Quartet Symbolizes Likely Geopolitical Line-Up In The Future

This Quartet Has A Future

Despite problems, the new quad signals a concert of democracies

Brahma Chellaney

© Times of India, July 18, 2007

The newly launched Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quadrilateral Initiative”, founded on the concept of democratic peace, has raised China’s hackles but its direction is still undecided owing to differing perceptions within the group. Australia, India and the US have sought to assure Beijing that it constitutes no axis of democracies. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has claimed the quad carries “no security implication”. Australia wants the initiative to be limited to trade, culture and other issues outside the domain of defence and security. If a strategic initiative is to be limited to non-strategic issues, why establish it in the first place?

Australia appears ill at ease in this new grouping, given its desire to build strategic engagement with Beijing. Thanks to China’s ravenous import of resources, Australia has been reaping an unprecedented economic boom. Indeed, Canberra has been at pains to emphasize that neither its recent security agreement with Tokyo nor the launch of the trilateral US-Japan-Australia security dialogue since March 2006 is aimed at China. It an open question, however, how long Australia would be able to juggle a strategic relationship with China with its new security agreement with Japan, while maintaining a robust alliance with the US as the bedrock of Australian security. Would Canberra, for example, be able to sustain warm ties with Beijing while permitting Japanese troops to train in Australia under the new accord?

Washington’s own support to a security-oriented quad is less than unreserved. America’s implicit faith in democratic peace is offset by its desire to pursue what has been its key interest in the Asia-Pacific since 1898 when it took the Philippines as spoils of the naval war with Spain — the maintenance of a balance of power. Today, the US wants to ensure that China rises peacefully, without becoming an overt threat to American interests. At the same time, by deepening Japanese security dependency, it wishes to prevent Japan’s rise as an independent military power. It is also seeking to persuade India to move beyond the current strategic partnership to a military tie-up.

Achieving these varied objectives won’t be easy for US policy. As it is, the strategic underpinnings of the US-Japan security alliance have begun to corrode. While Japan feels increasingly threatened by China’s rapid and wild rise, America regards China neither as a friend nor a foe. In fact, the US and China, from being allies of convenience during the Cold War, have graduated to becoming partners tied by interdependence. America depends on Chinese surpluses and savings to finance its super-sized budget deficits, while Beijing depends on its huge exports to America to sustain its high economic growth and subsidize its military modernization. Politically, the US shares key interests with China, as illustrated by the Beijing-brokered deal on the North Korean nuclear programme that caught Tokyo unawares.

Doubts are surfacing in Japan over whether it can rely on the US nuclear and security umbrella protection in the future, especially if a conflict were to arise with China. Such doubts in turn are instilling security anxiety, which the US has sought to stanch by upgrading the operational elements of the bilateral security arrangements and encouraging Australia to engage Japan in defence measures.

For the US, a security-oriented quad would hold little benefit in relation to Japan or China. Tokyo is already tied to bilateral and trilateral security arrangements. Their expansion to a quadripartite format would do little to advance US objectives vis-à-vis Japan but make it more difficult to win continued cooperation from China, which has been warning against the creation of an “Asian NATO.”

It is also not clear that the US desire to build India as an ally can be advanced through a quadrilateral-security framework. Washington has been gradually expanding military-to-military cooperation with India. India, however, remains loath to enter into too tight a strategic embrace. It wishes to be a strategic partner, not an ally. US progress in building defence cooperation with India thus is likely to remain incremental, with the quad offering little advantage. 

New Delhi’s own approach to the quad is low-key — tacitly supportive of building democratic peace but hesitant to do anything that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure. Having earlier called for an Asian “arc of advantage and prosperity”, Dr. Singh “explained” to Chinese President Hu Jintao in Germany last month that the quad represents “no ganging up” against China. But does Beijing bother to “explain” any of its actions antithetical to Indian interests? Also, when India can join hands with Russia and China in a Eurasian strategic triangle intended to help promote global power equilibrium, why should it be diffident about seeking democratic peace in Asia?

All this leaves Japan as the only enthusiastic quad member. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Shinzo Abe in a book he published a couple of months before becoming prime minister. Given that Abe was born after World War II and his life has been shaped by democracy, the concept of democratic peace holds special appeal for him.

Despite the present Australian, American and Indian tentativeness, the quad symbolizes the likely geopolitical line-up in the Asia-Pacific in the years ahead, with Japan and India coming closer together.

The writer is a strategic affairs analyst

Copyright: Times of India, 2007 

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