(This copy was first published on 2 August 2020 and is being republished in light of the Quad meeting in Tokyo in October and India’s announcement later that Australia will join Malabar 2020.)
The recent escalation of tensions between India and China has reinvigorated discussions about the significance of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – popularly known as the ‘Quad’.
Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry on Monday, 19 October, announced that Australia would be part of the annual Malabar Naval Exercise to be held later this year. There had been reports earlier of India’s 'willingness' to invite Australia to be a part of the naval exercise.
Speculation is rife about whether this group of four countries – Australia, India, Japan and US – will play a bigger role as a counter to Chinese assertiveness.
So, what is the significance of the Quad, in the current context; how did it come into being in the first place; and, in a fast-changing global security landscape amid the COVID-19 pandemic, would this coalition be able to function as an effective check on China's aspirations?
What is ‘Quad’?
A grouping of four countries with a "chequered history", Quad was initiated in 2007 to uphold strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region and as a response to the growing Chinese clout.
However, its origins go back to the time of the December 2004 Tsunami, when India undertook rescue and relief efforts for itself and the other affected neighbouring countries, and was joined by the US, Australia and Japan.
The Malabar Angle
Now, any further discussion on the Quad cannot be complete without looking at the Malabar Naval Exercise. What began in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between India and the US, was expanded to occur annually, also taking in Japan as a permanent member in 2015.
The year 2007 was a significant one, with the Malabar exercise seeing the participation of not just Japan, but also Australia and Singapore. The move irked China and the country promptly lodged its protest. Since then, Australia has been conspicuous by its absence in the exercise.
Soon after the 2007 exercise, the Quad grouping suffered a setback in 2008, with the withdrawal of Australia. But not just Australia, the US and India too have been blamed for undermining the group.
It was only after ten years – in 2017 – that the Quad was brought back into existence, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila with the 'India-Australia-Japan-US' dialogue. Significantly, this coming together took place in the wake of India's standoff with China in Doklam.
With the Quad once again figuring prominently in the national security discourse, different perspectives have sprung up on what impact it can have on China and its ambitions in the near future.
Till a year back, it was said that India was very cautious about doing anything that might upset China, especially since the Wuhan Summit. But, much as changed in the one year since, especially recently as Indo-China tensions escalated with the standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and culminated in the Galwan Valley clash in mid-June.
In fact, the Galwan clashes, along with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, are being touted as the “tipping point” towards the militarisation of the Quad.
A key aspect here is how the Malabar Naval Exercise will shape up, now that Australia has been invited to participate in it. Announcing Australia’s inclusion, a statement from India’s Defence Ministry said, “As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy.”
Prior to this, the 2007 exercise has been the only time till now that the country has taken part.
Having expressed its interest in recent years to participate, Australia's inclusion this time around “would underscore the growing relevance and importance of the Quad, lending it further credence and stability after its shaky antecedents".
In the current context, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash, writing in The Indian Express, argues not just for a "formal revival and reinvigoration" of the Quad, but also "an enlargement of this grouping into a partnership of the like-minded."
However, alongside that, he also stresses on the need for the US to recast, along with partners, its Indo-Pacific strategy, which according to him, has had no impact on "China's unfolding hegemonic master-plan."
Meanwhile, not everyone is as optimistic about the Quad's ability to counter China. As this piece in The Wire argues, “The Quad is no magic bullet to deal with a bellicose China and its ambitions. The reality is that India will need to counter China, even in the maritime arena, by itself and not look over its shoulders to others for collaborative military backup."
A question can also be raised on how the other countries in the Indo-Pacific region would take to a concretisation of the Quad in the prevailing security landscape.
It is said that such countries – including Vietnam, South Korea, New Zealand, among others – would not be too receptive to a Quad, which assumes the form of a military alliance, even if they harbour their own disputes against China.
How Did China React?
So, with these reinvigorated discussions on the Quad of late, one may ask about what the narrative is in China regarding the issue at hand.
In Global Times, a newspaper under China's People's Daily group, one piece argues that amid escalating China-US tensions, the US "has seized the opportunities of the downturn in China-India relations and the intensity of China-Australia ties to repeatedly court India and Australia, in order to make up for the weak points of the 'Quad' mechanism."
Acknowledging India as a key actor in the Quad mechanism, it points out that the question of how far India will go "in the next step" depends not only on whether its relations with China will cool down, but also on US-China tensions, US domestic policies and India-Russia relations.
Another piece, in the same publication, remarked that India’s willingness to invite Australia to the Malabar exercise was not “unexpected”.
It argued that with the expanded naval exercise, pressurising China may be "one of India's considerations", but the country also "harbours a biggest strategic layout."
Calling China to be more vigilant in the current context, it says that the country "should continue to try to maintain normal bilateral exchanges and interactions with each of the Quad members, in order to weaken the impacts of their joint moves."
All in all, while it is reasonable to expect a reinvigoration of the Quad, given the current security landscape, whether this would sustain in the long-run given its tenuous history is anybody's guess.
As defence analyst Derek Grossman points out in The Wire, "For the first time in the Quad's history, the stars are aligning for a harder line of China".
But, he also cautions, "Just one defection to a softer line on China could easily spell doom for the Quad all over again."
(With inputs from The Wire, Lowy Institute, The Indian Express, Global Times and The Hindu)