Changing geometry: QUAD and a triangle

September 29, 2021 3:25 PM

The formation of an alliance; ‘QUAD’ between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia is not new.

Quad summittPresident Joe Biden walks to the Quad summit with, from left, Australian PM Scott Morrison, India's Narendra Modi and Japan's Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House, on September 24. (Photo source: AP)


One of the most analysed events in the geo strategic domain recently has been the triangle which has formed along with the QUAD, while geometry dictates that a triangle can be formed by joining three points or in this case three member states thereby leaving out the fourth but in the present case what has happened is that two member states have been left out and one is being strengthened along by a member state and one which is not part of the grouping but has leanings towards it. Accordingly, you have the AUKUS, a security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The formation of an alliance; ‘QUAD’ between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia is not new. It was founded in 2007 by the then Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe; the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney; the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard; and the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The QUAD was revived in 2017 after a nine-year hiatus as China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy heightened security concerns in Japan, India and Australia. However, most observers are of the opinion that its recent resurgence , after an abortive start in 2007 , has been driven by uneasiness about the rise of China and the security threat it poses to the international order. The alliance has therefore also been referred to as the ‘Asian NATO’.

The latest face-to-face meetings of the heads of QUAD’s countries was held on the 24 September 2021, at the White House. The US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, met for the first time at this meeting.

In the media briefing after this meeting, the QUAD leaders said;” QUAD nations would work together closely and practically in maintaining the security and stability, cyber security in the Indo-Pacific region, and work closely preventing the spread of the Coronavirus through the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the poor nations of the Indo-Pacific region”. There was no mention about their strategy for the Indo-Pacific and South-China Sea from the possible threat of China. On the contrary, the most significant outcomes of recent summits have been related to COVID-19 vaccine production, facilitating cooperation over emerging technologies, and mitigating climate change.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated, “We also recognize that our shared futures will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that the QUAD is a force for regional peace, stability, security, and prosperity. Towards that end, we will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.

China has opposed the QUAD from its establishment and viewed it as an attempt to increase military presence in the South China Sea against them. There is no doubt that China has a dispute with India over unresolved land borders and also has a long-standing dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. The question however is why China should be so alarmed if the grouping is not focused on security issues but is more concerned with humanitarian issues and enforcing the laid down international rules and conventions of the seas and cooperation based on shared values which has been constantly reiterated .

The other issue is why the US, UK & Australia chose to announce the AUKUS just before the summit meeting of the QUAD leaders and why were Japan & India kept out of this. Of the four QUAD countries, the US and Australia are military allies, so that ticks a major box. A key part of this agreement is the supply of nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia, and the scrapping of a diesel-powered submarine supply deal with France. The initial focus of this trilateral partnership will also be on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities”. However, AUKUS has caused huge ripples in the already turbulent waters of the Indo – Pacific .The answer to these questions probably lies in the nature of the AUKUS, which is a security alliance of three old allies who have fought together since the First World War. The timing just before a summit level meeting maybe indicated that all partners were on board and there was no threat to the QUAD.

Did the AUKUS alliance come about because of a perceived reluctance from India and Japan to be part of a defence alliance with the US and thereby, their inability to provide military muscle to the grouping. Is the US more comfortable dealing with old allies like the UK & Australia? Or is it a measure to overcome the weakness in the maritime security architecture in the Western Pacific? Do Japan and India have greater independence in their foreign policy and international dealings? There is also the question of Japan’s nuclear policy and India’s defence engagement with Russia including purchase of the S 400 missile defence system. Further, can India with its land border dispute be in a security alliance perceived to be anti- China? Lastly, is the AUKUS an indication of de- securitizing the QUAD? There are greater options open and more flexibility for both Japan & India by not getting into a very tight embrace on security issues with the US and this fact has now been recognized and addressed by the US. So can this changing geometry be beneficial for all countries involved.

China is the largest export market for Australian trade. Australia makes billions of dollars every year from tourism, education, and property investments by China. However, China has become increasingly hostile towards Australia since the Australians called for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relations between the countries have soured in recent years, with Australia blocking Chinese technology and investment in key infrastructure, and China using tariffs and other measures to reduce its imports from Australia. Hence, the Australian government does not want to lose the shared and historical values and ties with the US and UK at any cost, even if it means sacrificing relations with China. It has clearly made its choice.

One of the issues for keeping Japan out could be Three Non-Nuclear Principles, a parliamentary resolution (never adopted into law) that have guided Japanese nuclear policy since the late 1960s, and reflect general public sentiment and national policy since the end of World War II. The tenets state that Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory. Japan and the US are treaty allies wherein if Japan is attacked by China, then the US is treaty bound to defend it. But, there is still the issue of Japan’s pacifist constitution which will continue to hold back the full extent of military cooperation with the US and other strategic partners. On the trade front, China consumed more than 20% of Japanese exports, $ 146 billion last year, becoming its largest exporter; incidentally China and US have alternated as its largest trading partner in the last decade.

Japan’s foreign press secretary, Tomoyuki Yoshida was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Prime Minister Suga welcomed the initiative of the establishment of the security partnership forged by the three countries … which is taking an important role for the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla underlining that the Quad grouping and AUKUS were different in nature, and AUKUS, a military alliance, would have no impact on the working of the QUAD, said a few days ago that the QUAD was a “plurilateral grouping of countries with a shared vision of their attributes and values”. India has nothing to lose with the AUKUS, which poses no threat to India. In fact, it only strengthens the commitment of the United States to the Indo-Pacific, something that could only help the cause of balancing Chinese influence.

India is not in a military alliance in the AUKUS. However, it has the ability to make use of the strain in diplomatic relations between France and Australia over the latter cancelling a $ 90 billion deal for submarines. India wants nuclear-powered attack submarines, or what is known as SSNs. It does have its own nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in INS Arihant but SSNs are a long-standing demand. Is there a possibility of submarines coming from France after the furore of AUKUS, after all they have always stood by us and we are currently in the midst of equipping our Air Force with the Rafales. Greater bonhomie has been noticed between India and France with the Indian and the French Prime Ministers tweeting about strengthening cooperation and ‘strategic partnership’ in the Indo-Pacific. This has been underlined also in a meeting between the Indian and French Foreign Ministers, Dr S Jaishankar and Jean-Yves LeDrian. In the meantime we need to build on our economy, internal cohesion and military capabilities. We should not sacrifice our self-interests. Convergence continues to remain even if there is some degree of divergence.

One of the issues of concern for us could be the increase in defence expenditure by certain countries in the Indo- Pacific to counter Australia’s defence spending which could lead to a spiraling expenditure by India to keep pace with their modernization and capability enhancement. China has categorically stated that the move will intensify the arms race and will be “damaging regional peace and stability.

There is no doubt that the current moves in the Indo-Pacific are far too complex for a simplistic answer , clearly China is worried due to the potential bandwidth of the QUAD which has not downplayed the security dimension including both conventional and non-conventional threats. Presently, there is no reason to think that AUKUS has disrupted or undermined the QUAD. As per simple mathematics fifty percent of the Quadrilateral represents two thirds of the trilateral. What remains to be seen is whether this triangle remains within the QUAD or outside it and to what degree it will shape the geostrategic maritime space of the Indo- Pacific. The interplay will be revealing.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. )

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