NEW DELHI — The newly launched Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quadrilateral Initiative” has raised China’s hackles, but its direction is still undecided owing to differing perceptions within the group over what its aims and objectives ought to be.
The quad, whose real architect is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is founded on the concept of democratic peace. This group of four held its inaugural meeting May 25 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gathering in Manila.
It is well documented in the international-relations literature that established democracies rarely go to war with each other, even though democratic governments may not be more wedded to peace than autocracies. Leaders in free nations have little political space to wage war against another democracy. This has led some scholars to contend that democratic peace is the closest thing we have to a law in international politics.
As a concept, democratic peace holds special value in Asia. Democracy may have become the political norm in Europe, but that can hardly be said of Asia. While the community in Europe has been built among democracies, the political systems in Asia are so varied, and some so opaque, that building political trust poses a major challenge.
Yet, if Asia is to enjoy durable peace and power equilibrium, the coming together of democracies to promote common norms is necessary. Such a constellation of democracies tied together through interlinked strategic partnerships could advance political cooperation and stability founded on a community of values.
No nation needs to be apologetic about promoting democratic peace. However, the quad’s first meeting was unpublicized so as not to upset the world’s largest autocratic state, China, which had earlier sent a demarche, or diplomatic note, to Tokyo, New Delhi, Canberra and Washington. The demarche demanded to know why such an initiative was being established.
Now, some quad members are straining hard to reassure Beijing that this initiative constitutes no axis of democracies. In fact, Australia, India and the United States, in different ways, have sought to downplay the strategic significance of the initiative. For example, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has claimed the quad carries “no security implication.”
During a visit to New Delhi last week, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson went to the extent of saying that Australia favored limiting the initiative to trade, culture and other issues outside the domain of defense and security. If a strategic initiative is to be limited to non-strategic issues, why establish it in the first place?
Australia appears ill at ease in this new grouping, given the objective of its present government to build strategic engagement with Beijing. Thanks to China’s ravenous import of resources, Australia has been reaping an unprecedented economic boom.
Indeed, Canberra has been at pains to emphasize that neither its March 2007 security agreement with Tokyo nor the extension of bilateral U.S. security dialogues with Australia and Japan into a formal Trilateral Security Dialogue since March 2006 is aimed at China. With Canberra still seeking to grasp the larger strategic ramifications of the trilateral security arrangements, it is not a surprise that it wants to go slow on the quad.
It an open question, however, how long Canberra would be able to juggle a strategic relationship with China with its new security agreement with Tokyo, while maintaining a robust alliance with the U.S. as the bedrock of Australian security. Would Canberra, for instance, be able to sustain cozy ties with Beijing while permitting Japanese troops to train in Australia under the new accord?
Washington’s own support to a security-oriented quad is less than unreserved. America’s implicit faith in democratic peace is offset by its desire to pursue what has been its key interest in the Asia-Pacific region since 1898 when it took the Philippines as spoils of the naval war with Spain — the maintenance of a balance of power.
Today, the U.S. wants to ensure that China rises peacefully, without becoming an overt threat to American interests. At the same time, by deepening Japanese security dependency, it wishes to prevent Japan’s rise as an independent military power. It is also seeking to persuade India — with which the thawing of relations has been a key accomplishment of the Bush presidency — to move beyond the current strategic partnership to a military tieup.
Achieving these varied objectives won’t be easy for U.S. policy. As it is, the strategic underpinnings of the U.S.-Japan security alliance have begun to corrode. Unlike during the Cold War, the U.S. and Japan do not have a common enemy. While Japan feels increasingly threatened by the rapid accumulation of military power by China, which is “aiming to build capacity to perform operations in waters further and further from its shores” (in the words of the Japanese defense white paper released this month), America regards China neither friend nor foe.
In fact, the U.S. and China, from being allies of convenience in the second half of the Cold War, have gradually emerged as partners tied by interdependence. America depends on Chinese surpluses and savings to finance its supersize budget deficits, while Beijing depends on its huge exports to America both to sustain its high economic growth and subsidize its military modernization. Politically, the U.S. shares key interests with China, as illustrated by the Beijing-brokered deal on the North Korean nuclear program in February 2007 that caught Tokyo unawares.
Doubts are surfacing in Japan whether it can rely on the U.S. nuclear and security umbrella protection in the future, especially if a conflict were to arise with China. Such doubts in turn are instilling security anxiety, which the U.S. has sought to staunch by upgrading the operational elements of the bilateral security arrangements and encouraging Australia to engage Japan in defense cooperation.
For the U.S., a security-oriented quad would hold little benefit in relation to Japan or China. Tokyo is already tied to bilateral and trilateral security arrangements. The expansion of these arrangements to a quadripartite format would do little to advance U.S. objectives vis-a-vis Japan but make it more difficult to win continued cooperation from China, which has been warning against the creation of an “Asian NATO.”
It is also not clear that the U.S. desire to build India as an ally can be advanced through a quadrilateral-security framework. Through the bilateral approach, Washington has been gradually expanding its military-to-military cooperation with India, as underscored by the growing joint exercises and the impending Acquisition and Cross-Serving Agreement (ACSA). The U.S. attempt is to build functional interoperability with Indian forces.
Washington is also eyeing tens of billions of dollars in potential arms deals with India in the coming years, and has already notified Congress of the proposed sale to Indian special forces of six C-130J Super Hercules military aircraft and equipment for more than $1.3 billion. U.S. firms like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are currently lobbying to secure a deal with India for 126 fighter jets potentially worth up to $11 billion.
But as a country that has always prided its strategic autonomy, India is still reluctant to enter into too tight a strategic embrace with America. It wants to remain a strategic partner, rather than become an ally. U.S. progress in building defense cooperation with India will remain incremental, with the quad offering little advantage.
New Delhi’s own approach to the quad is low-key — tacitly supportive of building democratic peace but hesitant to do anything that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure. Having committed in a joint declaration with Abe last December to “the usefulness of having dialogue among India, Japan and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific region on themes of mutual interest,” Prime Minister Singh revealed that at the Group of Eight Outreach Summit in Germany last month, he spoke with Chinese President Hu Jintao about the first quad meeting and “explained” that there was “no question of ganging up” against China.
When China undertakes actions designed to contain India, does it bother to “explain” them to New Delhi? Indeed, it determinedly presses ahead with steps antithetical to Indian interests, including a “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean rim that aims to pin down India.
For long, China cultivated North Korea and Pakistan as its twin fists to keep Japan and India at bay.
To set up proxy military threats against India, Beijing went to the extent of transferring tested nuclear-weapon and missile designs to Pakistan.
If India can openly join hands with Russia and China in a Eurasian strategic triangle intended to help promote global power equilibrium, why should it be diffident about partnering other states to seek democratic peace and stability in Asia?
All this leaves Japan as the only enthusiastic quad member. In fact, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book, “Utsukushii Kunihe (Toward A Beautiful Country),” published a couple of months before he became prime minister. Given that Abe was born after World War II and his life has been shaped by democracy, the concept of democratic peace holds special appeal for him.
Despite the present Australian, American and Indian tentativeness, the quad represents the likely geopolitical lineup in the Asia-Pacific in the years ahead. It is no coincidence that the quad’s foundational meeting was preceded by the first-ever U.S.-Japan-India joint naval exercises near Tokyo and that all the quad members plus Singapore are to participate in naval maneuvers in the Bay of Bengal in September. The maneuvers, representing one of the largest multilateral war games ever conducted on the high seas, will involve three aircraft carriers — two from the U.S. and one from India.
The democracies of Asia are natural allies. Strategic partnerships between and among them will have a positive bearing on Asian security.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.