On November 18, the top leaders of the quadrilateral grouping (Quad) comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia met on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit in Manila, in what seemed to be an attempt at regional cooperation and to pose as a united front to China which has been attempting to control the rules governing Asia’s regional security and economic architecture. This initiative of bringing like-minded democracies together was first mooted by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe during his first term in 2006-07, but this idea could get materialised only now given the world leaders’ discomfort with China’s growing ambitions. In fact, China’s growth in the world economy is viewed by many economies as a threat and this threat also stems from the difference in ideology followed by China vis-a-vis the western value system. However, none has been able to stop or put a brake on its growth. The bottom line is that the world needs China as much as China needs the world.
The growing dominance of China in the world economy is undisputed. Since China undertook its economic reforms in 1978, it has catapulted into a superpower and is currently the second-largest economy accounting for nearly 15% of global GDP in 2016, with a GDP growth of 6.7% in 2016. China has propelled global growth in the last two decades and continues to grow at a modest pace, with its exports crossing $2 trillion in 2016 and a global share of nearly 14%. It is evident there is a severe and fierce tussle for influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Against this backdrop, with the objective of containing China, the Quad meeting. Though exploratory in nature, held consultations centred around ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The focus shifted from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, with India at the centre of Quad, given its credibility and strong relations with others in the group, and this was also done with the objective of roping in India as a military alliance when disputes in the region heat up, especially between China and Japan in the East China Sea. The other issues discussed included areas of cooperation ranging from connectivity issues, maritime security, global terrorism, North Korean threat and proliferation. The meet was chaired by Japan, which has been proactive in world affairs recently. Japan has been persuading the remaining 11 members of the TPP after the US withdrew from the alliance to come together and sign the deal minus the US. Japan is keen on strengthening Quad as it wishes to establish a peaceful maritime zone from Asia to Africa, and so Australia was also included as an ally.
However, the question is, will Quad be effective in containing China’s growing dominance and aggressive posturing in the region? What is the strategy of Quad to ensure that peace and security of Asia-Pacific remains intact? What is the role of India? Is India willing to cooperate with Quad and further destabilise its relations with China?
Given that India actively participated in the first round of consultations, it appears it has no hesitation in being a member of the group. For India, Quad is a means for furthering its Act East policy of enhancing ties with all countries in the region. India’s presence in South and East Asia has increased over the years, and it’s only apt that India plays a vital role in protecting the peace and security of the region, along with others. With poor bilateral relations with China, India sees no disadvantage in not being an active member of Quad. Also, it is apparent that Japan is over-anxious for peace in the region, especially maritime security, given its tensions with China, and believes that Quad could act as a counterbalance to China’s military in the region. Australia has decided to come on board primarily as it is a major power in the Indian Ocean and maritime security in Asia-Pacific largely involves Australia, and second, Australia would like to reduce its economic dependence on China and is keen to strengthen its underdeveloped relationship with India.
The only uncertain player in the group happens to be the US. The major issues between China and the US remain trade and North Korea. During his recent visit to China, US President Donald Trump was not successful in convincing the Chinese to bring about structural changes in their trade so that its burgeoning $300-billion trade deficit with China is contained. There was no tacit discussion on China’s role in curbing North Korea either. Given the domestic economic issues that Trump faces and with his policy of America First and renegotiating all trade deals, the role of the US in Quad is unclear. In fact, the rise of China in the last one year can largely be attributed to the US withdrawing from the TPP and also Trump’s presidency restricting American investments in other countries. The world community at large and member countries of Quad are sceptical about Trump’s policies.
Underscoring reports of growing competition and tensions between China and the US, China issued a statement that politicising regional cooperation, as is being done by Quad, is not good for the region. It said that regional cooperation cannot be exclusionary and it would remain alert to any significant moves to new security alliances in the region. China’s growing military and economic might is a matter of concern for the global economy and the revival of Quad is not only apt but also a significant move. However, its effectiveness would largely rest on member countries in not only sustaining the momentum but also in formalising the next steps to strengthen their relationship and make it more inclusive by inviting smaller economies such as Vietnam to join the group. In spite of these initiatives, one wonders whether Quad or any other entity can really contain China? Can the US develop a grand strategy to stem the rising influence of China? Only time will tell. At the moment, China is on course to becoming the world’s largest economy with or without Quad before 2030.