Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2019
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN (Retd)
The recent statement by the Commander-in Chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson at a press conference in Singapore that the ‘Quad’ or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the USA, Australia, India and Japan may need to be shelved was met with a mixed reaction in the regional maritime security discourse. However, this was not a fatalistic view but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the divergent views amongst the Quad partners on certain fundamental issues. He made this statement based on his discussions with Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Chief of the Indian Navy at the recent Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi where Admiral Lanba said that there was not an immediate potential for the Quad.
The idea of a Quad was first articulated by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the East Asia Summit in 2007; in the same year he spoke of the confluence of the two oceans – the Indian and the Pacific- and introduced the term Indo-Pacific during an address to the Indian Parliament. The first attempt to shape the Quad was the decision to enhance Exercise Malabar — the annual bilateral Indo-US naval exercise into a quadrilateral construct. However, China understandably expressed strong reservations about this as an anti-China initiative. Australia succumbed but a trilateral exercise was nevertheless held between the US, Japan and India. For the next decade, while the Quad was spoken of periodically at various fora, very little was actually happening on the ground to give it concrete shape.
During this period, China embarked on its ambitious programme of shaping the maritime geopolitical architecture of the Indo-Pacific, beginning with its domination of the South China Sea, its assertiveness in the East China Sea, its territorial claims within the 9-Dash line and its ruthless intimidation of the smaller countries with whom it had contentious maritime issues including its utter disregard for international laws and conventions and cocking a snook at the existing rules-based international order.
This also coincided with Donald Trump’s assumption of office as the President of the United States and his assertive sledge-hammer approach to security challenges which contrasted sharply with his predecessor’s more nuanced and statesmanlike approach (which in hindsight seems to have been ineffective against China’s bullying tactics). It was therefore inevitable that the USA will reassert its primacy in the Indo-Pacific. It was no coincidence therefore that the revival of the Quad during the East Asia Summit in Manila in 2017 occurred during President Trump’s Asia tour. Subsequent to the discussions among mid-ranking officials of the four countries, the statement that emanated from each of the four reflected a common commitment to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ but the Indian statement made no mention of ‘Freedom of navigation and overflight’, ‘respect for international law’ or ‘maritime security, whereas Japan excluded ‘Connectivity ‘ from its statement.
Since then representatives of the four countries have met twice more in 2018 but the divergence continues and therefore the Quad has achieved very little so far. In fact, the one manifestation of the revival of the Quad should have been the participation of all four navies in the 2018 Exercise Malabar. However, Australia was excluded from that exercise and it ended up as a trilateral similar to 2007.
If indeed the Quad is a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as it is said to be, then what aspect of security is it meant to address? As a military alliance, it’s very raison d’etre would be to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. Militarily, each of the four Quad nations has a different equation with China so convergence on that is unlikely. Firstly, India will not enter into any military alliance in the region. India has very clearly stated its position to the USA on not participating in any Joint patrols in the South China Sea. India will also not willingly disturb the uneasy status quo with China on its disputed land border in the Himalayan mountains. The Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean does concern India, but it is unlikely to become an issue for confrontation in the near future.
In any case, China, much like it did a decade ago, will bring pressure to bear in its own subtle and not-so-subtle ways to ensure that the Quad is not positioned as an anti-China alignment. Therefore, if the Quad is not likely to become a military grouping, then what is it meant to achieve? Perhaps a ‘rules-based international order’ to ensure a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’? But as China always says, – ‘Whose rules, and free and open for whom?’
At two successive Raisina Dialogues held in New Delhi in January 2018 and January 2019, senior military personnel including the Chiefs of the four navies participated in a panel discussion but were guarded in their responses to questions regarding the Quad.
While a ‘Security Dialogue’ cannot fully divorce itself from a military dimension, its scope does widen considerably because it could include more universal aspects like SLOC protection, combating asymmetrical non- traditional threats at sea, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), etc. But these are the low hanging fruits that can justify its creation but not its sustenance over a longer term, as it would not be addressing ‘security’ in its entirety. In the contemporary regional calculus, areas such as Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), information sharing, greater interoperability, logistic support, etc., would also get included. India has recently established an Information Fusion Centre (IFC-IOR) near New Delhi and has invited countries of the Indo-Pacific to position liaison officers there for better MDA. These countries could synergise the efforts of multilateral naval mechanisms like the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) towards a more common understanding and for developing joint security solutions. Areas of convergence in cyber, space, AI, autonomous operations, etc., could be discussed and common areas of interest developed.
The Quad, or the Security Diamond, is primarily an Indo-Pacific construct and cannot therefore ignore the geographical and strategic centrality of ASEAN which itself has fault-lines being exploited by China. However, there has been little attempt to include ASEAN and there has also been a distinct lack of enthusiasm from ASEAN itself about the idea of the Quad. With the imminent arrival of France and the UK, with a carrier force, into the Indo-Pacific, would this have to include their concerns and perceptions and could we then be looking at a hexagon or an octagon? How would China then react? When will Russia become more active in this region? These are questions that have not been addressed as yet but will influence the future maritime security architecture of the region.
Amongst the countries comprising the Quad, there also still seems to be a lack of clarity on the geographical extent of the Indo-Pacific and not all countries may be comfortable with the geographical limits highlighted by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. The USA itself, while re-designating its Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command has not altered its geographical boundary which still ends at the west coast of India. China, on the other hand, has actually embraced the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic entity and done more than all other countries put together. It has built its artificial islands and militarised them, staked a territorial claim bounded by the 9-dash line, ignored the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, and even gotten the Philippines to agree with it. It has driven a distinct wedge into ASEAN over the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC). It has moved into the Indian Ocean, established a base in Djibouti at the western extremity of the IO, is firmly positioned in Gwadar, Pakistan, has taken over the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, sold submarines to Bangladesh and Thailand (soon) and ships to Pakistan and Malaysia and is wooing the strategically located SIDS in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean as strategic listening posts. It continues to push it’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) relentlessly, recent setbacks notwithstanding. It has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) to fund these initiatives and despite the threat of dept-trap diplomacy, countries are flocking to it for investment. It is adding more than 20 large ships and submarines to its fleet annually and has reorganised its military force structure into theatre commands with the clear intent of operating in distant waters.
The lack of cohesion in the Quad on its future shape is often attributed to the level of interaction which has yet been at the working level. Hence it will be fair to say that this is still a work in progress and once discussions graduate to the political level, more clarity and a clearer way ahead will emerge.
Commodore Anil Jai Singh is the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. His three decades in the Indian Navy as a submariner and an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) specialist included five command tenures at sea, of which four were submarine commands. He has also been a Senior Directing Staff at India’s Naval War College, the Indian Defence and Naval Adviser in London and the Deputy Assistant Chief (Maritime) Perspective Planning and Force Development in the Ministry of Defence. A post-graduate in Defence and Strategic Studies, he takes keen interest in matters maritime and writes and speaks on the subject in India and abroad. JPR status: opinion.