The Quad, AUKUS, and the future of alliances in the Indo-Pacific
By Thu Nguyen, Communications Intern
The following article is based on a public lecture given by Professor Gordon Flake at the Brussels School of Governance Japan Program on 7 March 2022 via Zoom.
As the Indo-Pacific region becomes increasingly contested, like-minded coalitions are forming throughout the region to meet growing threats to the rules-based order. In recent years, the region has seen a growing number of new alliances that continue to evolve to meet the security challenges of the 21st Century.
The birth of the Quad
In response to the fallout of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, the Quad, consisting of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, was established to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The emergence of this diplomatic network was a milestone in itself, bringing together a new grouping of diverse partners. As the Quad has evolved from its original non-traditional security focus to servicing a broad and ambitious agenda, questions have been raised about how India and Japan would participate given their own domestic concerns. India’s aversion to formal alliances and Japan’s concern over offending China through what is sometimes perceived to be an anti-China grouping raised doubts over the Quad’s ability to carry out meaningful action.
While long-standing bilateral ties between the United States and Australia led these two countries to deepen their engagement through the Quad, Japan and India’s involvement marked a stark change in their respective regional engagement. Japan’s ambivalence towards offending China and India’s history of non-alignment had previously seen the two countries reluctant to join such a regional grouping, however their engagement with the Quad signals shifting perspectives in the region. India’s border conflicts with China and Japan’s ongoing territorial dispute in the Senkaku Islands give the two countries a growing stake in ensuring regional stability.
By March 2021, the first ever Quad leaders meeting was immediately elevated from the foreign minister’s level to the leaders meeting. A factor driving consolidation of the Quad was the Quad members’ growing concerns with China’s rise and the threat Beijing posed to the rules-based order.
Every one of the Quad members had growing concerns about the role of China and the threat it was posing to the rules-based order.“
AUKUS and its impact on Australia’s foreign relations
The announcement of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United States and United Kingdom has had contrasting impacts on Australia’s diplomatic relations.
The technology sharing agreement, which includes the promise of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, is an indicator of a strengthened trilateral relationship between the three countries. However, it has inadvertently damaged the Australia-France relationship as the new agreement resulted in the cancelation of a pre-existing submarine contract between the two countries.
As opposed to the Quad, where defence issues are deliberately set aside, AUKUS elevates strategic ties between the three countries, focusing on intelligence, security, military, and technology sharing.
The more important part of AUKUS is that it essentially upgrades the alliance between Australia and the United States and the UK in terms of intelligence sharing cooperation.“
The first country to express its interest in cooperating with the AUKUS nations was Japan. Japan’s technological capabilities, including its hypersonic weapon development, offer a strategic advantage for Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Japan’s interest in AUKUS could be highly beneficial to all parties involved, as Japan’s inclusion in some trilateral security activities would build on its bilateral and trilateral cooperation with the United States and Australia – fostering strong diplomatic ties.
Importance of alliances in the Indo-Pacific
The nature of alliances has shifted rapidly as regional dynamics continue to evolve. In as little as the last five years, US involvement in regional alliances has changed from disinterest under the Trump administration, to active participation under President Biden.
With the regional geopolitical landscape under constant flux, many countries are turning towards like-minded partners in the region to protect and preserve a rules-based order. Australia, Japan, and India have been the most enthusiastic proponents of the Indo-Pacific as a construct and have led regional cooperation in the absence of the US under President Trump.
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a construct is a response to the growing concern about the rise of China and the declining influence of the United States.“
China’s rapid economic growth and political influence have led to two options for countries in the Indo-Pacific: either to combat its growth or dilute its power.
The first option is deemed unviable given many regional countries’ economic ties with China. While China’s exponential growth and coercive use of power presents an increasing threat, countries in the region must balance their own economic interests with China for the sake of self-preservation.
This leaves one practical solution to balancing China’s power: bringing India into the Indo-Pacific as a political and economic counterweight. As the Indian economy grows, it is playing an increasing role in the region and offers a valuable alternative to China.
Further to engaging those within immediate geographic proximity to the Indo-Pacific, allied nations like Australia and the US should crucially recognise European involvement in the region. This is mainly due to the power of complexity, where the more parties that have an active interest in the Indo-Pacific, the simpler it is to suppress China’s expansion and ongoing power tensions with the US. Moreover, countries in the Indo-Pacific want to welcome active European involvement because it complicates Chinese decision making, which is vital for the development of security in the region.
The future of alliances in the Indo-Pacific is dependent on how proactive regional countries can be. With the US’ underwhelming presence and the increasing growth of China, it is crucial for countries to form alliances based upon shared interest, as this will mark a fundamental evolution in security in the Indo-Pacific era.