success of the coalition had generated excitement within diplomatic circles over the potential for a permanent institutional body. The idea was championed by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who wanted to tempt India into the American-led security umbrella that included Australia. By doing so, Abe believed that India would counterbalance China and help promote the cause of democracy in Asia. New Delhi, recognizing an opportunity to secure Washington’s support for its nuclear program, accepted the offer and in early 2007 quadrilateral security dialogue was formed in Manila. Over the next few months, lines of communication were opened and the four nations conducted joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal.
The anti-China purpose of QUAD was evident from the start and before long Beijing was making complaints to the bloc’s individual members. This diplomatic pressure caused rifts within the group. As it turned out, neither Canberra, New Delhi nor Tokyo were willing to sacrifice their relationship with Beijing. When forced to make a choice, bilateral relations with Beijing trumped each state’s obligations to one another. Australia’s exit from the group in early 2008 merely confirmed what was already known. A year later the QUAD faded into obscurity. Nonetheless, political ideas have a shelf life that extends well beyond their original historical context. In recent times increased tensions in the Asia-Pacific on account of expansionist actions undertaken by Beijing have reinforced the need for an alliance structure to maintain a balance of power in the region. At the forefront of the effort to revive QUAD is the United States, which is looking to complete its pivot towards Asia. With three of Asia’s most prominent states as members, much of the commentary surrounding the QUAD has focused on its ability to stifle China’s attempts to achieve Asian hegemony.
However, any strategy to contain China will be constrained by two crucial factors. First, Chinese military power in general & missile umbrella are unchallenged between the Himalayas and the Sea of Japan. The closer one gets to the Chinese mainland, the stronger China’s anti-access area denial capabilities become. This effectively rules out direct military intervention. Second, China is far too integrated into the global economy to be isolated using economic sanctions. Most countries trade more with China than they do with the United States. In other words, attempting to contain China by deployment of traditional measures such as economic sanctions and military intervention won’t do. Instead, like the cold war, the QUAD’s grand strategy in Asia should focus on indirect containment necessitating. Given the geography of East Asia this will take the form of sea denial. In order to achieve this, QUAD’s navies should aim to become fully interoperable so that they could act to coerce China by threatening vital shipping lanes if the need arises.
In addition to the unmatched sea power of the United States navy, QUAD’s member states each have territorial assets located at strategic checkpoints in Southeast Asia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide India with a launch pad to project naval power into the Strait of Malacca. The Australian Territory of Cocos Island can prove valuable in plugging the alternative trade routes that run through the Sunda strait and the Lombok strait. The territory’s airstrip is currently being upgraded to accommodate maritime patrol aircraft and the further development of the facility could lead to increased power projection capabilities. In the east the United States can look to cooperate with Japan, using its facilities in Okinawa and its informal alliance with Taiwan to project power across the East China sea. However, this in itself will not be sufficient to control the oceans. A maritime denial strategy should also focus on keeping the PLA navy occupied in its backyard. However, this will be fraught with risks as China’s regional sea power will need to be continually probed by geopolitical rivals. The QUAD will also have to strengthen its ties to Southeast Asia and nations in the first island chain to close the gaps in its sea denial strategy. This means gathering Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines into a second tier alliance. This will require soft power influence. The carrot of merely containing China will not be sufficient to cement this alliance as the interests of its constituents vary. Countries like Vietnam have remained firmly opposed to creeping Chinese influence. However, Beijing has been able to win over Cambodia and Laos through foreign direct investment, economic aid and the provision of military hardware.
Despite the challenge, the current situation in Southeast Asia presents the QUAD with two obvious opportunities to score diplomatic points. The first is COVID vaccination. At the virtual summit in March 2021, the QUAD pledged to provide southeast Asia with 1 Billion COVID vaccine doses by the end of 2022. If successful this would help the QUAD establish genuine soft power influence in China’s backyard. Secondly, Tokyo and New Delhi are uniquely well positioned to address the current political crisis in Myanmar where the military seized power from the civilian government. Even after the west pulled investment out of Myanmar in response to the Rohingya prosecution, Japan continues to invest in the country and provide economic aid. Using this leverage, Tokyo brokered a ceasefire between the military and rebel groups in 2019. New Delhi, through its Act East Policy, has established deep connections with the Burmese military. Through these activities Tokyo and New Delhi may be able to negotiate a peaceful resolution through back-room channels. So overcoming obstacles such as the COVID vaccination and an end to the crisis in Myanmar provide opportunities to assert geopolitical designs.
The rise of China can only be constrained by strategic factors to pursue a policy of containment. QUAD, while not currently a military alliance, may form the basis of a containment block that performs a role like that of NATO during the cold war. However, as demonstrated by the failure of the first QUAD, an alliance rooted in pure self-interest may not hold together. A robust soft power policy is essential. Otherwise, the current QUAD will suffer the same fate as the first.
Saurabh Singh is a former research intern at MP-IDSA, New Delhi.