The origins of the quadrilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific between the navies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States go back to the earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004. The four navies came together quickly and effectively in a core group to coordinate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. As a number of U.N. agencies swung into action, the core group was disbanded and the lead responsibility for organizing international rescue and relief operations was transferred to the United Nations. But the memory of that multilateral relief and assistance cooperation by four competent navies lingered and in time gave birth to the notion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The first informal Quad summit was held in Manila in August 2007 on the margins of the ARF meeting. The conjunction of interests proved fleeting and all four looked to consolidate relations with China. Interest in the Quad has revived recently for two reasons: increasing apprehensions about China’s growing assertiveness around the Indo-Pacific; and interest in drawing India into informal coalitions and practical cooperation to promote diplomatic dissuasion rather than military deterrence.

In his address to the 19th Communist Party Congress on Oct. 18, President Xi Jinping described the three core elements of China’s vision of the new world order as: parity in China-U.S. relations; growing Chinese influence in writing the underlying rules of the global order; and a more assertive Chinese diplomacy in that new international system. A surge in Chinese international policy activism would not be uniformly welcomed by China’s Indo-Pacific neighbors. The very next month, the Quad was revived on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila, attended by the leaders of the four democratic nations, to China’s chagrin.

The Quad four are also said to be exploring the creation of a joint regional infrastructure project as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And in a very public symbolic event, on Jan. 18 admirals from Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. sat together on stage at the high profile Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi. Their presence reflected the shared strategic assessment among the four democracies that China had become a disruptive force in the Indo-Pacific.

If the Indo-Pacific is accepted as the new organizing principle of their foreign policies, then the four democracies coming together in the Quad as an informal grouping is a logical outcome. Their challenge is to protect common interests and shared principles against Chinese pressure but not to provoke China into open confrontation. The complementary security interests are buttressed by shared political values and a commitment — at least in rhetoric — to a rules-based order.

Of the three, Japan was the first to grasp India’s potential utility for advancing many of its core foreign policy goals. The peninsular nature of India’s shoreline exposes it to potential seaborne threats from the east, west and south. But the distinctive geography also gives India a major commercial and geostrategic location astride the sea lanes of communication between the Middle East and East Asia. The regional public-good aspects of these were demonstrated in 1999, when Indian warships rescued a Japanese cargo ship that had been captured by pirates.

India could clearly be helpful in safeguarding critical sea lanes of communication for Japan’s oil imports across the Indian Ocean. Tokyo sat up and took notice of India’s rising naval profile after the 1999 incident, which led to a series of security dialogues and consultations among government officials and analysts and commentators. In 2000 the two countries’ coast guards initiated annual maritime search-and-rescue and anti-piracy exercises. Japan, India, Brazil and Germany teamed up to form a Group of Four in a major diplomatic push to gain permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council as part of the U.N. reform effort in 2005. The results of that effort were disappointing overall and also for the G4 in particular, not the least because of China’s determined opposition to sharing permanent membership with its two major Asian rivals.

The Indo-Pacific frame integrates geography, the “free and open” principle and democratic values into one strategic construct. In August 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian parliament on the theme of “Broader Asia” in which there was a confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans that was bringing together India and Japan in a partnership embracing shared fundamental values and strategic interests.

In an influential essay “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” on Dec. 27, 2012, Abe argued that the peace, security ad freedom of the two oceans are inseparable. As “one of the oldest sea-faring democracies in Asia,” Japan, alongside Australia, India and the U.S., “should play a greater role in preserving the common good in both regions,” he wrote. Their navies conducted their first joint exercise off Japan’s coast in 2012, followed by the first maritime dialogue in New Delhi in January 2013.

All that said, there would be no appetite in any of the Quad four for a hard-edged anti-China security alliance. Australia and Japan are already firm U.S. allies with no desire to break from their bilateral security ties. For Japan no less than Australia and India, the relationship with the U.S. is the single most important and that with China the second most critical, outweighing the importance of the other two partners. Therefore there always will be strong countervailing pressures to accommodate ties with the lesser two partners to China’s sensitivity.

The level and quality of economic interaction of the Quad partners with China varies enormously, as does their the fear of entanglements in others’ quarrels. There can be no expectation of automatic diplomatic support or military assistance in any armed conflict with China arising from the territorial disputes between Japan and China, or between India and China. This, too, adds wariness to the Quad.

Into this mix has been added the volatility and erratic decision-making style of the Trump administration, its transactional approach to all foreign policy and the resulting unreliability of its security guarantee.

Instead of trying to counterbalance China through a collective defense pact, therefore, the Quad four should build an informal or soft security architecture. Their navies should concentrate on promoting a visible maritime presence in both oceans, building capability and enhancing interoperability for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime surveillance, fisheries enforcement, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism and counter-cyber threats.

Rather than a military alliance aiming for strategic deterrence, the overarching goal should be diplomatic dissuasion, underpinned by extensive working-level engagement in foreign and security policy, and military-to-military interactions.

Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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