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Success in a realist world: Australia’s opportunity in the Quad

As the world transitions to an increasingly realist environment, Australia must recognise the value of collective responses to counter coercive behaviours. It is in Canberra’s interests to seize the opportunity it has in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and succeed in a more dangerous and disorderly post-COVID world.

In spite of long-held confidence in the West towards globalisation and the liberal international order, recent developments have cemented a paradigm shift with regards to a fully realised China-US rivalry and the resurgence of great power competition. The deterioration of the Indo-Pacific’s strategic environment has been reflected in Australia’s recent Defence Strategic Update. Concerningly, Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasises that the current threat context faced by Australia is comparable to that of the 1930s, during the time where the regional order collapsed. As such, talk of alliances has become more prevalent and in this regard, Australia need look no further than the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Source: Pixabay, 2016.

Previous Quad dissolution led to an emboldened China

In February 2008, Australia announced its decision to suspend future four way dialogues with India, Japan and the US, bringing the first iteration of the Quad to a grinding halt. Contemporarily, this was viewed as careful diplomatic manoeuvring by the Australian government to avoid antagonising China. A report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), entitled, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Coercive Diplomacy”, shows that all Quad members have recorded an increase in coercive behaviours from China since the dialogue’s dissolution.

Australia recorded 27 cases of coercive diplomacy, the highest recorded out of all countries affected. The gradual unravelling of relations between itself and its largest trading partner has materialised over the years through alleged foreign interference, cyber-attacks and trade tariffs.

A significant rise in coercion has also been observed by other Quad members. India has had to contend with a more openly assertive China that is willing to enforce its territorial ambitions, as seen during the Doklam standoff. Likewise, Japan became embroiled in the Senkaku Islands dispute where it faced constant challenges to its territorial sovereignty. In addition, China had become more willing to actively pursue its territorial interests at the expense of various other Southeast Asian nations during this period.

It appears that the Quad’s dissolution had backfired, with Beijing emboldened rather than placated like Canberra had hoped. As such, in a time of growing Chinese coercion, it was inevitable that the Quad would rise again. In the view of the ASPI report, Australia should band together through multilateral forums and coalitions to respond to diplomatic challenges – in this regard, Quad 2.0 is the perfect opportunity.

Source: Unsplash, 2020.

Cooperation between Quad members should deepen along appropriate avenues

In response to Beijing’s actions, Quad members should pursue appropriate avenues to deepen cooperation. Research conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIC) found that in a group of 20 strategic elites from each of the Quad nations, over 80% supported the notion for an annual meeting of the heads of government from each nation. Indeed, the establishment of regular head of government meetings would be invaluable to setting the overall direction of the Quad. Viewing the leader-level summits of the US-Japan alliance as examples, the Quad could utilise such meetings to set initiatives for future working groups focusing on defence and infrastructure – one of the key recommendations put forth by the CSIC. 

An important element of the Quad is its composition of trilateral and bilateral relationships between each of the member states – otherwise known as ‘minilateralism’. The most advanced trilateral relationship is the US-Japan-Australia engagement, followed by the ministerial level US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue. Additionally, a Japan-India-Australia was initiated recently. In this space, Australia, India and the US should work towards a trilateral dialogue that would serve as a final piece in the minilateral puzzle.

According to a Lowy Institute report, Australia has been actively countering coercive Chinese behaviour and is open to incrementally increasing military cooperation through trilateral formations. In this area, Australia should be included in the annual Malabar naval exercises through India’s consent. This could present a challenge, as India has been viewed as a ‘weak link’ in regards to their support of the Quad. Some analysts believe this arises from Indian scepticism towards Australian commitment, given Australia’s exit from the Quad’s first iteration. Although being the one to close the door previously, bipartisan support for the Quad in Australia would reinforce the current iteration’s ability to survive the test of time – a rather poetic redemption arc for Australia.

Finally, members of the Quad must be realistic about their appetite for a blatantly anti-China alliance. For Australia, Japan and India, the relationship with China will always be significant enough to outweigh their relationships with each other. Rather than a military alliance to contain China, the aim of the Quad should be articulated as diplomatic dissuasion – backed by deepening quadrilateral relations which provide the flexibility and capability to collectively respond to coercion.

Infographic by Raymond Wang

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