U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Tokyo this week for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” with Japan, India and Australia is an important step in creating an institution that will bring critical public goods to the Indo-Pacific to accelerate its development, promote stability and be characterized by a rules-based order in which states in the region agree on a common set of rules.
For that to occur, the Quad first needs to keep the United States engaged in the region in a comprehensive manner. This needs to include economic, diplomatic, and security commitments. Second, the Quad needs to be an instrument that allows the U.S. to constructively engage in the region. Third, the Quad needs to be an instrument that inculcates multipolarity into the Indo-Pacific to ensure that region does not evolve into to a unipolar Indo-Pacific region.
These will be critical to ensure the region does not evolve according to the deepening U.S.-China strategic competition.
The problem with the Quad as it is currently conceived by the Trump administration is a formulation that will garner little support by its current members and saliently by Southeast Asian states, the countries that are at the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific and the countries that have the most to lose if the Quad is an institution that is primarily an anti-China grouping.
By Pompeo highlighting that the Quad is meant to “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us,” and the focus on pushing back against assertive Chinese behavior in and around the Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea, and along the Indo-Chinese border only strengthens the concerns of Southeast Asian states that the Quad will elevate tensions in the region and place them in the difficult position of choosing between their economic benefactor China and the U.S..
How would Southeast Asian states like to see the Quad develop and is there a role for Japan and others states under the current formulation?
By focusing on what Southeast Asian states and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific need and incorporating their concerns into a reconfigured Quad, Japan, current members of the group and other Indo-Pacific stakeholders can get a buy-in for a revamped Quad.
Through recognizing ASEAN centrality and focusing on infrastructure and connectivity, strengthening the resilience and diversity of supply chains in the region, and dealing with nontraditional security issues, the Quad would likely find more support in the region.
Here, Japan has already paved the way in terms of diversifying and making supply chains more resilient with its supplementary budget for fiscal 2020, which included subsidies to promote domestic investment in supporting supply chains (¥220 billion), and for supporting diversification of global supply chains (¥23.5 billion) as well.
Working with current Quad partners, the EU, and other countries such as Canada with an enduring interest in international development, resources should be pooled and or coordinated to building infrastructure, enhancing connectivity and strengthening the resilience and diversity of supply chains in the region.
The tools to accomplish this task are already available. For example, both the Australia-Japan-United States Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership and the Japan-EU Infrastructure and Connectivity Agreement are focused on promoting infrastructure and furthering connectivity. Coordinating their activities and bringing in additional partners could enhance their cohesiveness and effectiveness in the provision of critical public goods for the Indo-Pacific region.
The Blue Dot Network funded by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and its Japanese and Australian counterparts to certify infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific that pass the litmus test of high standards of transparency, sustainability, and developmental impact can also shift the presently securitized Quad towards an institution that also includes developmental priorities.
By in part focusing on infrastructure and connectivity, the Quad can strengthen the resilience and diversity of supply chains in the region to allow Southeast Asia states more strategic autonomy to maneuver between the great powers.
These approaches are constructive ways that the Quad can accrue valuable buy-in in the capitals of the region and for Japan, India, and Australia, current members of the Quad, who cannot escape their economic interdependence with China.
The provision of the collective capacities of the Quad in nontraditional security cooperation is another area that would garner support in the region. Here, the template already exists with the current Quad members having engaged in joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed over 250,000 people throughout much of the Indo-Pacific.
The littoral states of the Indo-Pacific would welcome a Quad that includes a strong commitment to dealing with natural disasters, piracy, illegal fishing, and the growing threats to marine and coastal zones due to global warming.
Here one could easily envision a Quad plus formulation that includes EU states, Canada, and other actors with track records in HA/DR, search and rescue, and championing multilateral approaches to nontraditional security challenges.
While these proposed Quad activities would contribute to increased stakeholder buy-in in the region and more sustainability of the security dialogue. Notwithstanding, we should also be clear-eyed that the Quad does require a security dimension to deal with an increasingly assertive China as evidenced by Indo-China border violence, hyperbole towards Taiwan, enhanced gray zone and blue-hull naval operations in the South China Seas and East China Sea, and the adoption of the new National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020.
With this track record, it is clear that China is bent on reshaping the rules-based order that has been in place since the end of World War II to secure its core interests and make the region conducive to its one-party state.
The question for current and potentially future Quad members is how to craft a security partnership that effectively and firmly deals with China’s assertive behavior?
Here there is no silver bullet.
Contributing to capacity-building of states on the front-line of Chinese assertive behavior will be critical. This means providing training and tools such as coast guard vessels, maritime domain awareness technologies and intelligence so that states in the region can manage their bilateral challenges with China on more even ground. It also means more joint training exercises focusing on HA/DR and search and rescue to develop interoperability and experience.
These kinds of cooperative activities should take place alongside multilateral freedom of navigation operations and multilateral diplomacy with Quad members and like-minded countries to resolutely defend the rules-based order.
While not an exhaustive list, these initiatives will need to occur in tandem with the aforementioned joint infrastructure and connectivity proposal to strengthen the economies, institutions, and indigenous capacities of Southeast and South Asian states so that they can help the region develop into a multipolar region that has strategic autonomy to shape the region’s evolution.
The Quad ’s future will mostly depend on the trajectory of China’s development in the coming years. Under President Xi, China has moved away from Deng Xiaoping motto of “keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead — but aim to do something big” to his view that “it is time for U.S. to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.” This movement towards center stage has come hand-in-hand with a hardening of its authoritarian system, assertive behavior in its periphery, and the egregious treatment of the Uighurs.
This trajectory seems locked in with the removal of term limits for President Xi and the conviction that the U.S. is hell-bent on containing China, arresting its development. and changing its political system.
The Quad ’s future will necessarily have an important security pillar with China in mind. However still, without pillars that focus on building infrastructure, enhancing connectivity, strengthening the resilience and diversity of supply chains in the region, and dealing with nontraditional security issues the Quad will not be effective at keeping the U.S. engaged in the region or at creating a multipolar Indo-Pacific that is rules-based which is perhaps the most ideal way to prevent a Chinese unipolar region from emerging.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.