The busy agenda flowing from the mini-Quad meeting in Hiroshima is not going to change the world, as Biden declared. It may be more of a smokescreen, disguising the Quad’s evolution toward a less China-confronting, less defence-oriented mission. Australia needs to catch up with this – and hedge our strategic investments. The Quad deserves continuing support – but it is best to be realistic, writes Milner.
One advantage of the Quad is that it helps to keep the United States committed to the Asian region – something that attracts wide support in Asia, and reassures an anxious Australian population.
The Quad has also deepened Australia’s relations with two major Asian powers, Japan and India - with more going on with these two countries, at least in security matters, than ever before.
Thirdly, the Quad still sends a signal to Beijing – a warning that if China becomes too assertive then other countries, quite powerful countries, may combine militarily to oppose them.
Against these strengths, the grouping has always had one great weakness. Talk about like-mindedness - about a team of democracies driven by a vision of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’- downplays the actual disunity. India’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine highlighted one element. India has certainly moved closer to the United States – but its long-term preference for ‘strategic autonomy’ is far different from Australia’s unambiguous commitment to America.
Apart from being a member of the Quad, India also takes part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-Russia-led grouping that, like the original Quad concept, is an exercise in adversarial not inclusive regionalism. India obtains much defence equipment from Russia - and, in the words of a senior Indian analyst, it tends to see Russia as “an honest broker in preventing escalation” in its tensions with China.
As for Japan’s perspective, we cannot assume that the sharp, China-confronting statements of Japan’s recent Ambassador to Canberra caught the nuances of Tokyo policy. Japan, of course, has a long and complex relationship with China – and its business community is acknowledged to have experience and success in keeping doors open. The current Foreign Minister is not a hardliner – and emphasised recently that the Quad is “not for security issues, nor military issues”.
Those believing the Quad would be a muscular response to an assertive China must find little comfort in this observation. It suggests that right now, the grouping’s disunity may be less a cause for caution than the possibility that its purpose is quietly changing.
In the past, when Prime Minister Morrison spoke of the Quad as a “balance” against China, Secretary of State Pompeo described it as a “true security framework” to “counter the challenge of China”. By 2022, the tone was changing. The United States ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ of that year highlighted the strengthening of “Quad cooperation on global health, climate change, critical and emerging technology …” and so forth.
Was the Biden administration adding substance to the grouping – or deliberately softening its strategic intent? Not surprisingly, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – a long-term supporter of the Quad and the US alliance more generally – is now calling for the Quad to reaffirm its security and defence purposes.
We must not read too much into the cancellation of Biden’s visit – or the brevity of the Quad’s Hiroshima meeting - but neither suggests that the Quad is currently a compelling priority
One revealing aspect of the Quad’s evolution is the changing formulation of ‘Indo-Pacific’. As a vehicle for promoting a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, the Quad was perceived as a liberal democratic project. This has troubled not only China but also ASEAN leaders - who favour inclusive rather than adversarial regional institutions. Those defending ‘inclusiveness’ – meaning inclusive of China – tended to prefer the term ‘Asia-Pacific’.
The advocates of ‘Indo-Pacific’ have gained ground – but at a cost. As the term has spread, it has also been redefined in less adversarial terms. When ASEAN accepted ‘Indo-Pacific’ in 2019, it was shrewd in insisting on the principles of “inclusivity”- and “ASEAN Centrality” – and this formulation has been influential. Modi’s “free, open, inclusive” Indo-Pacific gels with the ASEAN version – and when the Korean government finally adopted an ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ this year it called it an “inclusive initiative”. Secretary of State Blinken is another who has begun using ‘inclusive’ – as has Prime Minister Albanese, at least in recent months. In the recent Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement, the grouping committed to an “inclusive and resilient” Indo-Pacific.
This transformation of ‘Indo-Pacific’ must please ASEAN policy-makers – and, in fact, it is accompanied by another element in the evolution of the Quad, the growing determination to engage closely with ASEAN.
There is opportunity in this for Australia, but here’s the rub. As ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner, with decades of involvement in the region, we ought to be leaders in bringing the Quad closer to ASEAN. In fact, we have dropped the ball in Southeast Asia in recent years. Focused on military power and the Anglosphere, we have neglected diplomatic influence
Australia’s current government says it is rebuilding our relations across Southeast Asia – and there is much to do. As argued in a recent Asialink report, one way to broaden Australia’s regional identity, and thus our influence, could be to ramp up cooperation with South Korea. Together, we might then put teeth in the support for ‘ASEAN centrality’ – which both countries have promised.
Investing more in ASEAN while continuing our commitment to the Quad is more than a hedging endeavour. If the Quad is indeed moving to a softer, inclusive incarnation, Australia ought to be out in front – countering the current perception that we are an anxious nation, preoccupied with a search for security partnerships. In the past, the Hawke/Keating and Howard governments helped to promote inclusive regionalism - with APEC and the East Asia Summit. There is an opportunity now for the Albanese government to add to that record.
Anthony Milner is Senior Adviser at Asialink and Visiting Professor at the University of Malaya
This article was originally published on The Australian Financial Review on 23 May 2023