Home|[in] focus|QUAD Eclipse: Sino-Japan in Delhi’s Indo-Pacific Calculus
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by Institute for Global Dialogue


Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue




The Quadrilateral grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia known as the ‘Quad’ was the thematic subject of the online FPRC Journal of the Foreign Policy Research Centre (FPRC) in New Delhi – “The QUAD: Stakes and Stakeholders.” The following commentary article was among the contributions to the FPRC 2018(3) quarterly issue. For further information, consult the website: www.fprc.in.

At the time of writing Japan and China have just concluded a major re-establishing of strategic economic ties amid the Donald J. Trump administration’s escalating US-China trade war with Japan caught in the middle.[i] This could carry major implications for India. In backgrounding Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Beijing, it needs to be understood the extent to which the global security architecture is at an inflection point of transition given uncertainties introduced into the geopolitics of international diplomacy by President Trump. As such, there is a need for everyone to revisit the drawing board in rethinking and readjusting to new realities confronting global security arrangements and patterns of engagement. In the case of the Japan-initiated Quadrilateral linking India with Japan, the US and Australia during Shinzo Abe’s first prime ministership, the ‘Quad,’ in short hand, presented a clear and present containment challenge to China. Once Abe’s first incumbency abruptly ended, coupled with the ascent of Kevin Rudd as Australia’s prime minister, Abe’s ‘Quad’ receded into the background of Indo-Pacific equations. Indeed it appeared ‘dead as a doornail.’ Then, low and behold, it returned.

Mode-Abe Convergence

This occurred with the rise of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister at the helm of the BJP alongside the second coming of Abe as Japan’s prime minister in what has turned out to be a much longer though not problem-free tenure. Perhaps there could not have been a more propitious convergence in timing of domestic political dynamics in Japan and India with the ushering in of two conservative nationalists leaders, both sharing in common high levels of threat perceptions regarding China. As such, the Modi-Abe convergence, in their ascent to the leaderships of their respective countries, offered a more conducive geopolitical terrain for a Quad reset – Quad ‘Mark II’ let’s call it. After all, Delhi under Narendra Modi was bent on transforming India’s ‘Look East’ into an ‘Act East’ geostrategy and who better a coordinating co-conspirator in such a project than Shinzo of Tokyo?

At this point, China’s rise was accelerating from a gallop into a sprint across the continental-maritime strategic landscape of Eurasian and Indo-Pacific terrains impinging on the domains of both India and Japan. Here, it may be useful to recapitulate “Shinzo of the Quadrilateral: Diamonds are not just a girl’s best friend” – ‘diamonds’ in Abe’s four-sided strategy that is. At the time this was written and published as a chapter in Namrata Goswami’s edited volume on India’s Approach to Asia: Strategy, Geopolitics and Responsibility (2016, Pentagon Press/Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses), it was noted that Abe, hell bent on reversing Japanese declinism amid the rise of a more dynamic China as regional leader, during his first stint as premier was creatively proactive in launching “the Quadrilateral Security Dialogues (QSD) with India, Australia under the conservative Liberal administration of John Howard and the United States under the George W. Bush administration. Given his own nationalist projection as a leader exhibiting a passionate vigilance toward China, the hard-line foreign policy profiles of the Howard and Bush administrations contributed to a widely held perception of the Shinzo quadrilateral advancing a thinly disguised Sino-containment agenda – that is, until Sinophile Kevin Rudd of Labour unseated Howard followed by the exits of Abe himself and Obama succeeding Bush.”[ii]

Meanwhile, Delhi under Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led UPA government was intent on India striking its civilian nuclear deal with Washington. This was a priority of such magnitude as to feed perceptions that ‘strategic autonomy’ was taking a back seat on crucial neighbourhood energy security priorities like a ‘peace pipeline’ with Iran and Pakistan accompanied by indulging US-friendly security alignments in Asia like the quadrilateral. While such a perception may be open to debate, by 2009, India’s posture had shifted noticeably as it joined the new Sino-inclusive quadrilateral of BRIC, becoming the BRICS quintet 2011.

While the geopolitical and economic environment had evolved beyond a revisiting of a QSD during Abe’s second premiership, the four sides of Abe’s “diamond” remain strategically instructive in his vision of a coalition of Asian multiparty electoral democracies aligning themselves as a force in shaping the inter-Asian order.  Its maritime implications were unmistakable in Abe’s Project Syndicate opinion piece of 2012 when he asserted that “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.”[iii]

India’s BRICS-SCO-RIC conundrum

Apart from Abe alluding to Tokyo being “engaged in regular bilateral service-to-service military dialogues with India,” a more recent report on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s September 2014 visit to Japan noted that Modi’s summit with Abe had been “widely seen as part of an effort to counterbalance rising Chinese influence in Asia,” stressing that “personal ties between the two men are unusually close…”[iv] Yet, Modi also values India’s global economic governance reform relationship with China in the BRICS context and pragmatically encourages Chinese investment in India’s the urgently needed economic development.

Thus, even as Modi and an equally nationalistic Xi Jinping maneuvered around one another with respectively competitive strategic agendas, economic interdependence and cooperation provide a countervailing dynamic. Moreover, from New Delhi’s standpoint, the ‘strategic autonomy ‘of multi-vectoralism seems the statecraft path of preference in its updated ‘nonalignment’! Were Russia factored into the triangular RIC mix, it was seen as having the potential for blossoming into a strategic pole of interregional integration within the northern Eurasian sphere of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – provided, that is, India would be made a full member by Beijing. Since then, both Pakistan as well as India have acceded to full SCO membership. These intra-BRICS prospects do not contradict the defence diplomacy hedging of strategic imperatives underway between Delhi and Tokyo at a time when both India and Japan are under competitive continental-maritime pressures from China.

In any case, that was then under the Washington reign of Obama. By 2017, with the arrival of the Trump administration, the inter-Asian geostrategic landscape was facing yet another reshuffling in the balance of forces as an American-led alliance was about to be destabilized with Trump’s racist and anti-globalist motivated anti-Obama exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While initially getting off to a very shakey start with Australia in his conversations with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump’s TPP exit was coupled with a nationalistically bellicose campaign against North Korea’s weaponized nuclear ambitions in tandem with a transactionally tactical cozying up to China’s Xi Jinping. The aim was to enlist Beijing’s pressure on Pyeongyang while attempting a renegotiating of US-China terms of economic engagement aimed at reducing America’s trade deficit with the People’s Republic. From ‘little rocket man’ to ‘love at first sight’ in Singapore, the Moon Jae-in instigated rapprochement between ‘art of the non-deal’ Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un threw yet another geopolitical curve ball Abe’s way.

This new element of uncertainty for Tokyo occurred even as, at the level of Pentagon geostrategy, the Trump administration was discovering India’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ lexicon for Asian-Pacific security in the service of countering China’s hegemonic bid in the South China Sea as part of Beijing’s overall continental-maritime Belt-Road momentum. While achieving ‘denucleraization’ non-deal with Kim Jong-un as he placed Obama’s nuclear ‘worst deal ever’ with Iran in disarray by pulling Washington out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump’s anti-Iran campaign must also be added to the mix of disruptions Japan and India have to factor into that Quad calculus in their security relations with a US administration gone rogue. Taken all together, in the Trumpian age of disruption, what is to be done from India’s vantage-point?

Quad in eclipse?

Trump’s Washington is not a viable mainstay and is symptomatic of a more longer-running transition in post-cold war US strategy and statecraft that has been underway for quite some time but has reached a point of farcical instability under Trump. It behooves New Delhi to factor this into its own longer-term thinking about the future since post-Trump, especially should Democrats reascend to the White House, there is not likely to be a return to ‘business as usual’ in US diplomacy. From ‘left’ to ‘right,’ the domestic politics of foreign policy thinking amid increasing urgency of internal renewal challenges trends toward non-interventionism and off-shore balancing.

At least in terms of US global posture rethinking, the future of the Quad needs reassessing in this light, especially regarding relations between Washington and Beijing. For example, it is not outside the realm of possibility that a post-Trump administration might contemplate a ‘power sharing’ of spheres of influence in the east Asian-Pacific rather than a more aggressively containment posture. What implications would this hold for the Quad? ‘Strategic autonomy’ would seem at a premium for major regional state actors rather than over-dependency on a hegemonic US strategic umbrella. Such a circumstance would seem to dictate greater levels of regional strategic cooperation within the ‘inner’ Indo-Pacific between South and greater East Asia. The US, meanwhile, would opt for an offshore balancing posture more tolerant of China’s regional interests – as in fact should be the case from a more left-progressive American strategic perspective regarding a post-hegemonic recasting of America’s global leadership role. This would be in keeping with acknowledging post-western multipolar realities in global power equations relative to the unsustainability of ‘full spectrum’ primacy and the need for conceding a more pluralist internationalism in amending the liberal world order. How should such prospects be processed by India’s strategic community?

In as much as the Indian strategic calculus is overwhelmingly consumed by China and associated Sino-containment strategies, is the reactive approach to ‘threat perception’ the best way to go as opposed to a more proactively positive approach? Whereas it may remain very much in New Delhi’s strategic calculus to retain the Quad as a hedging option of ‘soft containment,’ there are other elements to be factored into overall strategy emphasizing more collaboration as opposed to competition between China and India – and these contradict the Sino-containment thrust of the Quad. Here, the BRICS-Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-RICs ministerial matrix comes into play as India would seem to have to come to terms at some point with Beijing’s Belt-Road Initiative, especially since US-Asia policy under Trump seems equally to dictate accommodation between China and Japan as well.[v] Indeed this is what Abe’s state visit to Beijing was all about.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, the most consequential outcome of Trump-Kim tete-a-tete ‘diplomacy’ is greater northeast Asian regional cooperation (if not integration) centering around Korean Peninsula rapproachment, drawing in Japan as well as South Korea in the development of the North instead of ‘denuclearization’? In other words, peace before ‘denuclearization’ instead of the other way around as has been the standard Six Party Talks assumption. Seoul-Pyeongyang rapprochement momentum is already gaining enough momentum beyond US-North Korean talks to place this scenario in ascendancy, something very much in the interest of Seoul as well as Beijing, not to mention Pyeongyang. Japan will have to be factored into these equations as well given that Tokyo forms part of the ASEAN’s +3 and the ASEAN has an interest in Korean Peninsula peace-building as well.

Post-Quad: Co-optive containment?  

Long-term, contingent on how China’s manages its South China Sea compulsions, the ASEAN could evolve into the Association of ‘greater east Asian nations’ spinning-off South-North Korean rapprochement. This further undermines the Quad. What would this mean for ‘Act East’ via increasingly close Indo-ASEAN ties? This might also call into question New Delhi’s Indian Ocean Sino-containment calculus. Here, while there may unfold an integrationist consolidating of eastern Asia, South Asia is without regional coherence while India seems without a co-optive strategic vision comparable to China’s Belt-Road. Rather than relying on the Quad, India might do better to devise an inclusively co-optive umbrella of Indian Ocean Rim Association-Indian Ocean Naval Symposium coordination involving China in its own embedded self-containment. This assumes a post-Quad multilateralist imagination in Delhi accenting the proactive instead of the reactive.   

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy. 



[i] “Economic realpolitik brings Asia’s big guns together,” Asia Times Online, October 26, 2018.

[ii] “Deciphering Oriental Mysteries of Silk, Pearls and Diamonds – Trios, Quartets and Quintets: Maritime dimensions of India’s strategic dilemmas in the changing Asian power balance,” by Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. In: India’s Approach to Asia: Strategy, Geopolitics and Responsibility by Namrata Goswami, ed., New Delhi, Pentagon Press, 2016, p. 332.

[iii] Ibid., p. 332. “Asia’s democratic security diamond,” by Shinzo Abe, Project Syndicate, December 27, 2012 at http://www.project-syndicate.org/print/a-strategic-alliance-for-Japan-and-india-by-shi… (accessed, October 7, 2015).

[iv] Ibid. p. 333.

[v] “Japan’s relationship with China evokes cold war memories,” by Evan Rees, Asia-Pacific Analyst/Stratfor, Brief, October 26, 2018.

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