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The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue 2.0: a strategic opportunity?

Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The potential revitalisation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) between Australia, Japan, India and the United States (US) has raised questions around the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Although countries have expressed support for the dialogue since its suspension in 2008, it still remains uncertain whether the revitalised QSD would manifest as defence cooperation, a leaders meeting or a foreign ministers dialogue. Though the dialogue would serve as a strategic opportunity for engagement within the Indo-Pacific region between the US, Japan, China and India, it will also risk signaling a move against China that will likely stir tensions within the Indo-Pacific region.

The most recent diplomatic push by Japan and Australia to revitalise the QSD closely followed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to India in early April. Prime Minister Turnbull and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi secured half a dozen agreements, which will boost security and maritime cooperation, as well as cooperation in a diverse array of sectors. Even though the dialogue was not explicitly mentioned between Turnbull and Modi, the state visit foreshadows the potential of a closer strategic orbit between Australia and India since former prime minister Tony Abbott’s visit in 2014.

Established in 2007, the QSD was an informal strategic dialogue that was abandoned the following year after then prime minister Kevin Rudd withdrew Australia’s participation over fears of jeopardising Sino-Australian relations. Since then, the world has witnessed a more assertive Chinese foreign policy, particularly in Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea.

Following the Arbitral Tribunal’s rejection of China’s ‘historic claims’ (the so called ‘nine-dash line’) over the waters of the South China Sea last July, China has continued to militarise its reclaimed reefs and atolls in the South China Sea, raising tensions for claimant countries—the Philippines and Vietnam especially. This is evident in the construction of naval, air, radar and defensive facilities in the Spratly Islands, particularly Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs. Furthermore, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Ańo’s recent visit to Pag-Asa Island was also disrupted by the Chinese military requesting the Filipino aircraft to leave that airspace, despite Filipino occupation of the island since the late 1960s.

China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative has also altered the geopolitical dynamics within the region, and has especially caught the attention of countries like India. In late 2013, the announcement of China’s OBOR sought to construct a new ‘Silk Road’ whereby countries between China and Eurasia are linked by sea (Maritime Silk Road) and land (Silk Road Economic belt). China’s controversial OBOR agenda has heightened uncertainty and tension with India—a key player within the Indo-Pacific region and within the QSD. India has raised concerns over China’s development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), especially as it involves plans of developing territory within Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Furthermore, the growing competition and power projection within the Indian Ocean, and India’s perception of China’s OBOR as a 'national Chinese initiative' likely raises the appeal of the QSD as a worthwhile endeavour.

It’s important to note that the revitalisation of the QSD has remained a likely prospect ever since its collapse in 2008. In 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe expressed his belief in a similar architecture dubbed the ‘Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond’. Prime Minister Modi also raised the prospect of the dialogue in 2014 and 2015. While it remains uncertain whether the QSD will formally be revitalised, recent reports of India blocking Australia’s participation in Exercise Malabar—the annual maritime drills between the US, India and Japan that accompanied the QSD in 2008—further complicate the already complex mix of signals amongst the quadrilateral grouping.

The evolution of the strategic landscape since 2008 has boosted the QSD's prospects as a credible security grouping, and as a forum in which the region’s major democracies can engage on strategic issues. Nevertheless, the dialogue would undoubtedly risk signalling a move against China that may see further tension within the Indo-Pacific region. Though the revitalisation of the QSD has been entertained in the past years, the format, intention and approach upon which the dialogue would be revitalised will be fundamentally important to the future of Indo-Pacific security.

Reginald Ramos is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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