Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
The 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) currently underway in Manila saw the four-nation quadrilateral consultative process being revived by officials of the US, Japan, India and Australia on the sidelines, even as the heads of government deliberated on a range of issues. The 19-member EAS brings together leaders of the 10-member ASEAN group along with all the relevant Indo-Pacific nations that include the four quad nations, as also China, Russia, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand.
The quad was first mooted in 2007 as a multilateral maritime partnership among the four democracies led by the US and India, and was envisaged as a logical extension to the bilateral naval exercises that India had established with the other three nations. However, Beijing took umbrage at the time and issued démarches to all the four countries and Australia was the first to withdraw from this proposed quad grouping. India and Japan also followed suit and the quad went into cold storage.
President Trump, even while praising his Chinese counterpart Xi in an effusive manner endorsed the Japanese proposal to have a meeting of the quad at the officials level on the sidelines of the Manila summit. It is instructive to note that the statements issued by all four nations dwell on the shared vision of an ‘inter-connected Indo-Pacific that would be ‘free, open, prosperous and inclusive.’
However, over the last two years, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the maritime domain, demonstrated by its unilateral rejection of the international tribunal award over the South China Sea dispute has triggered considerable anxiety in the region. The directly affected ASEAN states have been differently persuaded with fiscal incentive or intimidated by China and the regional unease is palpable.
Beijing was also able to split ASEAN and prevail upon nations such as Cambodia and now the Philippines under its new leadership to break ranks and dilute ASEAN cohesion and unity. This was evidenced in July 2012 at Phnom Penh, where, for the first time since inception, an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting witnessed an anomalous development — where no final statement was issued due to differences over how China and the SCS dispute was to be referred to in the final document. This was to be repeated in November 2015 at the ASEAN Defence Ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Beijing’s assertive profile in the regional maritime domain includes the rejection of the UNCLOS provisions; the consolidation of its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, wherein China has set up its first overseas military ‘facility’ in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa; and the Xi Jinping focus on the BRI (Belt Road Initiative with its maritime emphasis).
China, in summary, is signalling its intent to revise the existing status quo in the Indo-Pacific which has led to a revival of the quad consultative process. This resurrection of the 2007 process began with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlining US intent in a major policy speech on October 18 in Washington DC.
The gist of the Tillerson formulation was that China was behaving in a less than responsible manner and that along with India, the US would seek to provide the necessary security and stability in the Indo-Pacific along with like-minded nations. Predictably, China warned that it could not be ‘contained’ in this manner, Japan welcomed the US initiative and experts wanted to see if US President Trump would endorse this position during his East Asia visit that included a bilateral with President Xi (November 9) and the EAS Summit (November 13).
To his credit, President Trump, even while praising his Chinese counterpart Xi in an effusive manner endorsed the Japanese proposal to have a meeting of the quad at the officials level on the sidelines of the Manila summit. It is instructive to note that the statements issued by all four nations dwell on the shared vision of an ‘inter-connected Indo-Pacific that would be ‘free, open, prosperous and inclusive.’
The sub-text of the messaging will not be lost on Beijing where any reference to freedom of navigation (FON) and respect for international law is seen as a criticism of its rejection of the tribunal award over the SCS. However, all the nations involved, including the ASEAN members have kept the door open for Beijing to become a stakeholder in maintaining the equivalent of good order at sea in a consensual manner.
From the US down to the smaller nations that comprise the EAS, the engagement with Beijing varies from high dependency (Cambodia) to a visible reluctance not to rock the bilateral boat (South Korea, Australia) to an ambivalent posture (Japan and India) and Russia remains opaque in not tipping its hand in a binary manner in the second quad, the prickly one, comprising US-China-Japan- India .
Delhi will have to read the Manila tea leaves astutely before making major policy commitments to the quad or its individual members. PM Modi’s meeting with EAS leaders, particularly with President Trump and PM Abe will provide significant indicators of how the quad is taken forward in the near future. If more like-minded nations such as Germany and France, who are stakeholders in freedom of the seas also join the partnership, the possibility of a democratic ‘diamond’ forming in the Indo-Pacific can be envisioned.
Whether the ‘diamond necklace’ will complement or be in opposition to the ‘string of pearls’ would be shaped by the strategic determination arrived at by President Xi Jinping. China’s emphasis on seeking harmony is highlighted as a deeply embedded cultural characteristic. Whether Xi’s China Dream will be realised by strengthening the existing global status quo, or through a revisionist agenda that tramples other sensitivities will be the critical bellwether for the Indo-Pacific region over the next decade. Calm seas or a roiled ocean?
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the Daily News and Analysis and has been reposted with the permission of the author.Image credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.