HAIKOU, CHINA – The Trump administration has raised once again the decade-old geopolitical concept of the “Indo-Pacific region” and is proposing — and pushing — a “Quad” — a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan and the United States. Given the dominant maritime nature of the Indo-Pacific and that all prospective “members” are maritime powers, any security arrangement would likely be initially focused on cooperation in the maritime sphere.
The Quad concept is in part driven by developments in the South China Sea that has become a “symbol of China’s inexorable rise.” Because the South China Sea has become the focus of U.S.-China rivalry, if there is security cooperation by members of the Quad, it would likely include that sea.
Over the past 40 years, China has made a series of assertive moves in the South China Sea undeterred by protests from other claimants and stern warnings from the U.S. It has built military-capable facilities and increased its military assets on the features it occupies; it has thrown its weight around when other countries try to unilaterally exploit resources in some areas it claims; and it has rejected an international arbitration decision against its claims there and then carried on as if nothing has happened. More, it has used its increased influence in recent ASEAN meetings to suppress any critical statements against it.
Its latest diplomatic victory was clear from U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the region. He hardly mentioned the South China Sea — at least publicly — let alone confronted China on those issues — as many had hoped. What he said and did not say convinced many seasoned observers that China has gained the diplomatic edge over its rival claimants and the U.S. in the South China Sea — if not the entire region.
The results of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations and associated summits seemed to confirm this perception. Many analysts agreed that China won this round of the struggle between it and other claimants for political advantage in the South China Sea disputes. Moreover, the general sense was that this was a clear setback for the U.S. as well — particularly in its public diplomacy contest with China.
But the U.S. has decided to fight back. Therefore, it has proposed the Quad. As part of Washington’s China “management” strategy, the U.S. military is encouraging, requesting — even pressuring — other prospective members of the Quad to join its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and to support its policy of “fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows” (FSOP) there.
Initially Australia declined to join U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea. But there are now indications that Australia might just do so. Its newly released white paper on foreign policy characterizes the South China Sea disputes as “a major fault line in the region order.” The Turnbull administration appears to be siding with the U.S. in its interpretation of the “rules-based order” — and its forward military presence in Asia and the South China Sea. Indeed, the white paper proclaims Australia’s intention to “conduct cooperative activities with other countries consistent with international law.” This certainly gives the impression that it is seriously considering joining U.S. FONOPs. According to Julie Bishop, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs: “What we are seeking to do is balance against bad behavior. The key is a rules-based order. We urge China to defend and strengthen that order.”
But here Australia is treading on a steep and slippery slope in regards to its relations with China. In reaction to the white paper and Bishop’s elaboration thereof, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticized Australia’s “irresponsible remarks” on the South China Sea issue. In the past, China has signaled Australia to physically stay out of the South China Sea dispute and not to provide increased use of military facilities to the U.S., lest it become a potential “target.”
Japan has also been off-again on-again regarding participation in U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea. Earlier, when Japan appeared to be considering joining these FONOPs, China bluntly warned that it would be crossing a “red line” if it did so. China then promptly stepped up pressure and tension in the East China Sea.
The possibility of Japan or Australia joining U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea — and perhaps the whole concept of a quadrilateral security pact among these nations — is wishful thinking and a nonstarter. As Australian analyst Hugh White aptly puts it: “Does anyone imagine that India is really willing to sacrifice its relationship with China to support Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or that Japan would endanger its interests with the Chinese to support India in its interminable border disputes with China? Or that Australia would jeopardize trade with China for either of them, or even to support America?”
If Australia, India or Japan joined U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea, that would convince China that they are “aligning” against it — and it would respond accordingly. This could easily lead to a military confrontation. As for supposedly non-aligned India, when senior representatives of the Quad countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN-hosted meetings, the Indian government downplayed the meeting and did not join the other three in acknowledging the need for “coordination on maritime security.”
However some observers —like the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations’ Ely Ratner — think China would “back down” if confronted by such an “alliance” or even by U.S. military power alone. He and others use this reasoning to advocate multilateral — like the Quad — or even U.S. unilateral confrontation of China in the South China Sea. Each would have to decide that doing so is worth the risk.
My sense is that regarding the South China Sea, the Quad is dead on arrival. The proposed non-U.S. members — unless directly attacked — are unlikely to help the U.S. militarily in its contest with China there.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. A different version of this piece first appeared in the IPP Review: bit.ly/IPPReview .