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Quad gets China's attention

Screenshot 2020-10-17 075149
ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Shortly after the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that groups the United States, Japan, Australia and India was revived in November 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked about the development at a press conference held on the sidelines of the National People's Congress.

Mr Wang's response at the time was that there was no shortage of headline-grabbing ideas and the Quad was one such. It would be "like the foam on the sea… (to) get attention but will soon dissipate", was his assessment then.

Prior to last week's meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo, only the second time the group had met formally at this level, China's Global Times headlined: "Not easy for Pompeo to sway China's neighbours in building military alliance". After the event, the newspaper spoke of "All US' bark and no bite in Quad meeting".

This week, Mr Wang seemed to be taking the Quad more seriously than the Global Times, the flintier of China's English-language mouthpieces, seemed to do. In Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, he criticised the Quad's "Cold War mentality" and warned of heavy security risks from a "so-called Indo-Pacific Nato".

Whichever way you look at it one thing is clear - the Quad has come a long way since its first iterations more than a decade ago.

That new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chose to make hosting a meeting of Quad foreign ministers his debut foreign policy initiative suggests that some countries do indeed set much store by it, enthusiastically backed by the Trump administration in the US.

This is why US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose planned trip to Asia had to be cut short because of President Donald Trump's hospitalisation for Covid-19, made it a point to show up physically in Tokyo, for a stop lasting less than 24 hours.

DOMESTIC CONSTRAINTS

Yet, the realistic assessment of last week's meeting - the US was the only participant to call out China - has to be that at the very minimum, a Quad member or two is stalling for time.

Make that India, Asia's second-largest nation by population, which is now tangled up in a serious border crisis with the dominant Asian power - a situation from which it needs to extricate itself in order to focus on a runaway pandemic and a collapsed economy.

It may even have company; Australia has shown significant steel in standing up to China this year but it has not been without costs. And while it may be reluctant to concede that it, too, would welcome a breather, there are good reasons it might. Here's why.

Much of the nation's plan for the past three decades has been based on what seemed like a teflon-coated economy. But that owed to its ability to pump commodity exports into China, and domestic assets such as real estate that inflated thanks to Chinese buying.

Without China, its economy weakens substantially. Its retail scene, for instance, is moribund. Retail spending slumped to a 28-year low last year and many establishments have shut down, driven by a wave of consumer change the sector had not foreseen.

"If one word had to be used in describing the current state of Australian retail and broader economy, perhaps 'tempestuous' is the most appropriate," said KPMG, a consultancy, in its Australian Retail Outlook for 2020.

The retail slump predated the pandemic. Last month, China's debt-gorged real estate sector's woes reverberated all the way Down Under when China's Poly Group pulled out from a major real estate development promoted by Lendlease, the country's iconic builder, and told Australian Financial Review that it was rethinking all its prospective Australian projects.

For all the statements about maintaining an Indo-Pacific "governed by rules, not power", as Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne put it in Tokyo, one element of the Quad architecture that would signal a determination to build more teeth seems to have been kept in abeyance - an Indian invitation to Australia to rejoin the annual Malabar maritime exercises it conducts with the US and Japanese navies.

In July, as tensions with China escalated, leading to an ugly clash in the Ladakh Himalayas that saw loss of lives on both sides, New Delhi leaked word that it had decided to bring Australia into Malabar. It was thought that Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar would formally convey the decision to his counterpart in Tokyo.

If that was done, neither side has talked about it. What's more, neither has there been any announcement on dates for this year's Malabar, an exercise that in at least one iteration involved three aircraft carriers sailing together.

New Delhi might be looking to wait out the US presidential election. Having tilted overwhelmingly towards President Donald Trump, it is faced with the prospect of having miscalculated on its choice, with presidential contender Joe Biden rising in popularity. While New Delhi has plenty of connections to the Biden crowd, many of them are Obama-era holdovers, which sits uncomfortably with it.

Also, India still possibly hopes that it can keep a measure of its cherished strategic autonomy. But for that it needs Beijing to relieve the pressure it has placed around its close neighbourhood, including the continuing military stand-off in the high Himalayas where, after decades, the first shots in anger were recently fired.

Given its relative weakness in the power balance, sustained pressure from China makes for a swifter Indian drift into the US orbit.

Already, military ties with the US are marked by two foundational agreements on logistics exchange and communications sharing. And while it has dropped word that the third foundational agreement, Beca, short for Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for GeoSpatial Cooperation, will be signed as well, it has yet to do so, although some reports suggest that this is imminent.

ASIAN NATO IN THE WORKS?

Still, all Quad members today are linked by bilateral supply-sharing pacts and regardless of whether Australia's navy gets an Indian invite to this year's Exercise Malabar, or whether Malabar is held at all, the Covid-19 headache offers a valid excuse - the direction of the drift towards an Asian Nato is discernible.

"At the appropriate time, once we've institutionalised what we're doing, the four of us together, we can begin to build out a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us," Mr Pompeo told Nikkei Asia in Tokyo during an interview.

His deputy, Mr Stephen Biegun, had hinted at what a formalised Quad could look like last month when he noted at a seminar that the Indo-Pacific region did not have "strong multilateral structures".

"They don't have anything of the fortitude of Nato, or the European Union… There is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this," he said.

While Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the Quad ministers agreed to meet every year, the Indian external affairs ministry merely said the foreign ministers would hold the consultations "regularly".

Mr Motegi also said the group would welcome other countries joining in, possibly meaning South Korea and Indonesia, as well as France and Germany - two European powers moving rapidly on the Indo-Pacific.

Nevertheless, it may be premature to think of Asean states making such a move at this point. At a webinar last week, the French ambassador to India, a country with which the French military has rapidly scaled up exchanges, skirted around the question of whether France would consider participating in an expanded Quad. Instead, he chose to talk of his nation taking a "principled position" on regional events.

Be that as it may, Beijing has much to ponder. For now, there is no talk of setting up a Quad "headquarters", only about initiatives on vaccine development and building resilient supply chains.

BABY STEPS

Several so-called Quad Plus meetings focusing on the coronavirus pandemic have already been held with countries like South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Those baby steps could lead to something bigger.

This weekend, New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering network of nations, holds its elections. Beijing will not be displeased if New Zealand First, a key member of the Labour-led coalition government, slips in the polls as it is tipped to do.

Under NZ First nominated deputy PM Winston Peters, who also is foreign minister, New Zealand surprised many earlier this year by endorsing Australian PM Scott Morrison's call for an inquiry into how China handled the virus outbreak in Wuhan. He also called for Taiwan to be allowed to participate in a Covid-19 conference organised by the World Health Organisation. New Zealand also joined 38 other countries recently in issuing a strong statement criticising China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Even if Mr Peters' party does badly, opinion in New Zealand has shifted in the wake of the pandemic. Lately, some Kiwi voices have been talking of a "Quad Plus One" formula that would bring Wellington closer to the Quad.

The impressive US response to the South-east Asian tsunami of December 2004, with backing help from the Indian military, was one of the early examples of the potential of such cooperation, albeit in a peaceful way. Since then, much water has flowed under the bridge of strategic embraces.

As much as they dislike being the stuffing in the sandwich of US-China competition, many Asian states are watching to see which way the wind blows post the US presidential election, to decide on where precisely they want to stand on this axis and whether the time is coming to adjust positions a mite.

A nudge here and a nudge there and before you know it, there's enough momentum for a shove. Keep an eye on the jostling!