China’s economic, geographic, political and diplomatic assertion has made the Indo-Pacific the centre of gravity of international geopolitics. As long as the pandemic was raging and China was out of the grip of the Wuhan virus, its coercive actions could not be countered effectively in the Indo-Pacific region. However, all major powers have now started their vaccination programmes and are beginning to see light beyond the viral tunnel. The global recovery process is just about to begin and we are on the threshold of entering the post pandemic phase. It opens the way for Quad 3.0 to counter a predatory China.
China was busy consolidating its gains to fast track its global domination ambitions. It had finessed the EU through a trade deal and managed to drive wedges in the Trans-Atlantic construct. The RCEP put most of the Asia Pacific in its pocket including two members of the Quad—Japan and Australia. The US was having severe internal problems with the attack on the Capitol and deep polarisation within. The Quad seemed dead once again. Xi Jinping had made a pompous ‘carrot and stick’ speech at Davos. The outreach to East European countries has been positive. It was also busy with military probing in the Himalayas and the Taiwan Straits. China was literally basking in the sun. However, there are blips and internal issues are surfacing. The virus has reappeared and has forced China to impose widespread lock downs. This is slowing down its economy. Tightening screws on big tech firms indicates that China is worried that they might get too big to control. It is coming heavily down on dissenters of any kind. Its vaccine diplomacy is not going as per plan. Its plummeting birth rates due to lack of jobs/affordability of children paint a picture of tight internal conditions. This is a negative spiral which will lead to a decreased workforce in a rapidly ageing country.
It is at this juncture that the President Biden has stated that he foresees Extreme Competition with China. The US administration has also indicated that it intends to take the Quad forward. An online meeting of the Quad leaders to achieve a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is in the air. The French have announced that they have carried out a submarine patrol in the South China Sea. The UK has earlier announced that it will deploy a carrier task force in the area. The US has deployed two carriers repeatedly in the area in the recent past. This will make China sit up. While the arrival of the Quad 3.0 is good news it is also pertinent to assess what should be its contours.
At the outset, the behaviour of Quad 2.0 was conditioned by the fact that in Oct 2020, all the constituent countries were struggling to contain the virus and their economies were at the nadir. It was largely a defensive set of moves to stem the tide. The scene is far different now. All Quad countries have effective vaccines against the Virus. The US is galloping ahead with its vaccinations. India is on track. Australia and Japan seem to have their situation in hand as they are to shortly commence vaccinations. There is clarity that their economies will start reopening and recovering. The virus situation will be under control by the end of the year. Overall things are on the ascendancy. On the other hand, the economic situation in China is hazy. China’s vaccination programme has a long way to go to immunise their population. Till the population is immunised China can only resort to lockdowns, to keep the Virus at bay. Resultantly, China might be hitting an economic plateau. Quad strategies will be driven by this fact.
Earlier it was felt that aggressive Chinese behaviour was driving the Quad nations to coalesce. With their economic prospects relatively looking up, one might well ask – Is there a requirement for the Quad? In my opinion all Quad countries would have learned some lessons in the past one year. China is now too big to contain by a single power. It will need the combined heft of many. Having tasted success, China will not be deterred by a few blips. It will go all out to achieve what it wants in faster time frames to overcome the blips. In such a situation, there are enhanced dangers, down the line, of an unfettered China. Hence there is really no alternative but to commence transitioning to a formal agenda. There is no doubt in my mind that the Quad 3.0 will evolve faster than before. However, there are a few issues to consider.
What will be the outlook of Quad 3.0? Will the outlook of Quad 3.0 be to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea and its expansion into the larger Indo-Pacific? Prevention is defensive and incomplete by nature. The news that China, Russia and Iran want to hold naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, probably with Pakistan in the future, indicates the evolution of a counter Quad grouping. Very clearly, China is already attempting to break out from the confines of the South China Sea. On the other hand, will the outlook be to contain China? In my opinion, containment is more offensive and complete. Containment addresses the internal vulnerabilities of China. If those are addressed holistically, China will be reined in. Clarity in outlook is therefore important.
The next issue which Quad 3.0 has to seriously consider and resolve is that will it be a security-oriented grouping or will it move beyond that? Many opine that Quad 3.0 should focus beyond security issues and play a part in the post pandemic recovery. It implies that Quad 3.0 must have an economic agenda. Can it evolve beyond security into economic spheres? That is a huge challenge considering that all Quad countries are still deeply integrated with the Chinese economy. Specifically, Japan and Australia being part of RCEP, might have issues with an economic agenda for the Quad. However, it has to be realised that Quad nations are the best mix of consuming, producing and inventing economies. In fact, the US and India together can derail the vaccine diplomacy of China completely. The potential is therefore great. Will they have the political will to go the route and distance?
Another factor which Quad 3.0 has to consider is what will the role of ASEAN and European countries be in the current avatar. While ASEAN will have a role in economic issues, it will have a marginal role in military affairs. On the other hand, Quad will have to see how to bring France and the UK on its security platform so that a combined front is presented to China. The issue of Quad plus will also have to be revived and factored in. S Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand will have roles to play and be of value. However, how much they can contribute is a moot point due to their commitments in RCEP. Where does Taiwan fit into this equation? There is too much at stake militarily and economically to leave Taiwan out. Quad 3.0 will have a lot of diplomatic ground to cover if it has to achieve any of this.
A major issue to confront Quad 3.0 will be the type of governments in the region. The larger Indo Pacific region has many military rulers, strongmen, family rulers, one party states, kingdoms and weak democracies running Governments. China is comfortable with and has been very successful with such systems. It has a good grip on such nations. Further many of them are bound to China by huge financial commitments / debt traps related to ongoing BRI projects. It will be a tall order just to compete with China in such conditions. Uprooting China in this environment will be difficult and daunting. Quad 3.0 must have flexible alternatives to deal with the situation.
There is no doubt that the current informal Quad grouping will be a deterrent on China. However, a formal grouping will impose real caution. Hence Quad 3.0 must endeavour to establish some degree of formality. The Quad countries must also evolve a set of expected common outcomes based on shared principles and values at the earliest. Some kind of a common minimum programme will be welcome. Complicated issues will take time to crystallise and resolve. Hence it is important to build upon issues where success has been achieved. To this end, the Malabar Naval exercises provide a good platform to start advancing security cooperation on a programmed basis. From there one can move to other issues. Also there has been a lot of talk about Quad being an Asian NATO. Quad 3.0 has to be eventually more than that. The concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific can only be achieved through a strong Quad 3.0. As an extension, if Quad 3.0 must succeed it must have a clear-cut aim and a strategy to deal with China. That will be the topic of my next article on Quad.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on www.gunnersshot.com.