New Delhi – No matter how the domestic debate in Japan evaluates Shinzo Abe’s stint as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, he will leave a strong legacy for successfully crafting the quadrilateral security dialogue process in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad consists of the United States and its major allies in Asia — Japan, India and Australia.
If Abe’s “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech in the Indian Parliament on Aug. 22, 2007, momentously explicated the birth of the Indo-Pacific narrative for years to come, his “democratic security diamond” proposition in 2012 underpinned the formalization of Quad 2.0 in later years.
While such foreign policy laurels distinguish Abe from his predecessors, it needs to be seen to what extent Abe has succeeded in cementing the Quad process — from Quad 2.0 to the “Quad plus” narrative — in order to strengthen Tokyo’s security stance internationally. In other words, how does a Quad plus framework compliment Abe’s security doctrines in a contested Indo-Pacific region?
While the establishment of Quad 2.0 can be attributed to Abe’s foreign policy and ideological overtures, Quad plus has emerged as a coalition of “interested countries” led by the U.S. that Tokyo has shown support for. The Abe administration is aware that a Quad plus narrative, though still abstract, offers a strategic direction to the durability of Japan’s international activism that Abe has built over the years.
It allows Japan to stay engaged with the alliance partners while establishing new contacts outside the alliance framework with countries in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean region and other continents that intend to hedge more openly against an assertive China. In other words, the Quad plus framework draws on Abe’s global intent to build the “broader Asia” coalition that he pitched in the Indian Parliament way back in 2007.
Abe realizes that Quad 2.0 has the potential to emerge as a tightly knit alliance in the maritime and security domain. India’s military logistical agreements with Australia, the impending agreement with Japan on an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and the evolving India-U.S. defense partnership are emerging as a benchmark for the progress of Quad 2.0. Such a closer maritime-military nexus might not be the case in a Quad plus arrangement. Hence, Abe’s acceptance of Quad plus is linked to strengthening a global architecture that would allow Tokyo to gain on an economic, military and diplomatic scale through greater consensus-building exercises vis-a-vis China.
Importantly, the Quad plus framework could be advantageous for Japan on several fronts. First, it provides an opportunity for Japan to execute a long-term economic recovery plan and the creation of a sustainable economic post-COVID-19 structure in Asia. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Japan’s economy will see a 5.2 percent contraction in 2020, which will be followed by a 3 percent recovery rate in 2021. An economic alliance framework led by the Quad nations and supported by the Quad Plus countries (New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam in particular) can go a long way in helping Abe strategize his economic recovery plans.
For instance, Japan is New Zealand’s fourth-largest trading partner: Two-way trade totaled $8.8 billion in 2019. Via a Quad plus synergy, Japan could refocus on efforts that were initiated in 1974, such as the establishment of the Japan-New Zealand Business Council, which contributed to boosting private sector growth. Further, utilizing the young and labor-intensive demographics of countries like Vietnam could help in moving production out of China.
While South Korea may require a more diplomatic touch, Vietnam can prove to be a major partner in Abe’s manufacturing departure from China. Ties have grown through the Vietnam-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement over the years while a survey by Japanese consultancy NNA Japan Co. revealed that Vietnam has emerged as a preferred foreign direct investment destination for Japanese investors with India coming a close second.
Second, under the Quad plus framework, Tokyo could strengthen its strategic synergy in the maritime and defense domain, outside its relationship with the U.S., India and Australia, with the new set of countries such as Vietnam and New Zealand. Most of the Quad plus nations are vulnerable to Chinese aggressiveness; even amid the disruptions resulting from the global pandemic, China has continued its aggressive posturing in the Indo-Pacific.
By gradually but surely adopting the Indo-Pacific construct, New Zealand’s pull away from China is noticeable. Abe and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s summit meeting in 2019 resulted in a joint statement titled “Taking the Japan-New Zealand Strategic Cooperative Partnership to the next level,” which aimed to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” while expressing concern over the tense situation in the South China Sea.
Concurrently, as part of an intensified ASEAN engagement, Vietnam has begun to figure prominently in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo Pacific” vision. Even South Korea, with the decision to continue with the GSOMIA defense intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, highlighted a common threat perception both nations share vis-a-vis China and how that extends beyond their strained ties. A Quad plus proposition allows Tokyo to maneuver its foreign policy within these growing strategic gambits.
Third, while Abe’s long-cherished dream to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution may remain unfulfilled, his attempt to revitalize the nation’s defense and security structure, including boosting defense exports and building technology, is crucial to Japan’s future. A focus on defense-sector growth and exports is vital toward fulfilling this aim. In this context, traditional Quad partners like India and Australia along with prospective “plus” countries such as Vietnam and New Zealand take on added importance.
Over the past few years, Vietnam has emerged as a major defense market, with a rising defense budget and a wish to reduce dependence on Russia. New Zealand in 2016 also announced plans to maintain annual increases to its military budget that will manage defense spending at an average of 1 percent of its GDP until 2030. The possibilities of Japan building its defense sector as a result of a Quad plus connection with these countries are hence significant.
Fourth, a Quad plus framework allows Japan to build a global consensus that defends a rules-based order by trying to change the character of existing multilateral institutions that are being challenged by China’s increasing authoritarian or revisionist policies. In a post-COVID-19 narrative, the Quad plus process accelerates a context for Japan’s cherished dream of supporting new multilateral frameworks or connotations that exclude China.
The D-10 (democratic 10) alliance is one such medium that Japan would like to view in strategic consonance with the Quad plus as it supports an anti-China narrative globally. An expanded Group of Seven framework is another forum that Japan would like to support. Likewise, Quad plus could gradually reinvigorate the debate pertaining to a reformed U.N. Security Council permanent membership that Japan aspires for.
Japan’s search for security will continue to draw its analogy from Abe’s decade-old Quad doctrine even after he leaves office. How the post-Abe leadership translates the framework of “democratic diamond” to a cohesive security platform that Japan has been searching for under its Quad to Quad plus process remains to be seen.
Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. He is the series editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.”