The Trump administration’s push for a military alliance among the major democracies of Asia to contain China showed new signs of moving ahead more rapidly than anticipated, with Australian agreeing to join U.S., Indian, Japanese forces in historic joint naval exercises next month.
While the four have engaged in a loose diplomatic grouping known as “the Quad” for years, they has previously struggled to achieve major military or geopolitical coordination amid reservations from India and the uncertain reaction from Beijing.
But recent days have seen a shift in New Delhi, which announced Monday Australia would be taking part in an upcoming war game with Americans and Japanese — a development following closely on the Trump administration’s push for the Quad to serve as the core of a more formal “Asian NATO” to constrain China.
There were also fresh signs Monday that at least one key smaller nation on China’s periphery — communist-run Vietnam — may be increasingly eager to align with the Quad for economic and military security.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in his first foreign trip since becoming succeeding Shinzo Abe last month, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc inked an agreement for Japan to begin exporting defense equipment to Vietnam.
Mr. Suga said a key thrust of his four-day trip to Vietnam and Indonesia was to pursue economic and security cooperation to counter China’s growing power and protect sea lanes in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
It remains to be seen whether those nations or others, such as the Philippines and South Korea, might one day become members of a NATO-like security alliance in Asia, analysts generally agree they could be included in an expanded version of the “Quad.”
Past efforts for an East Asian security alliance, such as the post-World War II Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to guard against Cold War-era communism, failed to gain lasting traction.
But that was before China’s emergence as a rising superpower, a reality that has prompted many to argue the Quad — a strategic forum first suggested in 2007 by Mr. Abe and later embraced by the Trump administration as part of its 2017 Indo-Pacific strategy — is ripe for expansion.
At a top-level meeting of Quad diplomats in Tokyo this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing’s economic aggression toward smaller nations, military muscle-flexing and territorial bullying must be countered by deeper coordination among the region’s pro-democracy forces.
“As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption and coercion,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Beijing has sharply criticized the U.S. push, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserting on a recent tour of several Asian nations that the Trump administration and its Indo-Pacific strategy represent “a huge security risk” to the region. During a stop in Malaysia, Mr. Yi slammed the Quad as already being an “Indo-Pacific NATO,” according to the South China Morning Post.
The catch is that the Quad, while gradually stepping up joint military exercises in recent years, has been hampered by the hesitation of some members who worry that a more formal NATO-like organization would invite a punitive economic backlash from Beijing.
China ranks as by far the top foreign trading partner for India and Australia, and is very close second to the U.S. for Japan.
And then there is the issue of India, which traditionally has resisted participating in formal alliances, even with powerful and like-minded democracies such as the United States. But India’s official and popular thinking has been colored by recent Chinese aggressiveness, notably the deadly clash this summer along the tensely disputed Himalayan border running between the two nations.
India’s decision to invite Australia to participate next month in the so-called Malabar joint naval exercises with the U.S., Japan and Australia — and Canberra’s decision to accept — “reinforce the fact that the Quad finally has legs,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center.
“The fact that all four countries will be participating in a major training exercise is no small matter,” Mr. Kugelman said Monday, although he cautioned against reading too deeply into the development.
“I would not, however, suggest that Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar exercise means that the Quad is evolving into something NATO-like,” Mr. Kugelman said.
“Let’s be clear: the Quad nations are not interested in an alliance,” he said. “They see the Quad as a stepping stone to operational maritime security cooperation, but outside of the alliance system in which the U.S. has traditionally embedded its military cooperation with its closest defense partners.”
Still, India’s Economic Times newspaper said the invitation marked “a significant shift in policy” by government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The war games, which will feature joint aircraft carrier and submarine exercises in both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, will demonstrate a change of stance for the first time since 2007, the paper reported.
Australia participated in Malabar that year, but was not invited by the Indians in subsequent years after China complained.
“It’s a positive sign that India has taken the initiative here by reaching out to the Australians to conduct military exercises along with the U.S. and Japan,” David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces Colonel and East Asia expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an interview Monday.
“It’s a positive sign for the potential of the Quad to be developing interoperability and trust, along with a security architecture that will be able to defend the interests of all the members against threats, including that represented by China as the 600-pound gorilla,” Mr. Maxwell said.
However, he too was cautious about over characterizing the latest developments as a clear cut move toward something like an Asian NATO.
“I’m worried when we call it a ‘NATO-like’ architecture because it’s got to be Asia unique,” he said. “We certainly need these relationships of like-minded countries, but not necessarily in the European style.”
He added that while Japan and Australia appear to be giving “strong support” to the notion of a beefed-up Quad aimed at countering China, the Indians remain the wild card.
“The long pole in the tent, I think, is Indian politics,” Mr. Maxwell said. “If we push it too far and India thinks they are really falling under our sphere of influence, they’re no longer going to be the independent India they’re always aspiring to be.”