Belying fears in some quarters, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad” as it is more commonly known, which China mocks as “the Asian Nato”, is still riding high. So, possibly, is AUKUS, the trilateral pact linking Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to supply nuclear subs to Australia. But whether these manifestations of America’s global strategy to counter Chinese assertiveness will help India much is quite another matter.
Australia’s relatively unknown new Labour Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, who was elected just a few days ago on Saturday, made sure he was in Tokyo on Tuesday to meet Narendra Modi, Japan’s Fumio Kishida and of course President Joe Biden, who is touring Asia to whip up support against China. Australians dubbed the election in which the sitting Conservative Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was defeated as the “khaki election” because of the shadow that was cast by China’s military ambitions.
When former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first mooted the Quad in 2007 with US vice-president Dick Cheney, Australian PM John Howard and Dr Manmohan Singh, Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew warned that Indian public opinion would never allow New Delhi to be as closely allied to Washington as Tokyo or Manila. Or nestle in the protection of Washington’s nuclear umbrella. Lee’s prediction was that if India and China avoided confrontation, and if India could be persuaded to persist with economic reforms, the two Asian giants could together regain the 45-50 per cent of the global gross domestic product that they enjoyed before the West’s Industrial Revolution stole a march on Asia.
Rebutting China’s objections to the Quad, Dr Singh insisted that it wasn’t a military alliance. He assured Chinese Premier Hu Jintao that “there’s no question of ganging up against China”, and agreed with Mr Hu that there was space enough for India and China to grow “together”, stressing the “together”. This emphasis on domestic growth as the answer to burning foreign policy problems is a reminder that Mr Morrison is rightly regarded as a friend since he was the architect of last month’s India-Australia free trade agreement.
The specific Australian reason for coining the term “khaki election” was that one of the campaign’s main issues -- if not the main issue -- apart from inflation and climate change, was China’s recent deal with the Solomon Islands, paving the way to deploy military personnel in the archipelago, and thereby bringing what looks suspiciously like a new Cold War to Australia’s doorstep. Although the Solomons are a good 3,000 km away, Australians have bitter memories of Imperial Japanese troops occupying them during the Second World War as a step towards what they hoped would be the conquest of Australia. China has replaced Japan as the Asian bogey, and the Australians now fear that it isn’t only the South China Sea and Indian Ocean where Xi Jinping’s regime seeks a lead role. China is equally active in the South Pacific, where it already has comprehensive strategic partnership agreements (the highest classification of partnership in Beijing’s diplomatic vocabulary) with eight nations.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Mr Albanese is by no means as opposed to Washington’s anti-China moves as Kevin Rudd, Australia’s last Labour Prime Minister. Mr Rudd’s withdrawal from the Quad reflected Canberra’s ambivalence over growing Sino-American tensions as well as a determination to protect Australia’s own commercial ties with China. It was only Mr Rudd’s replacement by Julia Gillard in 2010 that revived the enhanced military cooperation between the US and Australia, leading to American Marines being stationed near Darwin overlooking the Timor Sea and Lombok Strait. Meanwhile, India, Japan, and the United States continued with the joint naval exercises labelled Malabar. In 2017, all four Quad members (including Mr Modi) agreed to revive the alliance, with the Americans flatteringly changing Pacific to Indo-Pacific with the former Australian Labour Prime Minister, Paul Keating, criticising the term as an American construct in the diplomatic war with China.
The Australian Labour Party’s efforts to maintain a bipartisanship approach to the questions of border protection, defence spending and AUKUS suffered a setback in 2019 when the Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Barnaby Joyce, who was then deputy prime minister, called the Solomons “little Cuba”, a reference to the 1962 missile crisis in which the Kennedy administration intervened. Mr Albanese may be just as concerned. For Mr Modi, however, this is an opportunity to prove Rahul Gandhi wrong for accusing him of adopting “a timid and docile response” in the face of Chinese aggression. And not just the Congress leader. Others too remember that on June 19, 2020, only four days after 20 Indian jawans and reportedly four Chinese soldiers were killed in a clash in the Galwan Valley, Mr Modi announced that nobody had entered Indian territory, which allowed the Chinese to claim that the land they had illegally occupied actually belonged to them. As the Congress spokesman, Pawan Khera, put it, it was like giving “a clean chit” to the invader.
Even now, the reports of China building a second bridge in the occupied parts of the Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh fuel fears that under cover of a ceasefire that India respects but China does not, the Chinese are establishing the infrastructure for the People’s Liberation Army to bring in artillery support by constructing ever wider bridges. Opposition politicians complain that the dismissive language of government spokesmen when asked about these developments seems designed to play down any danger of further Chinese encroachment.
The other Quad partners are no more forthcoming. Even the White House describes it as only “a premier regional grouping… on issues that matter to the Indo-Pacific”. But if the Quad is not a security alliance, what is it? Apologists harp on many worthy forms of cooperation that are all covered by a plethora of United Nations agencies. The importance that governments have accorded to the Quad since Mr Biden took office is cited as sanctifying the innovation.
Fowler’s example of the ancient Greeks calling the Black Sea the Euxine (or hospitable one) to avoid tempting fate by mentioning its notorious storms comes to mind. Security is seldom mentioned. Alliance never. Even economic security -- which would be India’s strongest bulwark against aggression -- is never mentioned in this context, leaving one to wonder how patrolling in the vastness of the Indo-Pacific region, even by nuclear submarines, will secure the Galwan Valley or the lake at Pangong Tso?