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Is the Quad the new Trump card?

by David Howell

What is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue? It has no website and is rarely mentioned in the media. Yet this alliance of four nations (for that is what it is), could be the decisive group in shaping the stability, security and progress of the whole Indo-Pacific region, and therefore of the whole world.

The four nations involved in the Quad are the United States, Australia, India and Japan. The association and common interests of these four powerful democracies has been discussed in vague terms in the past but is now assuming a new significance. U.S. President Donald Trump clearly sees the Quad idea as a key part of America’s unfolding Asia policy, and this explains his administration’s increasingly strong focus on U.S.-Indian relations in particular.

The big thought behind it is this. China’s remarkable growth and dynamism is to be admired, but an Asia dominated entirely by an ambitious China, pushing outward with its Belt and Road Initiative through Central Asia and with its newly constructed South China Sea islands, is much less welcome. A China that is prospering is plainly good for its neighbors and the global economy. After all, China is Japan’s second-biggest export market, and Australia’s No. 1 export market as well. That’s fine, but no one wants to be completely rolled over by the Chinese giant. Trade, yes, but not if it leads to domination.

A secure and stable Asia therefore needs to have a good counterbalance to China, and a coordinated security strategy, including close defense cooperation, is just what the big-four Quad could deliver. This could be especially so in the maritime sphere, where Chinese assertiveness, bordering on aggression, makes other Asian governments very uncomfortable.

This leads the latest U.S. thinking to the view that India, now the world’s fifth-largest industrial power, must be befriended and supported as never before, and why all bridges to India must be strengthened. One of these bridges is seen as lying via Britain and the Commonwealth network of nations, of which India is by far the largest and Australia one of the richest. This explains, among other things, why U.S. leaders have shown growing interest in the modern Commonwealth, and why in Washington a new branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society has just been opened.

Of course there are snags and challenges, as with any grand strategy.

India may be becoming the cornerstone of Trump’s strategic vision, but it is still excluded from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. This will have to be overcome hopefully with the support of all India’s allies and friends.

Then there is the Pakistan problem. Not only are Indo-Pakistani relations as bad as ever, but American relations, too, are far from friendly with Pakistan. The country is viewed as weak on terrorism and, almost worse, seems to favor China these days over its Western allies. Somehow the historic tensions between these two quarreling neighbors, India and Pakistan, must be de-escalated. Here, too, since they are both Commonwealth members, Britain and the other Commonwealth members might play a calming and constructive part, despite the extreme sensitivities involved.

Another problem is the puzzling decision of America to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, so painfully negotiated, which has scarcely helped regional togetherness. Clearly the new U.S. focus on Indo-Pacific ties is intended to be some kind of compensating alternative to this curious and self-harming move, which leaves such a vacuum in American influence on the trade side. Maybe the Quad initiative is seen by the Trump administration as a chance for better success.

Whatever the motives one can discern in all this, a new global security pattern emerging. Historians may like to compare it to the great game between the powers of the 19th and 20th centuries. But there is a big difference from the alliances of the past and the diplomacy that sustained them. The cyber age and the growth of mass and continuous connectivity are pulling peoples and interests together across national boundaries as never before, even where governments seem to be disagreeing and pulling them apart.

Attempts to build power blocs and alliances in the future will have to take full account of this trend. And here, too, the Commonwealth model of cooperation coming from the people at the grass roots may prove better than the heavier hand of U.S. diplomacy — which has had a poor run over recent decades, whether in Asia or the Middle East. When the 53 leaders of Commonwealth countries, covering almost a third of humankind, meet in London in a few weeks’ time, the subject of future Asian security — and how best to contribute to it — should certainly be on the agenda.

But meanwhile, the Quad concept, if developed carefully, may well be the best hope for a peaceful balance in Asia, keeping in check the great power rivalry of the kind which destroyed Europe in the past and opening the way for Asian economic cooperation and trade expansion all round.

But much work, wisdom and respect for Asian values will be needed, especially in Washington, to make it a reality and to make it effective.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.