India Doesn’t Need the Quad to Counter China—and Neither Do Its Partners
The nascent pact with Australia, Japan, and the United States is pointless. It should be quietly disbanded.
The U.S. pivot to Asia is back and in full swing. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may own the trademark for the term, but her successor Mike Pompeo made it a reality. Since taking office in April 2018, Pompeo has seized on President Donald Trump’s pledge to work toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and put it at the center of the administration’s foreign policy. To promote it, he has revitalized the Quad—originally the 2007-2008 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue but now rebranded as the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan Consultations. As a sign of the Quad’s priority, Pompeo will be attending a first-ever dedicated meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo this week, even after canceling the other legs of his Asia trip due to Trump’s sudden hospitalization for the coronavirus.
Many proponents of the Quad consider it a fledgling alliance with the potential to form the nucleus of an “Asian NATO” to contain China. Detractors dismiss the Quad as a false dawn for Indo-Pacific multilateral cooperation. China’s Foreign Ministry views it as an “anti-China front line,” and it’s probably right. Although the United States’ partners in the Quad have been careful not to say so, Pompeo admitted as much last year when he said the grouping would play a key role in “ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.” Yet it is not at all clear that Australia, India, and Japan actually want or need the Quad to put a check on China. Even more importantly, the United States might be better off without the Quad, too.
Each of the four members of the Quad is, in its own way, already pushing back on China. The United States, of course, has its trade war with China, which has morphed into a tech war and now encompasses a wide spectrum of U.S. economic sanctions. Japan has begun converting two existing ships into aircraft carriers in a bid to counter China’s naval expansion, and its Defense Ministry has requested another record budget. Australia’s government has announced a raft of legislation to curb foreign influence that is clearly (though unofficially) targeted at China. And India is actively engaged in a high-altitude, high-stakes game of chicken with China in the Himalayas—a hot-and-cold conflict in which India is increasingly seizing the initiative instead of passively countering China’s advances.
The deadly standoff between India and China is possibly the most consequential confrontation in the world right now. China, with an economy more than four times the size of India’s, can afford to gamble, and it would seem as if India must need all the help it can get. Washington is certainly willing to give it. Pompeo has sought to tie the conflict to a broader pattern of Chinese expansionism and use it as leverage for nudging India toward greater cooperation with the developed democracies of the Indo-Pacific region. India, for its part, has cautiously inched forward toward closer security ties with the United States.
But India, once the cornerstone of the nonaligned movement, is hedging its bets. Although it has ramped up purchases of U.S. military hardware, it has staked the modernization of its air force on French Rafale jets. It is paying Russia to upgrade and expand its existing fleet of MiG and Sukhoi fighter aircraft. And it has asked Russia to expedite delivery of the S-400 air defense system it bought in 2018 in defiance of the threat of U.S. sanctions. India is also developing increasingly close defense ties with another nonaligned regional giant, Indonesia.
The Quad’s viability hinges on India’s participation, however. Australia and Japan already operate mainly U.S. military hardware to ensure broad interoperability among their armed forces. Both also have longtime alliance treaties with the United States and are fully integrated into regional and global security systems centered on the United States. For the United States, Australia, and Japan, the Quad is superfluous. It only adds value if it has India.
The main rationale usually offered for including India in the Quad is that it will create a league of democracies straddling the Indo-Pacific region. If that is the goal, then at least three of the region’s democracies are glaringly absent: South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand. South Korea famously refuses to engage openly in defense cooperation with Japan, citing unresolved issues from the pre-1945 colonial and wartime past. Taiwan, of course, lacks official diplomatic relations with any of the Quad democracies. And New Zealand, feeling securely remote in the South Pacific, has effectively divorced itself from the U.S. alliance system while retaining a tenuous membership in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network.
The Quad is thus in essence a rump group of three Indo-Pacific democracies already working together, plus India. If they are unable to bind like-minded countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, or even New Zealand to their alignment, how can the trilateral partners possibly hope to form a quasi-alliance with India? The only thing Quad diplomacy really has going for it is China’s decidedly undiplomatic pressure on India in the Himalayas, in the Indian Ocean, and among nearly all of India’s neighbors. China has undertaken Belt and Road Initiative projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. That’s every one of India’s neighboring countries except Afghanistan and tiny Bhutan—and Afghanistan only has a border with India via the legal fiction that India still owns all of Kashmir.
If the Quad is all about India, India’s participation in it is all about China. But if that’s the case, a free and open Indo-Pacific doesn’t need the Quad. India has every incentive to counter Chinese expansionism in South Asia, with or without a tenuous membership in an ill-defined intergovernmental grouping. It might do so more effectively with U.S. military hardware, but it can more easily afford Russian equipment. Of course, the United States would like to develop India as a market for its defense exports. But if U.S. defense sales to India are the main motivation for pushing the Quad, then Australia and Japan hardly need to be involved.
The idea of collective security has a fuzzy and familiar feel to it, and NATO stands as the exemplar of an alliance that kept the peace. But who now remembers the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization or puts much stock in the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, aka the Rio Pact? Even NATO itself has arguably degenerated into more of a standards-setting organization than a functioning defense pact. The United States’ hub-and-spoke security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, by contrast, have demonstrated the flexibility to shift quickly from facing North Korea to the Soviet Union to China. Free from multilateral institutional baggage, the United States and its ad hoc allies in the region are able to keep the peace without getting bogged down in unanimity-requiring diplomacy.
The best future for the Quad would be for it to fail peacefully and quietly, unlike the original 2007-2008 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which failed spectacularly. Its main promoter, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, resigned in September 2007; three months later, Kevin Rudd took office as prime minister in Australia with an agenda to improve ties with China, undermining the Quad’s unspoken goals. Rudd promptly took a trip to China, suspended uranium sales to India, condemned Japanese whaling, and disparaged the Quad as “not something that we are pursuing.” Lacking a strong commitment from Washington and New Delhi, the first Quad fell apart. With so little to add to the four countries’ existing stands against Chinese aggression, the second Quad should learn the lesson of history, issue a noble declaration, declare victory, and disband.
Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones