By: Salman R. Sheikh

When the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, was reactivated in 2017 as a potential security arrangement involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia, it was understood as a first step towards an “Asian NATO.”

But ever since then the Asian NATO has run into problems ranging from disagreements over its core objectives to even getting it going despite attempts by the US, its leading player, to keep it from falling into permanent obscurity. Originally conceptualized by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 as a coalition that would exert influence on the sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, the grouping of “like-minded” democracies went dead after China protested, saying it was aimed at stifling China’s growth.

The Quad’s latest manifestation is the appointment, after leaving the post vacant for two years, of the 70-year-old Arthur Culvahouse Jr., a hawkish diplomat and former chairman of the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers, as US ambassador to Australia.

In addition to the fact that this appointment coincides with rising trade tensions between Australia and China, Culvahouse’s widely-publicized slur to China as a sort of regional bully appears clearly meant to ratchet up tensions, something that might help the US keep the Quad alive and give its rationale yet another boost.

Talking to reporters in the Australian capital, Culvahouse argued that it wasn’t enough to describe, as Mike Pence had done last year, Chinese policies as a “debt trap.” “I would use stronger language – I would use ‘payday loan’ diplomacy,” he said, showcasing how China was going to be the main focus of his attention in his capacity as the ambassador.

Notwithstanding the “strong language” and regardless of what China might be doing to the countries in the region, the more important question is: can the US do something about it, particularly by getting the Quad going, which the US sees as an extremely important step towards the containment of China?

Getting it operational is facing severe problems and none of it happens to be the doing of China. While some of the problems are a result of what the US is itself doing, the major drawback is disagreements among the members of the group with regard to the core objective, scope and nature itself. This is leading to a scenario in which member countries are themselves reviewing their own inclusion.

While it is quite clear that the US ambassador is trying to stoke anti-China sentiment in Canberra, the irony is that Canberra itself has, as of very recently, expressed its intentions about leaving the group.

Although Australia hasn’t said anything directly and there is little gainsaying that the government in Canberra has problems with rising Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, there is also no doubt that Australia is quietly pushing itself away from the Quad.

Its major manifestation came only two months ago when the Australian defense minister Christopher Pyne delivered a keynote address to an audience in Singapore. While Pyne elaborated on Australia’s view of the region and understands the need for a “rules-based” game, he made little to no reference to the “US leadership” in the region, shorthand for the Quad. On the contrary, the minister’s main focus remained the Association of Southeast Asian Nations states and what they could do in alliance with Australia rather than the U.S. to achieve prosperity.

Not only did he omit any reference to ASEAN’s potential inclusion in the Quad, a proposal that was under consideration at one point after 2017, he also declined to refer to tensions with China as a “new cold war.” In fact, the keynote address was an indication that  his country still wants to trade with China, but wants to do so under a new framework of trade and rules of business.

“However, it is critical that US-China relations do not come to be defined in wholly adversarial terms,” he said. “Cold War commentary fails to see a fundamental but defining difference, namely, that the world’s economies are far more closely integrated and mutually dependent than they were when the West contested the Soviet Bloc.”

He added further: “We are not interested in containing China, but we are interested in engaging and encouraging China to exercise its power in ways that increase regional trust and confidence.”

The US ambassador’s use of “strong language” is an indication of how Washington wants to remind the Australians that China has to be taken as an adversary and that there is a cold war. But it is a cold war that few Asian countries want to enlist in. Australia isn’t the only country backing away from the Quad.

India’s vision of the quadrilateral security arrangement doesn’t go beyond a non-military and non-confrontational arrangement. That was evident in the most recent meeting of the four-nation group last November 2018 on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, where the Indian leadership made the Quad look more like a forum of economic engagement rather than an “Asian NATO.” Its communique emphasised promotion of “a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific that fosters trust and confidence” rather confrontation with China.

On March 5, the US decided to strip India of its special tariff status over Delhi’s high tariffs, particularly on motorcycles, which President Trump himself has called attention to. India, against US wishes, has also declined to go along with the US sanctions of Iran by cooperating with Iran over the Chalabar Port, from which Iran ships oil to India. The US has reluctantly agreed to quietly look the other way.

Washington’s strategy thus appears to be schizophrenic, driving up trade tensions on the one hand while seeking India’s cooperation on the strategic alliance. If the US is looking to operationalize the Quad on the basis of a strategic alliance with the member countries, it risks alienating two of the four most important. 

Therefore, if the US is looking to operationalise the Quad on the basis of a strategic alliance with the member countries, the U.S. trade tensions with India would more likely defeat rather than serve the purpose.

There are other serious stumbling blocks that make the revival of the Quad highly unlikely, although raising the China threat is perhaps the only rationale that the US can sell to the member countries. The Australian example shows that even this rationale isn’t selling that well, after all Australia and China remain major trade partners.