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The meeting of Chiefs of Defence of Staff of QUAD nations in the US highlighted the need to resist the increasing aggressiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific Region. Senior military commanders of QUAD nations: the US, India, Japan and Australia met in California from 15-17 May 2023 to discuss the security concerns of the Indo-Pacific Region. From India’s side, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Anil Chauhan, attended this meeting. An officer of the vice-admiral rank from the UK Chief of Defence Staff was expected to be present, considering that Australia, the UK and the US have their alliance, AUKUS, whose aims and objectives overlap with QUAD’s security concerns.
Malabar naval exercises of QUAD nations are scheduled in Aug this year in Sydney. This vertex conference of military commanders of these nations is considered a game-changer. So far, the leaders of the QUAD have stepped gingerly around the issue of military cooperation. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping, in the presence of then-US President Barack Obama in Sep 2015, had said that Beijing did not intend to pursue the militarisation of contested Spratly Islands, the PLA has done just the opposite by militarising the entire South China Sea.
After the 2020 Chinese inroads in East Ladakh, India is convinced that China has no intention of solving the border issues bilaterally by mutual agreement. China is pressuring India in the Eastern sector, primarily in the Siliguri corridor. Keeping this in view, India decided to take help from multilateral platforms such as QUAD to rein in the assertiveness of China on the issues related to the border and in the Indo-Pacific Region. China has been trying to encircle India through a string of pearls and seaports in the Indian Ocean and trying to deny it access in the Pacific and far Pacific region, including the South China Sea.
China’s increasing threats in the Indo-Pacific Region. In the Indo-Pacific Region, China uses military and economic influence to arm-twist its neighbours, raises unlawful maritime claims, threaten maritime shipping lanes, and destabilise territories adjoining China. This increases the risks of miscalculation and conflicts. QUAD proposes a free and open Indo-Pacific Region. “China is increasingly using its artificial islands as bases for harassment operation – to curtail access of Southeast Asian coastal states to offshore oil, gas and fisheries.” Assistant Secretary David R. Stilwell.
China poses numerous threats in the Indo-Pacific Region, with substantial geopolitical implications, and these could be enumerated in succeeding paras:
Territorial Disputes: China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea pose a significant threat to regional stability. China’s expanding naval footprint and its construction of artificial islands with military installations have heightened tensions with neighbouring countries like Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.
Military Modernisation: China’s rapid military modernisation efforts, including developing advanced missiles, submarines, aircraft carriers, and cyber warfare capabilities denote hegemonic intentions. These are raising concerns among regional powers. This military buildup challenges the established security order based on US aeronaval dominance.
Economic Coercion: China’s growing economic influence in the region enables it to exert coercive pressure on neighbouring countries. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China provides loans and investments to countries in the region, often leading to debt dependency and potential loss of economic sovereignty. Economic coercion tactics have been used to gain political leverage and control strategic assets, a widely used practice in international economics since time immemorial.
Cybersecurity Threats: China is known for its state-sponsored cyber espionage activities targeting governments, corporations, and critical infrastructure in the region. These cyber intrusions significantly compromise and violate national security, intellectual property, and economic stability in other states.
Human Rights Concerns: China’s treatment of its own citizens, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, raises human rights concerns. The oppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, mass surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and restrictions on freedom of speech and expression are issues that draw international criticism and have regional implications.
Expansion of Influence: China seeks to expand its regional political influence through diplomatic initiatives, economic partnerships, and military engagements. Its diplomatic efforts aim to weaken regional alliances, undermine international norms, and increase its preponderance.
Disruptive Technology and Information Warfare: China’s advancements in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G, and space capabilities have implications for regional security. Additionally, China employs information warfare tactics to shape narratives and influence public opinion domestically and internationally as other great powers do.
China has announced the signing of a security pact with the Solomon Islands. That could pave the way for other Chinese security deals overseas in the Indo-Pacific Region. This raised concern in Australia, New Zealand, the US, and many other nations. Before this, China established its base in Djibouti in East Africa, termed as a logistic support system. However, as per the satellite images, this has been transformed into a naval base, where personnel and materiel of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are stationed. Through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, China seeks to expand its military footprint to protect its interests. Significantly, China aims to develop global logistics and base infrastructure to allow military expansion. It misuses the commercial arrangements at the host country ports to support military functions and hide the real purpose of these facilities.
China is asserting itself in the Indo-Pacific by supplying military equipment to Bangladesh, Thailand (three submarines), Myanmar, Sri Lanka (frigate), etc. China is colonising the region through debt diplomacy in those countries that took loans from China, such as Sri Lanka (where the Chinese funded a strategically important port) and Myanmar where Beijing is taking advantage of internecine conflicts to exploit natural resources in certain areas. In 2012, the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea was invaded and barricaded by China in violation of the Philippines’ legitimate claims. Also, China’s claims have been rising in the region leading to the territorial dispute with Vietnam and Indonesia. The Chinese pose a hegemonic threat on the trade routes.
The QUAD, also known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is a strategic forum comprising the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. It serves as a platform for these nations to discuss regional security issues and cooperate on various fronts. Here are some critical aspects of how the QUAD is geared up to counter China:
Security Cooperation: The QUAD countries engage in joint military exercises, naval patrols, and information sharing to enhance regional security and deter potential threats. This cooperation helps maintain a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific region.
Infrastructure and Connectivity: One of the focal points of the QUAD is promoting infrastructure development and connectivity initiatives that align with international standards, transparency, and the rule of law. This approach aims to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has raised concerns about debt dependency and lack of transparency in some countries.
Maritime Security: Given the importance of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, the QUAD nations collaborate to ensure freedom of navigation and respect for international maritime laws. This includes conducting joint naval exercises, sharing information on maritime threats, and promoting cooperation in maritime domain awareness.
Economic Cooperation: The QUAD countries also seek to enhance economic ties, promote regional investment, and support infrastructure projects that foster sustainable growth. This approach is an alternative to China’s economic influence and mitigates concerns about debt-trap diplomacy although it must be noted that global lending agencies such as the World Bank and IMF also impose stringent conditionalities and often harsh terms.
Diplomatic Engagement: QUAD members engage in diplomatic efforts to align their policies and perspectives on regional issues. This involves regular high-level meetings, consultations, and dialogues to exchange views and coordinate strategies on regional security, counterterrorism, cyber threats, and emerging technologies.
It’s important to note that the QUAD’s primary focus is not solely on countering China but instead on upholding a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. While the QUAD’s activities may have implications for China’s regional influence, its primary aim is to maintain stability, promote shared values, and ensure the security and prosperity of the region as a whole, notwithstanding the fact that the USA, a QUAD member has not signed the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Seas) treaty and does not intend to join it or be bound by it.
On 24 May 2022, a joint statement in Tokoyo, Japan, reiterated that QUAD is a force to reckon with. “Just over one year ago, Leaders met for the first time. Today in Tokyo, we convene for our fourth meeting, and our second in person, to demonstrate, at a time of profound global challenge, that the Quad is a force for good, committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region. In our first year of cooperation, we established the Quad’s dedication to a positive and practical agenda; in our second year, we are committed to delivering on this promise, making the region more resilient for the 21st century”.
The QUAD is now a force both at regional and global levels. In a joint statement of Foreign Ministers of QUAD nations, it was re-affirmed, “We reiterate our conviction that the Quad, acting as a force for regional and global good, will be guided by the priorities of the Indo-Pacific region through its positive and constructive agenda. Through the Quad, we seek to support the region through practical cooperation on contemporary challenges such as health security, climate change and the clean energy transition, critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure and connectivity, addressing the debt crisis through sustainable, transparent and fair lending and financing practices, space cooperation, cyber-security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security and counterterrorism.”
Recommendations: Addressing the Chinese challenge in the Indo-Pacific region requires a multifaceted approach that involves diplomatic, economic, and military strategies. Some critical elements that could be considered:
Strengthening of regional alliances and partnerships: Fostering closer ties and cooperation among countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including the QUAD, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and other regional organisations. This can be done through joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic coordination.
Indulging in diplomatic engagement: Engaging actively in diplomacy to promote dialogue, resolve disputes, and establish norms and rules governing the region’s behaviour. Also, encourage multilateral negotiations and use platforms like the UNO to address concerns and assert international law.
Establishing economic cooperation and Investment: There is a requirement to enhance economic integration and promote free and fair trade in the region. This could be achieved through initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Encouraging infrastructure development and investment in countries in the Indo-Pacific would provide alternatives to mitigate Chinese influence in the region.
Strengthening military capabilities: It is imperative to invest in military capabilities to maintain a credible deterrent and safeguarding the region’s security. This includes modernising defence forces, enhancing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and building a robust maritime presence. Strengthening defence cooperation agreements and trade relationships with regional partners would boost peace and security in the region.
Cybersecurity and technology cooperation: Collaborating with regional partners to develop cybersecurity measures and protect critical infrastructures is essential. Further, technology cooperation could be fostered to reduce dependence on Chinese technology and secure supply chains.
Countering Chinese influence operations: Addressing and countering the influence of Chinese operations, including disinformation campaigns, economic coercion, and political interference. Further, it is important to promote media literacy and develop tools to identify and combat disinformation.
Human Rights and Democratic Values: Uphold and promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the region. Encourage countries to adhere to international standards and norms and support civil society organisations that advocate for human rights and democratic principles, with the proviso however that many such organisations are controversial and can be accused of interfering in countries’ internal affairs on behalf of another power.
People-to-People Exchanges: Encourage cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges to promote understanding and cooperation among regional countries. This can foster long-term relationships and help counter divisive narratives.
It is important to note that regional dynamics and the response to the Chinese threat may vary depending on specific circumstances and the interests of individual countries. Collaboration, coordination, and shared objectives among like-minded nations will be crucial in effectively countering aggressive Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific region.
Conclusion: In 2017, at Manila on the sideline of the ASEAN meet, leaders of India, the US, Japan and Australia decided to revive QUAD to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific Region. In the first meeting in 2021, QUAD leaders issued a joint statement by adopting the spirit of the QUAD-free and open Indo-Pacific Region and rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Sea. Today, the QUAD countries have a combined GDP worth USD 36.7 trillion.
In the early twenty-first century, when the US was embroiled in overseas campaigns and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it paid less attention to the Asia-Pacific Region. China filled the vacuum and carved out a widening zone of influence.
In addition to the QUAD, India has defence and security ties up with the US, Australia and Japan. The US, Japan and Australia have trilateral defence security cooperation. The latest endeavour to buttress ‘Anglo-Saxon” strategic interests in the Pacific is AUKUS. a tripartite military alliance between the US, UK, and Australia related to the ‘Five Eyes’ Intelligence-gathering system.
The QUAD leaders did meet on the sideline of the G-7 conference in Japan from 19-21 May 2023 after the QUAD leaders’ meeting in Sydney, Australia, on 24 May 2023, had been cancelled due to the non-availability of the President of the US, Joe Biden.
In the Indo-Pacific Region, great power rivalry, massive military investment and contemporary territorial disputes have all made a war more plausible. Quietly, the QUAD has also found a solid footing in the realm of security and defence through cooperation and joint initiatives between its members.
While there is every reason to endeavour for an all-encompassing Indo-Pacific cooperation framework, the QUAD should not be hurriedly extended. A precipitate expansion could dilute its focus. This should not rule out engagement with diverse countries such as some South American nations, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam in the Quad Plus format. The Quad is here to stay. It is not an ocean foam that will dissipate very soon.
The QUAD’s future will hinge on the choices that China makes in its foreign strategy in the future. The greater Beijing’s belligerence, the faster the QUAD’s military-security agenda will gather steam.