QUAD-Fusion or QUAD Confusion?

The QUAD is now loosely united by the unsubstantiated idea that China has hegemonic aspirations across Asia and the Indo-Pacific. As a result, it is turning to more hawkish solutions rather than the cooperative, diplomatic mechanism for discussions about shared interests.

What is China’s proper place in the world and who is to decide? It is the most important unresolved question that creates tension in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) – the grouping comprised of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. These four partners have different perspectives and objectives, and despite the public face of co-operation, this makes for an uncomfortable group.

Even within individual member countries there is division about what the QUAD stands for and how it should be used. On the one hand Australia joins the US initiated Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China sea and is quite willing to beat a military drum with defence force upgrades and increased military engagement with QUAD partners.

On the other hand, Australia appeals to China to abide by a global rules-based order and pursue diplomatic solutions, despite that fact that the United States, one of the QUAD partners, actively withdrawing from the institutions fundamental to the operation of that order as well as making unilateral decisions that undermine the global rules-based order. The United States also refuses to recognise the UNCLOS although that is not enough to prevent it from demanding that China abide by UNCLOS rulings.

It’s a bed ripe for sowing confusion and more hawkish voices are keen to push the QUAD in this direction. Speaking in late 2019 to the Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Pompeo made the US QUAD position very clear.

Pompeo strongly suggested that the US seeks not just to contain China, but reduce its current global position. He claimed Washington thinks the QUAD is a useful tool to accomplish this. He said the QUAD “security talks … will prove very important in the efforts ahead, ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world”. This implies that Washington expects the QUAD can do more to contain China by helping to reduce Chinese power and influence.

These statements, and subsequent military-based action, confirmed China’s view of the QUAD as a military alliance in support of the core Indo-Pacific strategy directed towards containing China. Pushed heavily by Japan’s then Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, China sees the QUAD as a project designed to marginalise and offset Beijing’s regional primacy. Japan’s eagerness to expand the use of its military revives deep memories of Japan’s invasion into China.

Japan has adopted a more muscular approach to its position in the region. Japan’s genuine commitment to promoting a QUAD-supported rules based global order remains unclear. Instead Japan has constructed a multi-layered web of partnerships, with the Japan-US alliance at its centre. The QUAD is but one of the threads in Japan’s emerging Indo-Pacific vision.

India remains a somewhat reluctant partner, finally enticed into involvement more by its domestic response to China’s support for Pakistan, the arch rival of India, and a feeling of joining a shared community also in dispute with China. Whilst Prime Minister Modi shows no appetite for India entering into any formal alliance system, there is certainly an inclination for deeper strategic coordination.

Elements in the Australian leadership and policy debate are less comfortable with Pompeo’s approach. The Australian position is complicated by the way Australia relies on the United States as an ally and also relies on China as its major trading partner. Whatever action Australia takes is sure to upset at least one of these important relationships. Australia has allowed skilled diplomacy to wither so the current deep freeze in Australia China relations suggests the balance has not been maintained.

Former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby suggests Australia will “be taken less seriously and be less respected by regional partners if it is not able to manage its relations with China”. Revised interest in the QUAD is used by Australia as a “form of strategic signalling to Beijing” but this has made Australia a “proxy strategic competitor” to Beijing.

Quad meeting in Tokyo. October 2020.

The original 2007 idea of the QUAD as a mechanism encompassing the Indo-Pacific was scuttled by India’s disinclination to participate. However, the revised QUAD now reflects shared concerns about China’s actions in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. This interpretation is more accurately framed within Pompeo’s context of “proper place in the world” where China’s involvement in the region is seen as ‘improper.’

This same “proper place” perspective supports a view that regional institutions such as APEC and ASEAN have proved inadequate. It’s alleged there is a failure in cooperation to develop new regional or issue-specific institutions outside of APEC and ASEAN. The narrative claims a lack of cooperation in setting normative standards in areas including new generation technology. The reality is that the United States often refused to participate in these endeavours if China was involved and this makes cooperation unworkable.

The QUAD can be viewed as a mechanism to entrap the US into continued participation in the region playing the role of regional security guarantor. The original purpose of the QUAD may have been to create a stronger coalition between so-called “middle powers”, to develop diplomatic solutions for the region and China but the inclusion of the United States has inevitably pushed the QUAD concept towards a more militaristic solution.

The QUAD is now loosely united by the unsubstantiated idea that China has hegemonic aspirations across Asia and the Indo-Pacific. As a result, it is turning to more hawkish solutions rather than the cooperative, diplomatic mechanism for discussions about shared interests. If the QUAD is to meet this original purpose then, as former ambassador Raby writes in his new book, China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order, “Expand the Quad and let China join it. The region needs new, inclusive security architecture.” Only China’s inclusion in the QUAD can achieve this because China’s proper place in the world is not the same as envisioned by Pompeo.

The author is an international financial technical analysis expert. He has provided weekly Shanghai Index analysis for Chinese media for more than a decade. Guppy appears regularly on CNBC Asia and is known as “The Chart Man”. He is a national board member of the Australia China Business Council.

The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.