Australia’s place in the group risks fraying its ties with key regional partners such as ASEAN.
In the face of strategic instability, Australia has considered different regional security arrangements, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘the Quad’. While the Quad could prove a serious contender to Chinese aggression and power in the region, it risks being an exclusionary partnership.
– The Quad is far from a sure thing, particularly in the face of US retrenchment from the region.
– It risks creating two regional blocs — the Quad and China — and it is unclear whether the Quad would have ASEAN support should such fractionalisation occur.
– ASEAN inherently rejects the values-based angle of the Quad, which could obstruct regional acceptance of, and collaboration with, the Quad.
THE QUADRILATERAL SECURITY DIALOGUE
Australia has flirted with many different forms of regional security arrangements without conclusively committing to one. The concept of regional security first emerged with the ‘cooperative security’ strategy that started in the late 1980s under the Hawke-Keating administrations. This approach sought security ‘with Asia rather than from Asia’, with the long term goal of ‘constructing a culture of common security across the region.’ Much of this analysis has focused on building a regional security community with the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is a big player in the region as well as among Australia’s closest neighbours. However, progress on common security in this space has been slow.
In recognition of the complexities of building collective ASEAN security, another initiative that has been discussed is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘the Quad’, which first emerged as a series of informal talks between the Indo-Pacific’s established democracies and rising powers — Australia, India, Japan and the US — in 2004. It had its first informal meeting in 2007 and its first naval exercise soon after. However, in response to massive diplomatic pushback from China, Australia’s then prime minister Kevin Rudd withdrew Australia from the multilateral arrangement and the Quad remained largely dormant for a few years.
Yet from Canberra’s perspective, the need for a regional security arrangement has become increasingly clear. Recent months have been characterised by strategic instability in the region, and particularly an increasingly aggressive China, which has displayed its martial power in the East and South China Seas and along its border with India. As such, the revitalisation of the Quad has been an attractive option. Japan and India have gained significant power and influence since the first conception of the Quad, and the US remains an important player in regional politics. Indeed, Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper ‘confirmed Canberra’s strong commitment to trilateral dialogues with the US and Japan, and, separately with India and Japan.’
AN UNSTABLE PARTNERSHIP
Quad 2.0 was revived in 2017 when Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kana drew international attention to the idea in an interview. All four members have since expressed renewed interest, including in Australia where the concept has bipartisan support. The Quad has since seen ‘unprecedented levels of information and intelligence exchanges, personnel interactions, interoperable equipment and habits of cooperation.’
The Quad is not yet a fully formed partnership. Security analysts have often dismissed the Quad as a feasible security option — indeed, following the initial collapse of the Quad, Quad 2.0 has yet to move past informal dialogue. The Quad also rests on American engagement. Enmeshing Washington within regional security architecture is a key desire for all Quad countries, as the US provides the grouping with critical strategic and military weight to balance China. However, key decisions from the Trump administration put this approach in doubt: the president’s ‘America First’ foreign policy; withdrawal from the TPP; avoidance of regional meetings and engagement; and the US decision to cut contributions to the World Health Organisation and possibly withdraw. While it is tempting to think the upcoming election in the US will return an outward-looking president to office, this grand strategy shift taps into the perennial debate surrounding ‘restraint’ that rages in US policy and academic circles. In its current form, the debate has emerged as ‘new soul searching for the protection of US national interests over global interests inside the heart of the American elite.’ As such, US commitment to the Quad is uncertain.
ASEAN, for its part, fears getting caught in the middle of the Quad and China. Indonesia has described the Quad as a ‘potential strategic coalition of ‘outside’ powers without ASEAN’S involvement,’ and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s said ‘we do not want to end up with rival blocs forming or countries having to take one side or another.’ The Quad unquestionably re-emerged as a response to increased Chinese aggression — as Graeme Dobell says, ‘the boys are putting the band back together because Beijing has been a bully.’ If China perceives the Quad as an antagonistic move, based around a ‘containment’ strategy, it could create regional tensions that ASEAN wants to avoid. Moreover, a May 2017 poll conducted by Singapore’s ASEAN Studies Centre showed that 74% of elite individuals in Southeast Asia think that China is the most influential country in the region. If it comes down to a choice between the Quad and China, it is not clear that the Quad would win out.
ASEAN has also spurred the values-based debate inherent in the Quad. On the face of it, the Quad is a strange grouping of countries. It excludes South Korea (a key Northeast Asian state) and all Southeast Asian states — particularly Indonesia, which is an immensely important partnership for Australia. This is because the Quad has a distinct values-based angle: rather than just a security partnership, it is also an ideological partnership between four of the region’s most established liberal democracies. Given that the region is composed of mixed governance systems that have long rejected the imposition of Western values and politics, ASEAN has rejected the Quad’s values-based slant.
Consequently, the Quad is a trade-off for Australia. Progress on common security with ASEAN has been slow, and has not been aided by current Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s decision to cut aid to Southeast Asia by about 42% in favour of Canberra’s “Pacific step-up”. By committing to the Quad, Australia risks excluding ASEAN from further security architecture and dialogue.
The Quad is likely to continue to grow in security discourse, particularly as it has been actively endorsed by the US. The true test for the Quad will be in the transition from dialogue to security collaboration, with the enhancement of joint capabilities including increased joint security exercises, the development of interoperable forces and maritime domain awareness and collaboration. However, given growing regional tensions and the Quad’s shaky foundations, Australia may once again shy at closer engagement, this time in response to ASEAN concerns.