The so-called Quad – a designation that belongs more to the world of think tanks than to diplomacy – is a declaration that serves as an umbrella for new forms of security cooperation between Australia, India, Japan and the US. All but India have long had formal defense alliance ties to the US, and for Australia also with the UK. The Quad’s first declaratory appearance was in 2007. Interestingly, among its Asia-Pacific signatories, it was the nation that was best covered by pre-existing defense treaties and farthest away from China – Australia – that backed away from it after a change of government. It has returned in 2017.
Even during the Cold War or what were really hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, non-communist Asian nations were never very keen on formal alliances among themselves. Who even remembers that SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, created in 1954 as a parallel to NATO, lived a very quiet life and formally disappeared in 1977? Neutralism was invented in Asia: Its heyday was the Bandung Conference in 1955 which led to the Non-Aligned Movement. Even Japan took part in the event, attended by Jawaharlal Nehru from India and by Zhou Enlai from China.
The Korean War was the exception: It had been waged by two formal alliances pitted against one another, even if legitimized on one side by the United Nations of the time. Two decades later in Vietnam, the US would obtain military or logistical support from some regional allies, as did North Vietnam from China and Russia. But nothing was formalized under an alliance or even a formal regional proclamation. India, of course, has long defined its foreign policy on the basis of neutralism.
The US itself, clearly the dominant power over the Asia-Pacific, preferred what has been termed a “hub and spokes” alliance: bilateral treaties that were often asymmetric, not requiring the junior partner of the alliance to assist the US.
In the case of Japan, it took a very long process over decades to slowly rebalance the alliance, and as of now Japan still does not have the same defense obligations as the US under its treaty and successive guidelines.
One can of course contrast this with the extensive obligations, under Article Five of NATO, for 22 members of the European Union. The other six EU member states have joined NATO’s less demanding Partnership for Peace.
The Quad initiative, renewed in 2017, is therefore an unusual development in the history of Asia, whether during or after the Cold War.
It is also not formalized as an alliance, with characterizations that hover between politics – a league of democracies – and strategy: collective but loose military developments. Of course, there is little doubt that the object of the declaratory statements, if not the target, is China.
In a quarter or a half century, what has been the most profound change in Asia?
It is the rise of China, with its attendant military developments. In 2018, China’s military budget increased 8.1 percent. China’s military projection now extends at least into the Indian Ocean – and India’s defense budget increased 7.81 percent. Overall it is still only 40 percent of China’s expenditure.
Chinese experts are of course right to point out that China’s defense efforts and capabilities are far from reaching those of the US. But viewed from the perspective of countries, large or small, from East Asia to the Indian Ocean, the single most impressive development is the rise in China’s capacities and projections.
The appearance of the “Indo-Pacific” designation – another declaratory stance – is also a recognition of sorts for China’s increasing outreach. In a less obvious way, the global overstretch of American security commitments is also a driver for heightened defense ties among America’s Asian allies or partners.
Europeans are still half a world away, although our economic well-being is closely dependent on a peaceful and open Asia.
For the time being, what Europeans insist on is the maintenance of common rules for the road.
The European Union is not a mere declaratory grouping, but a collective institution that is achieving an unprecedented degree of common laws and regulations. Not all of its members are engaged into alliances, but stability – including in Asia, whether one terms it the Indo-Pacific or the Asia-Pacific, is a key requirement.
In truth, how China acts on its newly established strength throughout this immense region will determine what are really reactive moves at present. And of course, it is a vicious circle of action and reaction – with each side claiming to be only reactive, that we most fear.