Will India’s Quad commitment unite the Asia-Pacific against China?
As China is increasing its clout in Asia and across the globe, regional players are feeling the pressure to form a united front in order to push back against Beijing’s assertiveness. In the wake of the recent Quadrilateral Initiative meeting in Tokyo – known colloquially as the Quad and composed of the United States, Japan, Australia and India – US deputy secretary of state Stephen E. Biegun called for New Delhi and Washington to take strategic cooperation to the next level, lamenting that both countries had been “too cautious” for too long to do so in the face of growing Chinese influence.
It’s no coincidence that Biegun singled out India in his appeal. Since its Japan-led inception in 2007, the Quad’s strength and effectiveness has always particularly hinged on the will of a single participant – India. Conceived as an informal forum to balance against China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific and transgressions of the rules-based international order, the format was put on pause for an entire decade following India’s lack of interest.
Changing winds in New Delhi
It was finally revived in 2017, but the decade-long hiatus speaks to India’s self-image as a traditionally non-aligned actor. New Delhi has been deeply suspicious of geopolitical gamesmanship and reluctant to participate in any form of international cooperation that could be perceived as a military alliance. However, things may be about to change. India’s stance seems to be evolving towards greater cooperation in the face of increasing border tensions with China, which recently caused the deadliest clash in decades.
The Quad meeting impressively reflected this foreign policy sea-change, with India turning out to be a highly engaged and enthusiastic participant in the deliberations. This could see the Quad becoming a more formalized and influential forum, a hope expressed by former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshanskar Menon. Indeed, India’s embrace of the Quad initiative as a means to further its strategic interests, rather than regarding it as a foreign policy constraint, means that the allies can mount a formidable defense against Chinese encroachment in the Asia Pacific.
The South Korean question
Such positive developments hint at a future where a united front against China is within reach. Even so, not everything is rosy. For while all members of the Quad are poised to deepen cooperation and balance China’s power, with Japan’s new Prime Minister Suga specifically being pressured by hardliners in his party to do so, one important player in the region is swimming against the current – and could throw a snag in Quad’s ability to fully make its presence felt across Asia.
South Korea, in a troubling sign that China’s economic allure still more often than not trumps forward thinking geopolitical considerations, is adopting an increasingly pro-China perspective, just as regional power distribution is beginning to tip against Beijing. Although Seoul isn’t a party to the Quad format, it has participated in “Quad Plus” meetings earlier this year. Involving regional players beyond the traditional four in Quad meetings was hoped to bolster other countries’ support for a common line on China. But in the case of South Korea at least, these hopes may have been premature.
Case in point is the frequently reiterated desire of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping to hold a summit this year. The two leaders have already discussed summit plans along side intensifying bilateral economic cooperation in the aftermath of the pandemic, with diplomatic officials from both countries having held high-level meetings in Busan in August.
Seoul’s Chinese gamble
President Moon’s cozying up to China could end up undermining the Quad’s resolve just as it starts to solidify. Naturally, Seoul’s direct influence on the Quad is limited, seeing that it’s not a full member. Yet South Korea remains an influential democracy in the region whose unwise maneuvering at this critical juncture in Asian politics could lessen regional diplomatic messaging and standard-setting, sending all the wrong signals if a democracy like South Korea openly defies a common course
As such, smaller Asian states may look at the model of South Korea and question the virtue of geopolitical alignment with the Quad, and the loss of Chinese partnership, if Chinese money and democracy can apparently both be enjoyed. Seoul’s motivations are painfully obvious, all the while Moon’s room for maneuvering at home has been significantly reduced over the course of the pandemic.
He has no interest in provoking Beijing’s ire and is reluctant to engage in anything that could be perceived as a slight to China – too important is his country’s reliance on Chinese economic performance. Worse, a previous attempt to encourage Korean companies to move production back to the homeland in order to increase employment, is currently failing for the entire nation to see, as Korean firms have no intentions of returning home. Economists lay the blame squarely at Moon’s feet, criticizing his government for raising the costs of doing business at home and thereby deterring firms from running their operations domestically.
Can India tip the balance?
Given these factors, and considering that Chinese investors have increasingly renewed their purchase of South Korean exports, Moon is banking on keeping the economy afloat by intertwining it more deeply with China’s, as well as wealthy Chinese investors. This is a threat to the Quad’s strategic outlook, but it’s also why India’s changing attitude towards the initiative is turning out so crucial. The economic and military powerhouse’s engagement might be highly effective in off-setting any negative impacts from Seoul’s “third way”, especially when New Delhi manages to leverage the Quad to bring many more of the smaller but strategically important countries to the Quad Plus table.
Formalizing the Quad and Quad Plus meetings could be an important message that the forum is here to stay, and encourage greater involvement form its members. With Chinese assertiveness only set to grow, the importance of cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia and India, the key players in the wider Pacific, cannot be overstated.
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