The Alternative Quad

The existence of an alternative Quad would be timely and promising.

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Published in AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

The Quad (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) comprises of the US, India, Japan and Australia and is a security forum and quasi-military arrangement/coalition intended as a counterweight and counterbalance against China, especially in relation to the Indo-Pacific realm/sphere.

Its roots could be traced to Exercise Malabar (now an annual affair) comprising the navies of India, Japan and the US which started back in 1992 as a (token) “passage exercise (Passex)” and encompassing a host of military operations ranging from maritime interdiction to counter-piracy operations.

The Quad seeks to express a united and cohesive geo-strategic stance and consensus in the Indo-Pacific in response to shared security challenges (i.e., China’s growing assertiveness and aggression in the region).

At the same time, the Quad, which was formed at the behest of Japan (under then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe), could well be argued as representing a kind of “reversal” of the relationship with the US – whereby the latter have been known to pressure (gaiatsu – literally “foreign pressure) the former on geopolitical and geo-economic issues. This is to ensure that Japan doesn’t deviate too far from and continues to broadly conform to the interests of the US in the region.

Meaning that the Quad could well be conceptualised as Japan’s subtle way of “pressuring” the US to match its rhetoric with action vis-à-vis concrete security and military commitments which will provide a predictable and tangible response to China’s aggressive behaviour in the region.

The revival of the Quad in 2017 (which was in hiatus following Australia’s withdrawal in 2007) would ensure strategic competition on the part of the US with China enjoys and receive renewed support from partners in the region.

In addition, there’s the trilateral pact of Aukus (which stands for Australia, UK and the US) which is also explicit and focused in countering and “pushing back” China in the Indo-Pacific region. Aukus leverages on the shared heritage of the three partner-countries (English-speaking – the two having been former British colonies).

Arguably, Aukus also represents an avenue for the UK to more openly project its hard power once again post-Brexit and elevate Anglo-American strategic relations to the next level (post post-911, i.e., in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan) where the “pivot” is now to the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China as the new and emerging “threat” to the international order.

Tensions in the Taiwan Straits has served to heighten and expedite developments and progress whereby Aukus (rather than the Quad, that is) is now at the forefront of spearheading efforts to contain and counter-balance China in military and security terms.

Only recently, the UK under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has committed to spending an extra GBP5 billion as part of the plan to bolster maritime capabilities in the Indo-Pacific – which is especially concentrated on the deployment of nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) submarines (SSN-Aukus) as part of the response to China’s military footprint in the region.

In its “Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world” (which represents an update to the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of 2021), China is regarded as employing a “… more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait” (p. 2) which constitutes “an epoch-defining challenge to the type of international order … [in security terms]”.

Hence, the UK sees the need to evolve its approach – by assuming a more robust and pro-active stance. This includes deepening “… cooperation and … alignment with … core allies and a broader group of partners” (p. 13).

It also includes working through the “… 2023 UK-France Summit [which has] strengthened …  cooperation with France in the Indo-Pacific, including by establishing the basis of a permanent European maritime presence in the region through coordinated carrier deployments” (p. 13).

From this, it wouldn’t be surprising if Aukus develops into an Indo-Pacific version of Nato (“Why the Quad Alarms China”, Kevin Rudd, Asia Society Magazine, December 9, 2021) – where the security competition and rivalry further escalates into military buildups and more tensions resulting in the coalescence of geopolitical/geostrategic interests widening from the pre-existing approaches of bandwagoning (as in the case of the Republic of China on Taiwan) and counterbalancing or hedging (e.g., Singapore) moving towards a formal pact.

Currently, the Aukus plan (in what is the first phase) is to deliver nuclear-powered submarines (built in the UK and based on the nuclear-propulsion technology by the US) to Australia – as the “frontliner” partner-nation in the Indo-Pacific under the mantra of “keep our oceans free” (“Aukus nuclear submarine deal will help ‘keep oceans free’, says Rishi Sunak”, Sky News, March 14, 2023).

Then there’s the bilateral security arrangements, e.g., between the US and the Philippines as embodied by the foundational Mutual Defense Treaty/MDT (1951). The MDT has been enhanced by the Visiting Forces Agreement/VFA (1998) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement/EDCA (2014) as well as the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (which was renewed in 2017), etc.

And, of course, the US is hoping that Asean (perhaps with the exception of Cambodia and Laos) will choose sides and bandwagon against China.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – whilst sounding innocuous – is also another “set-piece” (i.e., carefully orchestrated) effort by the US to pressure regional countries to choose sides or explicitly align their interests vis-à-vis the former by leveraging on insecurities and anxieties over the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.    

In EMIR Research article, “Indo-Pacific democracy dynamics – Impacts of the Ukrainian War on the Global Democratic Order (Part 2)”, August 19, 2022, we urge that Asean centrality must assert itself vis-à-vis the IPEF and not “fall into the trap” of playing by the “ground rules” and game of the US.

The IPEF has to be aligned and fit into the Asean Outlook (i.e., the bloc’s own declaration and stance on the Indo-Pacific region) – and not the other way around.

If need be, Asean would have to develop an alternative narrative and proposal to balance and fill in the geopolitical and geo-security gaps in the IPEF via the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), etc.

In short, Asean would have to be a real alternative to both the Quad and, by extension, Aukus. To be sure, not in military (operational) terms as such but the broader geo-security and geo-politics framework and dynamics.

Asean plays a critical and vital role as the “third party” in the Indo-Pacific – where the regional bloc can mediate both sides and ensure that tensions (in contradistinction from specific disputes as such, to be sure) are mitigated and conciliated, thereby helping to “re-balance”/”re-calibrate” the situation.

However, Asean shouldn’t (and obviously can’t) pre-empt and prevent the rise and emergence of an alternative Quad that’s even more significant/potent and which poses a systemic challenge and rivalry to the geostrategic calculus of the US both within and beyond the Indo-Pacific.

That is, the coalescence/coming together of Russia, China, India & Iran as a solid geo-political and geo-economic bloc.

Although at present seems to be an “impossible” or “improbable/implausible” (depending on one’s analytical predilections) dream and ambition, nonetheless, it’s an ideal as counter-weight against efforts by the US to manipulate the configurations and dynamics of the global order as remaining within a unipolar framework where the country retains its incontestable/undisputable leadership role (as primus inter pares, “first among equals”).

It’d be a nightmare scenario for the US.

The concretisation of such a Quad would be a signal that the US containment of China is a salient failure. Instead, the US will then find its hegemony “blocked”/”contained”. The so-called rules-based order (RBO) under its tutelage will be frustrated and undermined.

Following the Aukus deal was the announcement that Saudi Arabia has re-engaged in what’s a rapprochement (i.e., resumption of bilateral good-will) with Iran (a form of entente cordiale – paralleling that of UK and France) in a deal brokered by China in early March this year

That it took place in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan can’t be underestimated as regards the significance – for since the US has been both at the forefront and background in driving a wedge between Sunni and Shia Islam for decades now (ever since the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979).

Later, Saudi Arabia announced on March 29 that it’s taking steps to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) by becoming a dialogue partner (“Riyadh joins Shanghai Cooperation Organization as ties with Beijing grow”, Reuters, March 29, 2023).

The SCO is an emergent inter-governmental and Eurasian-centric force aimed at addressing and tackling traditional and non-traditional security as well as other concerns/issues (e.g., economic, energy, humanitarian, infrastructure, etc.).  

Notably, Russia (co-founder), India and Iran are already members (Iran joined as full member last year).

As a post-Cold War creature, the SCO dilutes the impact of the Soviet Union’s fragmentation and breakup and compensates for Nato’s expansionism on Russia’s western frontier/flank via Poland, the Baltic countries and Ukraine by ensuring that Central Asia remains geopolitically intact and under Moscow’s sphere of influence, as before (the US was able to establish temporary bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan post-911 due to Russia’s buy-in).

As it is, China as the fulcrum and leading member of the SCO is regarded as playing an important mediating role in West Asia and the Middle East (“Why Saudi Arabia Is Following Iran to Join China and Russia’s Security Bloc”, Newsweek, March 29, 2023).

With that, the alternative Quad with China taking the lead isn’t that far-fetched.

Of course, this would mean that the original Quad with India as one of the partners die a “natural death” as the South Asian superpower (in its own right) drifts away from the US geo-strategic perspective and agenda and seeking to reshape the geopolitical architecture and global order towards becoming more multipolar and paradoxically, by extension, less divisive.

A situation where conflicts are resolved according to the immediate circumstances affecting the parties concerned (e.g., bilateral disputes over border issues) and not manipulated to serve as proxies for the wider geostrategic and geopolitical interests of external exigencies.

The alternative Quad would represent a massive and almost “impregnable” geopolitical and geo-security fortress with Central Asia – including Iran – as the “core” ground (of contest/contestation).

Instead of the SCO (as in the case of the EU) expanding further outwards, it could be the impetus and catalyst and “staging post” for a narrower development in the form of the alternative Quad with the other partners as “backup” and, in effect, “second line of defence”.

In this regard, the alternative Quad could also operate as a bloc within a bloc.

And a security organisation within a non-military alliance.

A new mode and architecture of regionalism.

It’ll also bring into relief and focus the geostrategy/grand strategy of naval/sea power as envisioned by Admiral Mahan (“The Geopolitical Vision of Alfred Thayer Mahan”, The Diplomat, December 30, 2014) – to counter the concentration of “near”-contiguous landmass “(indirectly” – by way of the Central Asian member-states of the SCO) comprising the alternative Quad (with its interior lines advantages).

Be that as it may, the existence of the/an alternative Quad would be timely and promising.

It’d pave the way towards greater promotion of foreign policy independence of external/outside players (instead of co-dependence and dependence) which may only aggravate rather than downplaying and defusing existing geopolitical tensions.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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