NEW DELHI — A nifty new enterprise to discuss security dangers in the Asia-Pacific and evolve a coordinated approach — the Quadrilateral Initiative — has kicked off with an unpublicized first meeting. U.S., Japanese, Indian and Australian officials, at the rank of assistant secretary of state, quietly met recently on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gathering in Manila.
Given the qualitative reordering of power under way, with Asia boasting the world’s fastest-growing economies and fastest-rising military expenditures, it is vital to ensure strategic stability and power equilibrium. The shifts in international power — most conspicuous in Asia — are being spurred by rapid economic growth, not military triumphs.
The rise of any new world power engenders serious challenges, especially when the concerned power is opaque or harbors imperial ambitions. China’s emergence as a global player is transforming geopolitics like no other development since the time Japan rose to world-power status in the late 19th century during the Meiji Restoration. Ironically, it had been China’s failure to grasp the dramatic rise of Japan that led to its rout in 1895 in the Sino-Japanese War, opening the way to Western imperialistic expeditions into China over the subsequent decades.
Today, major powers don’t wish to make a similar mistake over China’s rapid rise. Given the new fluidity, all important players, including China, are maneuvering for strategic advantage through new equations and initiatives. Just as China, for the first time since the Ming Dynasty, is pursuing security interests and seeking allies far from its shores, other powers are working to build new equations and partnerships.
The "quad" is just one of several initiatives currently being developed in the Asia-Pacific. Yet its preliminary first meeting was not made known for fear of raising China’s hackles. If the China-India-Russia "strategic triangle" can hold high-level meetings with fanfare, why should the United States, Japan, India and Australia shy away from announcing a meeting to discuss issues of common interest and concern?
Considering that Asia is coalescing economically but becoming more divided politically, Asian security and prosperity demands cooperative relationships between the major players. This is more so because of Asia’s conflicting political and strategic cultures and weak regional institutions. Initiatives like the 26-nation ARF, the 16-state East Asia Summit (EAS) and the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum are too large and unwieldy to bear enduring results by themselves. They need to be complemented by smaller initiatives that involve the important powers in different permutations.
In that light, the quad is surely a good idea. In fact, Tokyo and New Delhi ought to also explore the establishment of Russia-India-Japan and Japan-China-India triangular initiatives. Both such initiatives, like the quad, could contribute to building strategic stability and understanding rival military doctrines in Asia.
The quad opens the path to greater strategic interaction among four major democracies. Some factors, however, need to be borne in mind. First, how the initiative shapes up will hinge on the resolution of a key issue: Will India be a Japan or an Australia to the U.S. (in other words, an ally), or will it be a strategic partner? An ally must follow the alliance leader, while in a partnership there is at least the semblance of equality.
This question won’t go away easily. Australia and Japan have not only a bilateral security treaty with America but also trilateral security arrangements. With India, the U.S. has worked out only a defense-framework agreement.
New Delhi agreed in the framework accord signed in June 2005 not only to "conclude defense transactions" and share intelligence with America, but also to participate in U.S.-directed "multinational operations" and join the U.S.-led nonproliferation regime. India, however, is going to be reluctant to outsource its security to the U.S. in any way.
It is Tokyo that pushed for India’s inclusion to turn the existing trilateral security arrangements into quadrilateral. Even before becoming Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe proposed the quad idea in his book, "Utsukushii Kunihe" (Toward A Beautiful Country), published in July. The idea was supported by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when he visited Japan and Australia earlier this year.
Second, the quad, once it matures, would involve India in activities to which New Delhi is already committed bilaterally with the U.S. — from promotion of democracy and collaboration on homeland security to joint disaster-response operations and building greater interoperability between the armed forces. It is significant that the first quad meeting was preceded by the first-ever U.S.-Japan-India joint naval exercises.
The Indian naval ships actually first went to Okinawa for a joint maneuver with U.S. forces before taking part in the trilateral exercises off Tokyo Bay. The trilateral exercises, interestingly, intersected with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s Tokyo visit. New Delhi, however, had taken care to placate Beijing by dispatching two to three ships to China from Okinawa for a friendly exercise immediately after the bilateral maneuvers with the U.S.
Third, just because Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo are coming together to build a four-way arrangement based on shared values and interests doesn’t mean that they intend to jointly countervail China. Such a mechanism, at best, can give the four countries extra leverage with Beijing as part of a common desire to ensure that the fast-rising Chinese power does not slide into arrogance. The fact is that for each quad member, a stable, mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing is critical to national interest.
In reality, the four have still a long way to go before they can synchronize their approaches toward China. Given their geographical proximity to China and the direct impact Chinese power and ambitions hold for them, Japan and India view power equilibrium as a more pressing imperative. In the years ahead, the two are likely to be more in sync with each other than with the U.S. and Australia on how to contend with Beijing. For the present, the growing asymmetry in power with China puts them at a disadvantage while bilaterally dealing with Beijing, making broader initiatives like the quad attractive.
U.S. strategy is geared toward maintaining a calibrated balance between strategic hedging and greater engagement with Beijing. As part of the hedging, the U.S. is interested in co-opting India, an important geopolitical swing state. But such co-option is unlikely to be at the cost of America’s closer engagement with Beijing.
After all, America now relies on Chinese savings and trade surpluses to finance its super-size budget deficits, hold down U.S. interest rates and prop up the value of the dollar. China, indeed, has become an engine for U.S. economic growth. Politically, too, the U.S. depends on Beijing’s assistance on challenges ranging from North Korea’s future to the Iranian nuclear program. Once allies of convenience during the Cold War, the U.S. and China today are partners tied by interdependence.
Australia’s extraordinary economic boom, likewise, is being driven by exports to a resource-hungry China, and Canberra is loath to take sides between Japan and China, or between China and India. Once regarded with distrust, China has gained recognition and respectability in Australia, securing in the process a controversial deal to import Australian uranium for power generation without having accepted verifiable measures of the kind India is ready to embrace against diversion for weapons purposes.
Lastly, the quad doesn’t mean that the U.S. is reversing the strategy it has maintained in the Asia-Pacific since it took the Philippines in 1898 as spoils of the naval war with Spain — counterbalancing one power against the other to reinforce America’s role as the main arbiter. As part of this continuing strategy, the U.S. has in recent years strengthened its bilateral military alliances, reconfigured its forward-deployed military forces, designated Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines as its major non-NATO allies, and built strategic cooperation with India and Singapore.
America can live with a China that challenges India and Japan, but not one that challenges U.S. pre-eminence. To tie down China regionally, the U.S. is not averse to Japan coming out of its pacifist cocoon as a "normal" military power — but under American tutelage. The revival of the Sino-Japanese historical rivalry indeed can only help the U.S. retain its position as Asia’s strategic pivot.
Similarly, after having penalized New Delhi for more than three decades for its 1974 nuclear test through U.S.-inspired technology controls, Washington is now ready to promote India’s "normalization" as a nuclear power, but at a price: India is to bind its interests to America’s, and accept constraints on the development of its still-nascent nuclear-deterrent capability.
The quad is just one of several new initiatives intended to help shape a new international balance in response to the ongoing power shifts. It seeks not to establish a new security bloc but to evolve common thinking on shared concerns.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."