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Naval drills in the Indian Ocean give bite to the anti-China “Quad”

AMERICAN AIRCRAFT-CARRIERS have not always been welcome in the Indian Ocean. In 1971, during a war between India and Pakistan, America sailed the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. Decades later, the slight has not been forgotten—but it has been forgiven. The USS Nimitz, an American supercarrier launched a year after that war, has joined its fellow carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy’s ex-Soviet flagship, off Goa, on India’s west coast, for the second phase of the annual “Malabar” exercises, from November 17th to 20th. Japan, which joined Malabar in 2015, has sent warships, too. So has Australia, which has been invited for the first time in 13 years. The quartet met for the first round of Malabar in the Bay of Bengal, off India’s east coast, earlier this month.

Military drills in Asia are a dime a dozen. China’s naval expansion and tensions in the South China Sea, among other hotspots, have resulted in an explosion of maritime activity in recent years. What is notable about Malabar is its membership, for with Australia’s return it has become a naval reflection of a deepening diplomatic quartet. In 2007 America, Australia, India and Japan met for a “quadrilateral dialogue”, which promptly acquired the snappier title of the “Quad”. That initiative lost steam, in part because Australia, spooked by China’s prickly reaction, broke ranks. A decade later, it was revived: first, among diplomats from the foursome; and then foreign ministers, who met for the second time on October 6th in Tokyo. Though the group’s public statements are replete with diplomatic bromides and euphemism—“a region governed by rules, not power”—the spectre of China and its growing muscle is obvious.

The Quad has no standing bureaucracy or permanent secretariat. It is certainly not an alliance—that word is anathema to India, which was formally non-aligned during the cold war. The four countries are under no obligation to intervene if one is attacked. It is, rather, a “coalition of the willing and capable”, says Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington. Nonetheless, its members have steadily and quietly deepened co-operation on defence and security. In November 2019, for instance, India hosted a Quad tabletop exercise on counter-terrorism—an occasion for the four countries’ spooks to get together. In September Quad officials discussed how to promote “trusted vendors” in 5G networks—an implicit rebuke to Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant—and build resilient supply chains for such things as critical minerals, where China has used its market power as a geopolitical cudgel.

In theory, Malabar is entirely separate from the Quad. In practice, that all four countries now take part in the drills—though Australia’s invitation may not be a standing one—is symbolically important, and speaks to their naval ambitions. Andrew Shearer, who was appointed Australia’s intelligence chief last month, wrote in 2017 that co-operation “should cover the gamut, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through to maritime surveillance and ultimately covering high-end missions such as theatre anti-submarine warfare—a growing priority as Chinese submarines enter the Indian Ocean in increasing numbers.” Sub-hunting drills are among the “high intensity” operations at this year’s Malabar.

Malabar, however, is just one strand in a growing thicket of defence ties. The six-way bilateral ties between all four members of the Quad have all expanded. On November 17th Australia and Japan agreed a pact which will facilitate joint military exercises. Over the past several years, America and India have signed agreements on logistical support (enabling America to rush cold-weather gear to India for troops deployed against China), encrypted communications and the exchange of geospatial intelligence, such as secret maps. India now routinely holds “two-plus-two” meetings of foreign and defence ministers with all three of its Quad partners.

Trilateral ties are also deepening. America, Australia and Japan are all preparing to operate America’s new F-35 jet, for instance, allowing a high degree of integration between their respective carriers. Australian, Indian and Japanese foreign ministers also meet as a trio, without America in the room. “We are veering towards some sort of an alliance relationship with the Quad countries,” says Gurpreet Khurana, a serving Indian naval officer who until last year headed the National Maritime Foundation, a think-tank in Delhi. “There are many shades of alliance which are short of a formal nature.”

China’s response to all this has been a mixture of contrived indifference and spluttering indignation. In 2018 Wang Yi, the foreign minister, declared that “headline-grabbing ideas” like the “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a Japanese concept taken up enthusiastically by the Quad, were “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean: they may get some attention, but soon will dissipate”. In September this year, China’s foreign ministry sternly warned that “no one should seek an exclusive clique”. Mr Khurana says that in his interaction with Chinese officials, “they are really very worried” about India’s partnership with America, and the Quad.

There is also some Quad-scepticism in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), where many governments are concerned that the four powers might overshadow an institution of ten mostly smaller ones. The idea of “ASEAN centrality” has wide appeal. But even there, attitudes have softened, not least because threat perceptions of China have grown. A survey of ASEAN policy elites by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2018 found that 69% thought that the Quad should “play a role in enforcing rules-based order”, for instance by ensuring freedom of navigation against Chinese maritime claims. Many South-East Asian officials are sceptical, though, that the Quad will go anywhere.

What has sustained its momentum since 2017 is that all four countries have seen their relationship with China deteriorate in one way or another. Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a tense border stand-off since the spring, resulting in the first fatal clashes in 45 years. Japan has protested against increasing Chinese incursions around the disputed Senkaku islands (which China calls the Diaoyu) in the East China Sea since August. Australia faces Chinese trade restrictions on everything from wine to lobsters to coal, following its call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and a spying row in Melbourne.

These diverse disputes have all taken their toll on China’s image. A Pew poll published in October showed that 86% of Japanese people and 81% of Australians regard China unfavourably. The Australian figure has climbed by 24 points since last year. “The Quad’s significance is that it is another reflection of growing concern among a diverse array of countries across different regions over Chinese behaviour,” says Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat. “Not everyone has the same concerns or holds their concerns with the same intensity, but they exist. China has done more to put together a nascent anti-China coalition than the US.”

In America, too, Joe Biden is likely to preserve much of Donald Trump’s emphasis on strategic competition with China, even if he jettisons Mr Trump’s bellicose language. In an op-ed this summer, Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner, a member of Mr Biden’s transition team for the Department of Defence, observed: “Out with unified blocs…the competition for friends will rarely be one of strict strategic alignment, but rather an effort to build coalitions of the willing on different issues.”

That chimes with the Quad’s catholic interests. “If a Biden administration wants burden sharing, the Quad countries are the ones likely to do a lot of the heavy lifting in Asia,” notes Ms Madan. The group is not just willing, but also capable. China’s navy, for instance, has 82 high-end warships; Australia, India and Japan have 88 between them. The point is not that India would rush into a war over, say, Taiwan (it would not) but that habits of co-operation will build up over time.

In many ways, the Quad embodies the grammar of modern diplomacy. It is a compact bloc, rather than a sprawling multilateral organisation; it has a broad agenda, from investment to cybersecurity; and it is suitably elastic, opportunistically embracing New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam during the early weeks of the pandemic to discuss economic recovery. “It reflects the flexible multilateralism that we’re likely to see much of in the years ahead,” says Ms Madan. Europeans are accustomed to living in a world of a single, dominant and highly formalised alliance system. By contrast, says Mr Kausikan, “relationships in this region [Asia] are fluid and ambivalent”. The resulting security architecture, he says, will comprise “multiple overlapping frameworks rather than any single structure”. The sea foam shows no signs of dissipating yet.

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