Can "the Quad" constrain China?

Can "the Quad" constrain China?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

What is the Quad?

It has its roots in 2004, when the US, Japan, India, and Australia came together to coordinate humanitarian relief following the Indian Ocean tsunami. Building on this experience, they created the Quad as a forum for discussing security issues among democratic nations in 2007, and held their first joint naval exercises. But the enthusiasm soon fizzled. China was angered by the creation of a grouping that seemed to pointedly exclude it. That prompted Australia to withdraw over fears of damaging ties with its biggest trading partner, China.

But attitudes shifted in the following years, as China began more aggressively asserting its control over disputed territories and waterways in the region. This convinced the original Quad members that they had to stand up to the rising power more forcefully. The grouping was relaunched in 2017, and though it didn't mention China by name, it pledged to promote a "free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific" and to defend "freedom of navigation."

The Quad quickly became one of the few areas of multilateral cooperation favored by former US president Donald Trump, and it is now a key part of President Joe Biden's overriding foreign policy goal of assembling a united front to push back against China's expanding influence. The leaders of the four Quad countries held their first-ever (virtual) meeting last month. That has triggered media speculation that the grouping could someday become an "Asian NATO."

Can the Quad really become a NATO-like military alliance?

Very unlikely. The four countries have not shown any indication of wanting to establish a military alliance of the ambition of NATO, a massively integrated organization that entails military intelligence-sharing, binding defense commitments, and diplomatic representation at a single organizational headquarters. For one thing, Quad members are unlikely to agree to anything like NATO's "Article 5" commitment, which obligates member states to come to each other's aid if attacked. The country perhaps most suspicious of an arrangement like that is India, which has long favored a policy of nonalignment with world powers (following the norm-breaking decision to join the Quad, officials say they wish to maintain "strategic autonomy" for India). Meanwhile, the other Quad members already have bilateral defense treaties in place: one binding the US and Japan and another binding the US and Australia.

If not, what can the Quad do?

The four countries will continue holding joint naval exercises to improve coordination among their militaries. French vessels joined in the latest round of exercises, held earlier this month. And the Quad has ambitions to expand its cooperation into new areas. At their first summit in March, leaders of the four member nations agreed to provide 1 billion vaccine doses (mostly produced in India) to emerging market nations in Asia by the end of 2022, offering an alternative to China's vaccine diplomacy in the region.

And beyond that?

It gets a lot tougher. A climate working group is being established, but it is unclear how it could add value to other global initiatives. And despite the pledges to work together "as democratic nations" to achieve a "free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific," the four members have varying levels of commitment to ideals such as free trade, as underscored by India's rising protectionism, and democracy promotion, as shown by diverse responses to the military coup in Myanmar, ranging from India's lukewarm condemnation to new US sanctions.

What do other countries of the region think about the Quad? Could they join it?

The grouping has held several "Quad Plus" meetings to which it has invited outside countries to attend. One of these is South Korea, which as a large democracy and close US ally would seem to be a leading candidate for inclusion in the Quad. Yet Seoul prefers to only slowly deepen cooperation with the Quad and test China's reactions, especially given strong economic ties with China and Beijing's key role in managing the North Korean nuclear threat. Moreover, tensions between South Korea and Quad-member Japan have risen in recent years over thorny trade disputes.

Similarly, it's unlikely any Southeast Asian countries would join the grouping. Most welcome the Quad's efforts to defend freedom of navigation and international law in principle, and they will be the main beneficiaries of the grouping's vaccine initiative. But they face a difficult balancing act. These countries are heavily dependent on Chinese trade and investment and worry that the Quad will antagonize China, making it harder to maintain good relations with both the US and China.

What could China do?

Southeast Asian countries in particular worry that if the Quad provokes China too much, Beijing will lash out through military or commercial channels. Some observers believe that the unprecedented number of Chinese ships swarming disputed waters in the South China Sea is itself a response to deepening Quad cooperation. Others interpret punitive trade action against Australia — with China slapping new restrictions on imports of Australian products ranging from coal to wine and cotton — as a warning shot to other countries not to join the Quad. But Beijing's increasingly assertive foreign policy only stiffens the Quad's resolve

What's next for the Quad?

A key focus will be delivering on its lofty promises on vaccines, which has become more challenging as India experiences a dramatic surge in COVID cases and restricts vaccine exports. Additional joint naval exercises are likely (including with other countries), further "Quad Plus" discussions are possible, and the recently established working groups on technology and climate issues will begin discussions. At some point later in the year, the Quad leaders also hope to gather for their first ever in-person meeting.

Peter Mumford is Practice Head for Southeast and South Asia at Eurasia Group.

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