The idea of a grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia has been around for some time, but was unable to take off as Australia and later India had second thoughts on the proposal. The quadrilateral concept has resurfaced again as Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has proposed a top-level dialogue of the four nations in a recent interview. Kano had made some preliminary inquiries on the proposal, having raised the issue with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the sidelines of a multilateral meeting in Manila in August.
According to the Japanese proposal, the four nations would work to promote free trade and defence cooperation in the maritime domain across the Indian Ocean, from the South China Sea to the African coast. Though left unsaid, the underlying aim of the concept is to counter China’s assertion in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to officially propose the four-way dialogue partnership to US President Donald Trump during the Asean summit later this week. The Japanese proposal also envisages “collaborative roles in the partnership to the UK and France”.
The Narendra Modi government had shown its disinterest in the dialogue just a few months ago, but has since changed its stance. New Delhi has indicated its willingness to be part of the Japanese proposal. The Modi government has also responded favourably to US President Donald Trump’s new South Asian policy which sees India in a prominent role in the South Asian region with a larger Indian involvement in Afghanistan.
The time seems to be ripe for the quadrilateral proposal that had received a mixed response about a decade ago, swinging from the initial favourable response to sudden back-tracking when faced with Chinese objections. The quadrilateral dialogue was first mooted by Shinzo Abe in 2007, and senior officials of the four countries held informal discussions. Beijing, however, interpreted the move as an attempt to contain China.
Along with the dialogue, the four countries held called the Malabar joint naval exercises, together with Singapore in the Bay of Bengal. But China reacted sharply and made formal diplomatic protests to each member country. It resulted in Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd withdrawing from the Quadrilateral dialogue. But since that time, Australia has built stronger economic and strategic relations with India as has Japan. India, the US and Japan have been holding the Malabar Exercise and in recent years Australia has been openly indicating its keenness to join the exercises.
Much has changed since 2008 in the political dynamics in the region. China’s greater assertion of its territorial claims, its building new infrastructure to buttress its claims in the South China Sea region and its Belt and Road Initiative towards a China-centric connectivity programme has brought fresh challenges. Abe with a freshly renewed majority in the Diet, the Japanese legislature, is in a position to bring changes in Japan’s long held pacifist defence policy. Washington is taking steps to restore its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.
New Delhi has traditionally been cautious in its approach to China, but the Modi government has been more forthright in articulating its strategic interests and has shed much of the earlier wariness to Chinese reactions.
China is increasing its influence in the South Asian region, and Beijing’s assertive posture makes it necessary for New Delhi to draw closer friendships in the Asia-Pacific sphere. China’s Belt-Road Initiative is an attractive programme for the infrastructure deficit states in South Asia. As a major trading partner and investor in the Asia-Pacific region, China is claiming a commanding position in Asia. India has to steer its way through the unpredictability of US foreign policy under the Trump presidency, China’s new sense of assurance and power projection, Pakistan getting drawn under the Chinese umbrella as its friends show greater impatience with Islamabad for housing jihadi groups.
Tillerson has attempted to translate Trump’s thoughts and tweets into implementable policies. While basking in the glow of Tillerson’s fine praise for India, Indian policy makers would do well to assess the likely longevity of the American assurances. Washington is playing a tough love game with Islamabad, but two of Pakistan’s critical advantages cannot be wished away however irked Washington may be with the Pakistani establishment. These two advantages are namely, Pakistan is the main land route to Afghanistan for American and NATO forces and Islamabad ability to persuade Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. Islamabad is well versed on how to use these factors to its best advantage.
In Afghanistan, Russia, China and even Iran are making their moves as the US decides to enhance its military presence while Moscow is reaching out to Pakistan to forge new alliances with the Afghan situation in mind. A quadrilateral with European involvement has more chances of success in the present times.