Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to the Philippines on Sunday, on a three-day trip to attend the Association of South East Asian Nations-India summit and the East Asia summit. Despite these important multilateral events, however, the focus is more likely going to be on three bilateral meetings Modi has planned in Manila: one each with US President Donald Trump, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Buzz around the summit suggests the four countries are likely to resurrect a decade-old idea for a grouping, known as the quadrilateral, in yet another attempt to contain the rise of China.
Officials from each of the countries held a group meeting on Sunday, before their respective leaders were to come together, with India’s Ministry of External Affairs saying they discussed issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region. “The discussions focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region that they share with each other and with other partners,” a release from the Indian ministry said. “They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.”
The preliminary discussions on Sunday and various other indicators such as statements from Japanese ministers to US President Donald Trump’s persistent use of the phrase “Indo-Pacific” over “Asia-Pacific”, have suggested a formal dialogue is likely to be announced in Manila. If the quadrilateral is indeed formalised this week, it will conclude a process that Abe himself attempted to start 10 years ago, only to be upset by leadership changes and the reluctance of both India and Australia in upsetting Beijing.
Confluence of seas
Japan President Shinzo Abe delivered a speech to the Indian Parliament in August 2007, entitled a “confluence of the two seas”, a phrase he took from the title of a book written by Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. Abe, a right-wing nationalist who speaks often of restoring Japan to its rightful place in history, told Indian lawmakers that he expects ties between the two countries to be “pivotal” in ensuring the Indo-Pacific region upholds values such as freedom, democracy and the respect for basic human rights.
Abe then named two more countries that combined would add even more heft to this grouping:
“By Japan and India coming together in this way, this “broader Asia” will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely
Can we not say that faced with this wide, open, broader Asia, it is incumbent upon us two democracies, Japan and India, to carry out the pursuit of freedom and prosperity in the region?— Japan President Shinzo Abe, in a speech to Indian Parliament, August 2007
Abe resigned from office barely a month later, and though the US pursued the quadrilateral idea despite him, the other countries were not fully on board – especially after Beijing sent angry messages to each of the nations over what was then being called an “Asian NATO”. Australia finally put an end to the grouping when its Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced in 2008 that Canberra was not interested. If the relevance was not clear enough, Smith was standing next to Chinese foreign minister when he made the declaration.
Half a decade later, after Abe scripted an unexpected comeback, he authored an Op-Ed entitled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” in which he called once again for this league of democracies to take the lead in ensuring “peace, stability and freedom of navigation”.
Even then, in 2012, conditions were not right for the grouping to be formalised. The United Progressive Alliance-run government in India was not prepared to openly take aim at Beijing, and Australia was similarly concerned both about its relationship with China while also wanting to be the United States’ prime ally in Asia. US President Barack Obama attempted a pivot to Asia, with closer ties to all of the quadrilateral countries, but the grouping itself did not come into being.
The five ensuing years have, however, seen a major shift in how all of the countries view Beijing. Xi Jinping’s tenure has seen China go from testing the waters in the region to unabashed expansionism, attempting to impose its will on smaller nations in its periphery and developing grand strategic roadmaps like the One Belt One Road initiative. In their own ways, each of the countries in the proposed quadrilateral has developed sharper opinions of Chinese activities.
India, which shares a huge border and counts China as its biggest trading partner, made this switch clear earlier this year when it was the only major nation boycotting the big One Belt One Road summit, despite Modi’s early bonhomie with Xi. With no one now believing platitudes about China’s peaceful rise towards leadership, policymakers across Asia have begun thinking up ways to counter Beijing, since containment now seems impossible.
The impetus has come from Japan yet again. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in October that Abe would propose the four-way dialogue and the US followed suit, saying it is “looking at a working-level quadrilateral meeting in the near term”. A spokesperson for India’s External Affairs Ministry was less direct, saying New Delhi is “open to working with like-minded countries on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint”. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it sets the stage for talks. This week’s meetings in Manila are, as a result, likely to see the official announcement of a quadrilateral dialogue, with further moves for Australia to join the security trilateral that already exists between India, Japan and the US.
The main obstacle standing in the way remains the three countries’ very different ideas of how to take on China along with, to a lesser extent, the unpredictable nature of promises made by Washington, DC under President Donald Trump. But even if the four are not set on what must be done about Beijing, the grouping will likely see them work towards better cooperation on security, trade and freedom of navigation, which in turn will send a message to other countries in the region.
The last time Japan attempted to bring about this ‘diamond of democracies’, the effort collapsed in the face of angry messages from Beijing. China, coming off a momentous party congress that has cemented Xi Jinping’s place in history, is likely to be even more vocal about its unhappiness with this grouping this time around. The key test for this expected quadrilateral, which hopes to re-align power in the region, will depend on how each of the nations responds to what is likely to be predictable provocation from Beijing in response.