The recently concluded successful QUAD summit in Tokyo, held under the shadow of the ongoing Russian ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and growing Chinese belligerence in the region proved that nations prefer the west as a safeguard from China. Russian actions have changed the European geopolitical landscape, with NATO members moving closer while drawing Russia’s neighbours into its fold. Similarly, Chinese actions are pushing nations in SE Asia closer to the QUAD, away from China. Military aid provided to Ukraine has proved to be effective in stalling Russia. The same is possibly emerging with the arming of Taiwan. The summit may have been split on Russia on account of Indian concerns but was united against China.
Asian nations fear that after witnessing Russian military actions in Ukraine, China may push its claim lines in a similar manner. QUAD members, in their latest summit, made it evident that they are working at containing China, despite no announcement on the subject nor mentioning China by name. While Ukraine was discussed, it was increasing Chinese offensive actions, which dominated the proceedings.
The joint statement read, ‘QUAD leaders reiterated their strong resolve to maintain peace and stability in the region.’ It added that the QUAD, ‘opposes any coercive, provocative and unilateral actions that seek to change status quo and increase tensions in the area including militarization of disputed features, dangerous use of coast guard vessels and efforts to disrupt other countries offshore exploitation activities.’These are Chinese specific actions to coerce its neighbours.
The US launched Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) drew in all nations which have territorial disputes with China, despite the forum having no mention of a military collaboration. Biden’s engagement, in early May, with almost all ASEAN leaders (less Philippines, where presidential elections were ongoing and Myanmar) in the White House, was aimed at ensuring that the IPEF becomes a success as soon as it is launched.
The QUAD statement mentioned, ‘Through this initiative, we aim to contribute to cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace within the region.’ The IPEF’s agenda includes trade, supply chain resilience, clean energy and anti-corruption cooperation.Nations drawn into the agreement include, apart from QUAD members, Brunei, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand.The first six are in dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea.
The Chinese have always considered the QUAD to be a grouping aimed at containing it. They have termed it as an ‘Asian NATO.’ On the IPEF, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, commented that though created on principles of ‘freedom and openness’ it is aimed atchallenging China. He also termed it as an ‘economic NATO.’ The Global Times stated that the IPEF is, ‘driven more by geopolitical considerations than economic factors, excludes China.’ It added that the US accuses China of, ’employing economic means to weaken the cohesion of the US alliance system.’ The message that the QUAD is specific to China has been well received.
Another area of concern to SE Asian nations has been illegal Chinese fishing. To counter this QUAD announced the creation of Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). This is intended to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters as also combat illegal fishing.
The hint to China on the QUAD was so evident that China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea, while the summit was ongoing, resulting in Japan and South Korea launching their aircraft. They hoped to send a message that their partnership is aimed at countering the US and its allies. Russia has always opposed the QUAD. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister had during his visit to Delhi stated that the US was ‘trying to engage India in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called Quad.’ He also believed it to be aimed at disrupting Indo-Russian ties.
Simultaneously, China announced a more liberal BRI (Belt Road Initiative), while its foreign minister rushed to South Pacific Islands to offer economic support. However, with Sri Lanka falling into a debt trap and China ignoring it, nations are moving with caution and slowing BRI projects. With South Korea joining New Zealand and Vietnam in the QUAD plus grouping, China is bound to be dissatisfied.
The Ukrainian crisis was considered as an opportunity for China to invade Taiwan. However, the bogging down of Russia in Ukraine created doubts on its chances of success in a swift operation. Simultaneously, a sinking economy of China coupled with a failing BRI provided the QUAD with an opportunity which it grabbed. With the US remaining ambiguous on its support to Taiwan, China would remain concerned. It is aware that the world would never let it succeed as Taiwan supplies over 90% of the global semi-conductor chips.
The Quad which came into being in 2004,post the Tsunami, included nations which had differing views on China. Australia left the QUAD in 2008 in favour of trade with China, only to return with vengeance in 2017. India objected to raising the level of interaction within the QUAD till the Chinese intruded into Ladakh in 2020. Japan has always faced Chinese military pressure. While there has been no announcement for converting QUAD into a military alliance, demands for same are on the rise in strategic circles.
Japan is seeking pre-placement of nuclear weapons and arming of Taiwan. Japan and Australia have inked a defence pact. AUKUS (Australia-UK-US alliance) is aimed at countering the Chinese threat. The US already has a defence pact with Japan and the Philippines. Indo-US strategic alliance is growing. The US seeks to build Indian military power to counter China. Within Indian strategic circles there is rising demand for officially adding a military component to the QUAD.
While this may partially benefit India, it could draw India into conflicts in regions which it may not desire. However, the very existence of such a pact may add to deterrence against China. The QUAD can only succeed if it draws in ASEAN nations into its fold. A start has been made. It must be pushed.
The author is Major General (Retd)