The grouping of “like-minded” democracies comprising Japan, the US, Australia and India to buttress the rising power of China has only one beneficiary – Tokyo. Indeed, it could create economic and diplomatic headaches for the other three.
Last weekend, officials from the US, India, Australia and Japan met in Manila on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits to discuss regional and global cooperation. The meeting was the first since the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” was first mooted by Japan a decade ago.
The genesis of this so-called Quad stems from an idea that it is better to think, or talk, about an “Indo-Pacific” region than an “Asia-Pacific” region to draw India into a grouping that is clearly aimed at buffering China’s power. Reacting to the Quad meeting over the weekend, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said regional cooperation should neither be politicised nor exclusionary.
For Japan, the Quad boosts the security of its international trade routes at little cost. While the grouping could strain ties with China, the already frosty relations between Beijing and Tokyo mean Japan has little to lose.
Some have postulated that the Quad will drive Russia and China closer together. While Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the Quad as another example of the US attempting to maintain its unipolar world dominance and will feel for China, Moscow is wary of the growing power of China and the Central Asian tentacles of its “Belt and Road Initiative”, Beijing’s plan to grow global trade.
For the US, the other countries in the Quad will be seen as welcome supporters to maintain its still dominant position on the seas. But, there is a negative: trying to control the seas off the east coast of China is not in the ultimate interests of Washington – unless it wants to provoke an eventual conflict to satisfy its own sense of importance.
What are the benefits for Australia? Not much. About 30 per cent of Australian exports go to China, with Japan and South Korea accounting for only 20 per cent. China wants to dominant the South China Sea so that it can keep importing from resource-rich countries such as Australia. If necessary, there are alternative sea routes to Japan and South Korea.
As well as the adverse effect on Australia’s relationship with China – although given the country’s existing alliance with the US, the net impact is likely to be small – Canberra’s participation in the Quad would encourage India to take part.
Indian exports to Japan and South Korea are very small. Both Australia and India would be better off if India concentrated on achieving a dominant security position in the Indian Ocean while at the same time trying to prevent a deterioration of relations with China.
China’s belt and road strategy is foremost about energy security. Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and perhaps Iran, can provide massive amounts of oil and gas to China, but this all depends on the attitude of Russia, which could severely disrupt flows given its military and diplomatic dominance in the region. While Russia’s influence in Central Asia may be trending down, it will always control the Caspian Sea with its potential to intimidate Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
China needs and wants to continue receiving energy from the Middle East. The Strait of Malacca, between the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia’s Sumatra island, is patrolled by the Indian warships and could be a possible choke-point for China energy supplies.
India aims to be a player in Central Asian affairs mainly, it would seem, to counter the belt and road strategy. This Central Asian ambition is largely impractical and unnecessary as any Central Asian resources can be accessed elsewhere, and the only way for India to gain such access is via Iran, particularly through the Chabahar port that India has built there.
Participation in the Quad would mean that India is spreading itself too thin, and needlessly provoking China by impinging on its vital maritime security interests in a similar way as it is attempting to do in Central Asia. This is harmful for both India and Australia. ■
Jeff Schubert is a business consultant, writer and a visiting professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow