Have Regional Security Concerns Brought Australia Back To The Quad?
By Benjamin J. Freeman from Perth USAsia Centre | 30 Nov 2017
On the sidelines of the 2017 East Asian Summit in Manila this month, senior officials from Australia, Japan, India and the United States met to discuss regional and global security issues. It marked the revival of a quadrilateral grouping, commonly known as “the Quad,” that was first explored a decade ago. Given the long gap between meetings, and Australia’s fluctuating enthusiasm for the initiative, what has renewed Australia’s interest in the Quad? China’s expansionist activities in the regional maritime domain and mixed signals from the United States are among the factors that have influenced Australia’s strategic shift.
The multilateral strategic initiative, originally called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commenced in 2007 with talks initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Quad was aimed at linking democratic nations in the region to collaborate on security and strategic issues of mutual interest. After the initial round of discussions, Australia withdrew its participation over concerns it would negatively impact bilateral relations with China. But evolving geopolitical conditions has brought Australia back to the table this year.
As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remarked to the media at this year’s summit, Australia has “a lot of security issues on [its] agenda” requiring the cooperation of regional partners. The Quad represents collaboration between regional democratic powers with a similar interest in preserving the openness of the maritime commons. While not referencing any specific issue, it is likely that Turnbull, who spoke earlier this month about defending the rules-based international order, was reflecting Australian concerns over China’s rising power and increasing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas.
Australian enthusiasm is also linked to the belief that the Trump Administration is less interested in multilateral engagement in Asia than its predecessors. It has sent mixed messages to the region, continuing with military cooperation like the Malabar naval exercises, but withdrawing from other diplomatic and economic commitments. President Trump skipped the East Asia Summit at short notice, citing scheduling delays, and in February withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
China was quick to respond to news of the Quad meeting, declaring that politicised and exclusionary proposals should be avoided in the interest of regional peace and stability. China’s concerns over the original 2007 proposal for the Quad were a significant factor of influence on Australia’s prior engagement. Once described by analysts as the Quad’s most reluctant member, Australian interest waned under the Rudd government amid efforts to improve bilateral relations with China. It has remained dormant under subsequent Australian leaders until now.
With the reestablishment of the Quad, it is prescient to now examine the evolution of the initiative and ask: by resuming its participation, what benefits and challenges are in store for Australia?
The evolution of the Quad
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first proposed the quadrilateral group in 2007. Abe proposed a “broader Asia,” through the development of an ocean-wide network across the Pacific. Incorporating the United States and Australia with India and Japan, Abe hoped to promote shared values and strategic interests in the region. The first meeting of the four states, held during the 2007 ASEAN regional forum, was met with formal diplomatic protests from China. Its concern was that the parties were endeavouring to create an “alliance of democracies” in Asia for the purpose of containing China.
The intention was to foster stronger cooperative relationships in Asia at a time of increasing economic integration and enhanced political divisions. But in 2008, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith asserted that Australia would not propose a second round of talks. Rudd believed that Australia’s success in an era of Chinese power was contingent on Australia’s ability to reshape the domestic debate on the “China threat.” Trilateral joint military exercises continued in Australia’s absence, and Australia instead focused on other bilateral avenues of cooperation, including the Talisman Saber military exercises with the United States, and enhanced intelligence and defence logistics sharing arrangements with Japan.
Abe renewed the call for a quadrilateral dialogue in 2012. He argued there was a need for a “democratic security diamond” to safeguard the maritime commons from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. This was largely in response to China’s incremental changes to the status quo in the maritime sphere, which has continued steadily under the leadership of Xi Jinping. However, as recent statements highlight, it is also an opportunity to collectively address other regional security challenges, such as terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In the years since Abe’s commentary, there has been a marked increase in Chinese incursions in disputed waters in the East China Sea. There has also been more than 3,200 acres of new land created in the South China Sea through China’s island-building activities. While Vietnam and Taiwan have also engaged in land reclamation work, and a number of other states in the region are engaged in disputes over territorial boundaries, China has been the most prolific in dredging reefs and militarising reclaimed land in the contested area.
Australia’s focus upon ensuring the security of maritime trade routes and freedom of navigation in regional waters will no doubt be a key factor in Australia’s decision to return to the Quad. China’s terse response to the United States’ freedom of navigation exercise in August this year highlights the tensions surrounding this issue, which Australia observes intently. So what benefits and challenges will Australia face by resuming its involvement?
Australia and the Quad
The revitalisation of the Quad has multiple benefits for Australia. It demonstrates a commitment to burden-sharing in maintaining regional security by enhancing the interoperability of the member states’ navies and drawing upon their respective military and logistical resources. The claim that United States’ allies were not doing their fair share was a criticism Trump had levelled during his 2016 presidential campaign. It also furthers a strategic objective of the 2016 Defence White Paper, which advocates for the maintenance of a rules-based order through greater engagement with other states with similar values and strategic interests. Finally, it demonstrates that Australia will not pursue its prized economic relationship with China to the detriment of its other strategic interests in the region.
This is not to say that Australia will act without careful consideration of the implications for the Australia-China relationship. While China is Australia’s largest trading partner, China also holds that status for nearly 100 other countries. There is an asymmetry of interests, in which Australia holds a far less prominent place in Chinese policy discussions than China does in Australia. So Australia will necessarily take China’s dissatisfaction into account, through concern for the possible economic costs incurred in the relationship, even if they are only minor.
For Australia, quadrilateral cooperation is an avenue through which it can foster deeper integration with other democratic states with similar concerns over China’s rise, in a region experiencing considerable security tensions and a shift in great power dynamics. It also mitigates some of the uncertainty that Trump has injected through his rhetoric regarding unequal burden-sharing within the US alliances in Asia. But as former senior DFAT official Peter Varghese asserts, rather than becoming a formal military alliance, it should be an organic balance to China, which focuses more on strategic engagement between the region’s democracies.
The challenge will also be in balancing practical cooperative measures with the promotion of Australia’s values. The next step will involve quadrilateral diplomacy to overcome issues where member state interests diverge, and make decisions as to how the group will approach maritime security concerns together. Policies aimed at trying to shape China’s behaviour in the region will likely be viewed as antagonistic. As one Chinese newspaper recently suggested, a “values-oriented strategic concept” might threaten regional stability. Australia’s future prosperity and security could be served well by the Quad, so long as it is considered within the broader context of the country’s strategic interests.
Benjamin J. Freeman is an intern at the Perth USAsia Centre and a recent graduate of the Master of International Relations Program at the University of Melbourne.
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