America’s intensifying pro-democracy alignment with Japan, Australia and India has room to grow as other nations seek ways to push back on an aggressive China that is eager to dominate Asia and beyond in the 21st century, former top U.S. officials and regional experts said Tuesday.
Speaking at The Washington Brief, a monthly forum hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, analysts examined the likelihood that the four-nation informal alliance — known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and more commonly called “The Quad” — could expand to include nations such as South Korea, a strategically vital player in the Pacific.
Although the Quad has fashioned itself as a regional counterweight to China‘s communist regime, the sheer economic force of Beijing and the attraction of its markets have greatly complicated the calculus for South Korea and other nations that remain close allies of the U.S. but are deeply intertwined financially with China.
The potential economic costs of South Korea openly joining the Quad and angering Beijing, some critics say, outweigh any benefits Seoul would reap.
Still, regional specialists said Tuesday that while the U.S. and its Quad partners shouldn’t publicly pressure South Korea, they must make clear that the door is open to enlarging the partnership. Such growth will become more important as China‘s economic power and military presence expand around the world.
“In college football, the Big 10 has 14 teams and the Big 12 has 10 teams. There’s nothing that says the Quad has to have only four teams,” said retired Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
“There’s no gatekeeper for the Quad. We don’t have somebody or some country that says you can be a member and you can’t be a member,” he said at Tuesday’s event. “They have to decide among themselves if there’s going to be [more members]. The United States is not the gatekeeper here, and neither is, independently, Australia, Japan or India.”
Adm. Harris and other analysts stressed that the Quad, despite being structured to contain China, isn’t a military alliance and doesn’t mirror a mutual defense security organization such as NATO. That distinction is important, they said, when taking stock of what the Quad can and cannot accomplish with respect to competition and potential conflict with China.
The members of the Quad won’t necessarily act in unison if China mounts a military invasion of Taiwan, for example. Some analysts said the most serious questions surrounding the Quad‘s solidarity center on India.
“India, really, is probably the weakest link in that arrangement,” said Alexandre Mansourov, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
“To kind of count on India in the Quad arrangements, I wonder whether it’s a bit of wishful thinking or if we’re getting ahead of ourselves here,” he said at Tuesday’s virtual event. The moderator was veteran diplomat Christopher Hill, also a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
Adm. Harris disputed the notion that India is the weakest link, but he acknowledged that India should be considered “not a security ally with the United States,” unlike Australia and Japan, which are longtime U.S. security partners in the region.
China tries to divide
China has tried to fuel dissension in the ranks of the Quad, particularly between the U.S. and India.
“If India were to choose an ally, it would be China first and foremost, not the U.S., as this is in line with the laws of economic development under globalization, and the needs of the two peoples’ interests,” reads a Dec. 26 editorial by China‘s state-run Global Times newspaper.
While aligned on big-picture goals, Quad countries and potential members such as South Korea have other clear differences in handling sensitive political topics involving China. The U.S. and Australia were in lockstep late last year in announcing a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. Those nations, along with Canada and Britain, said they wouldn’t send diplomats or other official government representatives to the games as a way to protest what they say are China‘s human rights abuses.
India has not joined the effort. Japan last month quietly signaled that its government officials wouldn’t travel to Beijing, though Tokyo was careful not to refer to the decision as a boycott.
South Korea also has avoided the diplomatic boycott, likely because of its close economic relationship with China. That consideration hovers over many of Seoul‘s decisions with relation to Beijing.
About a quarter of all South Korean exports flow to China, making it Seoul‘s top trading partner. Since 2005, China has directly invested more than $9 billion in South Korea, according to figures compiled by the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker.
Those factors and others surely will play leading roles in whether South Korea ultimately decides to join the Quad.
“This is South Korea‘s decision. It’s a very important decision for South Korea,” former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani said during Tuesday’s event. “They are a close ally with the United States. … We’re a team here, so that’s important. But to respect [South Korea‘s] sovereignty and so forth, they have to make that decision.”