In 2016, the United States deployed the USS John C. Stennis to conduct a regular bilateral naval training exercise with the Philippines in the South China Sea. In response, China denied the USS John C. Stennis permission to make port in Hong Kong. The Chinese navy have since increased its presence in the region by deploying several combatants of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other defensive capabilities to Chinese occupied territory.
More recently, two US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers - the USS Spruance and the USS Preble - conducted a freedom of navigation operation, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese bases in the highly contested Spratly Islands. Both Washington and Beijing have criticized each other for the ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea. The recent developments, including an escalation of tensions as well as continued statements pressing issues of freedom of navigation vs claimed territory have revived interest in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, through what Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe terms an “Arc of Democracy.”
The idea of the Quad largely grew out of an effective coordinated humanitarian assistance strategy between Australia, Japan and India in an urgent response to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Three years later, in May 2007, Shinzo Abe rallied the need for an increased American military commitment to the Asia-Pacific regional security and subsequently expanding the web of strategic partnerships with India and Australia. Policymakers in Canberra, Tokyo, Delhi and Washington thus convened the Quad as a necessity to maintain peace in the region.
In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd retired Australia’s commitment to the Quad, in favour of maintaining an unprovocative relationship with the economic powerhouse. Rudd’s decision can be looked back upon by the strategic dimensions of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s foreign policy, which were far less clear than is today under Xi Jinping. The strategic importance of the Quad was revived, owed to both fear and interest concerning China’s growing assertiveness. Following China’s leasing of the Darwin Port in June of 2017, the ongoing standoff between Chinese and Japanese naval vessels in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island in the East China Sea and the ten week standoff between Chinese and Indian forces, in the territorial contested area of Doklam, resulting in the largest mobilisation of Chinese military personnel against a bordering neighbour since 1979.
A decade after the quad was scrapped, an unexpected revival of the alliance took shape at the 2017 East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila. The Japanese were seeking to establish the “Asian Arc of Democracy” by further strengthening ties with both Australia and India. The United States meanwhile, maintains that a expanding strategic relationship with India could ensure a relative promotion of Democratic Peace. The Trump administration has developed this rhetoric by broadening the scope of Indian participation in security concerns, with reference to the Indo-Pacific region as opposed to the Asia-Pacific, indicating a pivot to closer relations with India. This was further echoed by former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, claiming that in order to maintain a democratic world order, the US along with India should be recognised as the leaders of the region.
The idea of the Quad remains modest in its narrative concerning a long-term security project, but also it remains just that, an idea. It contains no overriding constitution, no secretariat and is considered by many as a relatively coherent ad-hoc solution of four member states with a converging interest. The basic premise was a quasi-alliance based on shared values. However, it would seem that shared values are not enough. It needs to demonstrate the point of the converging interests.
The priority initiative of all four members, appears to be framing the issue of China, as a security concern. By contesting spaces that China claims as their own, the Quad seeks to promote cooperation in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific from the repressive vision of the new world order.
Chinese perceptions of the Quad remain rather pessimistic, with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi claiming in reference to the Quad: “they may get some attention, but will soon dissipate”. Already, fractures between the member states are beginning to show. As the quad is not a formal military alliance, all four member states will serve their own interests. India’s rejection of Australia’s participation in a joint naval exercise with the US and Japan, on the grounds of not wishing to provoke China, has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the suggestions of placing the quad into an early re-retirement.
For the Quad 2.0 to survive, it must be inclusive in its concern, by maintaining a practical strategy over a collision of strategic interests. It must be sustainable, built on consensus which will consequently engineer the conditions for a well-calibrated strategic alliance built on a democracy peace. The common denominator for all member states is the concern of China and as such, the complications with coordinating four major democracies cannot interfere with the cooperative strategic policies all four states wishes to implement.
Conor McLaughlin is an Endeavour Scholar from the Australian Government at the Association of Foreign Affairs at Lund University, Sweden.