During a discussion in Singapore, US Admiral Phil Davidson admitted that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue format (aka the Quad) may effectively be dead on arrival after the security partnership between India, Japan, Australia and the United States has failed to gain much traction among its members. The reality is that The Quad was envisaged by the United States as military alliance whose aim would be to thwart Chinese economic progress among its partners in Asia. The problem however is that whilst in theory, the Quad members all have complex relations with China, the US instigators of the Quad failed to realise that unless one is prepared for a major world war, it is difficult to stop any one country’s trading and development initiative through military means.
In this sense, there was always a practical flaw in the Quad’s purpose. Whilst China’s Belt and Road initiative is all about helping partner nations to develop their economies and gain prosperity through new trading opportunities, Belt and Road has no military component whatsoever. By contrast, the Quad called for military commitments among four nations that don’t remotely share a border, whilst offering no tangible trading or developmental incentives for such a broad based military commitment.
And thus one realises that even for countries like India and Japan whose modern relations with China have often been difficult, the leaders in Tokyo and New Delhi still ultimately prefer prosperity building measures to military entanglements that are totally removed from the prospect of fostering economic prosperity. This was made abundantly clear when late last year, Vietnam surprised some in the US by categorically ruling out joining the Quad. Whilst Vietnam shares a land border with China, Hanoi wisely realised that trading with both China and the US is a far better option than provoking its neighbour with whom South China Sea tensions have been de-escalating, through membership of a military alliance that thus far has been little more than a paper tiger – but one with the power to antagonise nevertheless.
Although it is true that in recent years India and Japan have enhanced economic ties in what amounts to an effort to circumvent Belt and Road connectivity, even in this respect, Japan and India aren’t especially a good economic match. This is due to the fact that India is a high growth economy predicated on the mass production of generally low quality goods, whilst Japan has long ago achieved first world economic status, but with the added detriment of long term stagnation. Even so, India-Japan ties demonstrate that even for countries that have thus far failed to embrace Belt and Road, the necessity of trade outweighs the desire to build a substantial military alliance led by the United States.
Finally, although of all the Quad members, Australia is the most similar to the United States in terms of cultural characteristics, Canberra has continued to try and have it both ways with China and the United States. Some Australians realise that Chinese technology will help to enhance Australia economic productivity, but other Australasian politicians remain fixated on playing America’s zero-sum game in the Asia-Pacific region.
As such, whilst Belt and Road has clear but flexible multilateral economic goals, the Quad has by contrast failed to develop any direct economic incentives for participation, while the military strategy of the Quad now appears to be more of zero-sum American pipe-dream than anything which represents the actual aspirations of Asian nations.