Quadrilateral Quandary: America and Its Asian Allies Must Move Toward Security Cooperation


Quadrilateral Quandary: America and Its Asian Allies Must Move Toward Security Cooperation

The next U.S. president needs to operationalize this vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific by bolstering America’s commitment to the region—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the best place to start.

In response to the first concern, India passed new rules to scrutinize foreign investment from “an entity of a country, which shares a land border with India.” Though China was not explicitly named, the target of the new regulations is widely evident.

The second concern first manifested itself on May 11. While it is not clear who instigated the brawl, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of Defense confirmed “an “aggressive” cross-border skirmish between Chinese and Indian forces” had taken place along the border in North Sikkim. Eleven soldiers, four Indian and seven Chinese, were also reported injured in the scuffle. A month later, the situation escalated as twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a clash, marking the first combat deaths along the border since 1975. The military fatalities came in the same week India reported its largest increase in coronavirus infections with 11,500 new cases in a single day. 

Despite the sizable military force presence on both sides of the disputed border, physical altercations are rare. Former Indian ambassador to China, Nirupama Rao, characterized the skirmish in the context of a “‘new edge’ to China’s attitude. This assertiveness, this readiness to throw [away] internationally accepted behavior to advance their claims and interests, it’s worrisome for so many countries.” This “new edge” is not being felt by India alone.

WEDGED GEOPOLITICALLY between the United States and China, Australia faces an uneasy tension between its Western values and cultural ties, and its reliance on exports for sustained economic growth. With bilateral trade flows valued in the hundreds of billions, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and export market. Yet, Australia enjoys a robust security relationship with America, to include a security treaty alliance. Consequently, Australia has been put in the unenviable position of relying on America for its physical security while relying on China for its economic security. While HMAS warships have joined their American counterparts in the South China Sea in apparent protest to excessive Chinese claims, Australia has to walk a tight line. Australia’s August 2018 decision to ban Chinese technology firms Huawei and ZTE from its telecommunications grid highlighted this tenuous geopolitical balance between national security and economic growth.

In the political sphere, Australian leaders have looked on wearily as Chinese influence in internal issues has risen commensurate with its economic power. In late 2017, Sam Dastyari, an Australian mp and up-and-comer in the opposition Labor Party, was forced to resign after allegations surfaced that he had received financial assistance from and passed sensitive counter-intelligence surveillance information to Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo. In a veiled swipe at China, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared “foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad.” Furthermore, he acknowledged the existence of “disturbing reports about Chinese influence.” While not officially aimed at China, the Australian parliament passed a sweeping series of laws in mid-2018 designed to limit overseas influence in domestic affairs. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by declaring “that China does not interfere in other countries’ affairs” and urged all countries to “cast off a Cold War mind-set.” The diplomatic fallout led to disruptions in Australian wine exports to the lucrative Chinese market.

COVID-19 has brought the Sino-Australian relationship to new lows. While an inconvenient truth before, the pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable Australia is to Chinese economic coercion. Australia’s appeal for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus and a call for an end to wet markets was met with fierce Chinese opposition and hostility. Chinese state media referred to Australia as “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe,” and China’s ambassador to Canberra questioned future Chinese consumer demand for critical Australian exports of wine and beef. China subsequently levied tariffs on Australian barley and beef from four meat processing plants. In the spiraling feud, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne accused China of producing “disinformation” and, publicly put China on blast: “It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.”

Chinese intelligence penetration of the Australian political establishment seems unlikely to have been limited to Dastyari. On June 26, it was reported that the office of Australian lawmaker Shaoquett Moselmane was raided by law enforcement in response to an “ongoing investigation” by police and intelligence agencies into his “alleged links to China.” Prime Minister Morrison confirmed the investigation and commented that it had been “going on for some time.” While national security appears to have been the only pre-COVID area to which Canberra and Washington were allied, threats to its economic prosperity and political sovereignty may have changed Australia’s national calculus.

IN HIS “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech to the Indian Parliament in August 2007, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe famously advocated for the creation of an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity … along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent.” His vision for this regional grouping spanned the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, and in addition to Japan and India, would be buttressed and bounded by America and Australia. Prime Minister Abe has been the most stalwart supporter of advancing the Quad beyond a strategic vision and loose alignment of like-minded democracies. His support has hardened into desperation.

From the outset, Prime Minister Abe prioritized his relationship with President Trump. Reflecting on this effort, Princeton doctoral candidate Ayumi Teraoka commented, “No foreign leader has closer ties with President Donald Trump than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since the 2016 presidential election, the two leaders have met 20 times, played 5 rounds of golf, and had 32 phone calls, at times speaking twice a week.” This bromance may have grown out of tee times and video chats, but it was rooted in realism. More so than any other Quad member, Japan faces the realities of a resurgent and increasingly aggressive China on a daily basis.

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernization and mounting confidence are pushing the limits of a capable but overworked Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF). Chinese Coast Guard vessels and surface combatants of the PLA Navy (PLAN) are in a constant game of maritime chicken with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force over the disputed, but Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (referred to as Diaoyu by China) in the East China Sea. The threat of a future PLA amphibious invasion of these islands was underpinned by the April launch of the PLAN’s second 40,000-ton Type 075 amphibious assault ship capable of carrying 900 troops, in addition to heavy equipment, landing craft and up to thirty helicopters. In the skies, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force has been stretched to its limit by continually having to scramble fighters in response to PLA Air Force and PLAN aircraft sorties near the Japanese mainland, the Miyako Strait, and Okinawa.

This growing asymmetry in military strength led Tokyo to announce in 2019 that the nation’s greatest national security threat was now the PRC, rather than North Korea. At a press briefing, Defense Minister Taro Kono underlined this switch: 

The reality is that China is rapidly increasing military spending, and so people can grasp that we need more pages. China is deploying air and sea assets in the Western Pacific and through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency.

While it has increased its defense spending for an eighth consecutive year, Beijing still outspends Tokyo threefold on its defense. With its back to the wall, Japan has been courting like-minded partners to help offset this conventional force imbalance. In early July, it announced changes to its state secrets law intended to expand intelligence exchanges with countries beyond the United States to partners such as India, Australia and the uk.

As regional navies, including the United States, have been fixated with containing the spread of COVID-19 aboard their vessels, the PLAN has been flexing its muscles in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait. While American aircraft carriers remained confined to port in the early months of the pandemic, the PLAN aircraft carrier Liaoning along with five escort warships transited through the Miyako, and later the Taiwan Strait. This deployment is a harsh message for the JSDF; staring down the PLAN can be a lonely endeavor without allies at your back. 

THE UNITED States has always claimed to be a Pacific nation and premised its foreign policy on preventing a single hegemon from dominating the region—an area of the world to which its future prosperity is undoubtedly tied. Given China’s swift resurgence to great power status, America has a rapidly closing window of time to enter and compete in the new great game for regional dominance.

The 2017 National Security Strategy marked a sea change in America’s battle to compete with, challenge, and confront the PRC. Specifically, it states, “Today, the United States must compete for positive relationships around the world … We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.”

In support of this endeavor, Trump formed a fast friendship with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Ahead of a February meeting—the fifth such gathering between the two leaders in an eight-month period—India and America finalized two defense deals worth a combined value of over $3.5 billion. The two men spoke of their geopolitical views and goals in a joint speech in New Delhi. In stark contrast to the often characterized “most important relationship” in the world between the United States and China, Modi referred to U.S.-India relations as the “most important partnership of the 21st century.” In the same speech, Trump highlighted how he and Modi “are revitalizing the Quad Initiative with the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.”