Australian Financial Review
25 January 2018
When four admirals walked calmly on to a stage in New Delhi last week, the echoes crossed the Indo-Pacific.
This was perhaps odd, because the naval leaders of India, Japan, Australia and America’s powerful Pacific Command said little surprising or provocative in the hour that followed.
Media reports had to fixate on just one line, where US Admiral Harry Harris pointed out that China “owned” the disruption its actions had caused in the region.
Yet it was precisely the admirals’ mere presence together – and the accompanying sense of normality – that made the moment historic.
The matter-of-fact way they presented a broadly united front on maritime security suggests we will quickly get used to what should be an uncontroversial reality.
This is that four countries with common interests can and should share their views about how to manage an age of uncertainty, and may even start to actively work in concert in the region.
The four naval officers embodied what has become known as the “Quad”, or Quadrilateral dialogue – a diplomatic arrangement that has been amplified to near-mythical status.
It first coalesced in 2007 only to dissipate after Australia’s withdrawal in early 2008. Now it’s back, with the admirals’ onstage quartet reprising a brief closed-door meeting of officials in Manila last November.
Some may see the Quad as the simple solution to China’s challenge to the strategic order: four democracies decisively combining their military and economic weight to confront and push back Beijing’s growing power and assertiveness.
Others claim the Quad is reckless folly, provoking China into the very military modernisation and coercive behaviour it has already been demonstrating. This view is especially prevalent among those who would appear to privilege China’s worldview.
The reality reflects neither of these caricatures.
The Quad is hardly the only act in the regional security drama. China’s assertive power and the unpredictability of President Trump are among factors causing many nations to swap notes on how to cope with new uncertainties, and to encourage their militaries to practise greater cooperation.
Australia’s recent foreign policy white paper captures this new trend of deepening and diversifying our security ties.
It is natural and realistic for nations to band together when they have convergent interests, capabilities to offer and a willingness to abide by shared rules and understandings.
For the past week, I have been convening expert dialogues among Indo-Pacific partners as wide-ranging as India, France and Sri Lanka. While the details of the discussions were off-the-record, the emphasis has been on how much we have in common in seeking to navigate uncertainty. A constant theme has been the need to ensure that rules and the rights of small and middle powers are respected.
Music to Australian ears
A nuanced understanding of what is really happening comes from India, the host of the global Raisina dialogue, where the admirals spoke.
The geopolitical refrain at Raisina was relentlessly Indo-Pacific and should be music to Australian ears.
That is, the Pacific and Indian oceans are now one strategic system, increasingly connected by economic, energy, diplomacy, security and societal ties.
Part of this is about India’s expanding links eastward; it is no coincidence that today the leaders of ASEAN will assemble in New Delhi for India’s Republic Day parade, and it will be serendipitous for the coordination of Indian and Australian foreign policy that those same 10 heads of government will visit Australia in March.
But Delhi’s policymakers show no conceit in trying to own the Indo-Pacific idea. Instead, they recognise this is largely driven by China’s expanding interests and presence in the Indian Ocean, and partly by the reliance of many other nations, including Japan, on these sea lanes for their energy, prosperity and security.
It is also clear from listening to key Indian policy-makers that Delhi is now fundamentally comfortable with the Quad, and remains invested in its growing US security partnership, playing a game that will go well beyond Trump. The new US security and defence strategies, unabashedly Indo-Pacific in tone, reflect the calculations of Washington’s strategic establishment for the long term.
India’s decision to host the four-admiral show was no accident of scheduling but a calculated signal to the world – and most pointedly to China.
Time will tell whether Xi Jinping’s international powerplay was premature or in fact dictated by his concern that the time-window to lock in Chinese greatness may be brief – before internal pressures such as an ageing population begin to bite.
Either way, China has lost the chance to win India’s trust, through such choices as military confrontations on disputed borders, naval power projection close to Indian waters and efforts to keep India out of international institutions like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Our own security relations with India, meanwhile, have made heartening progress, most recently with India’s admission last week to the so-called Australia Group to prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons – a longstanding Indian aspiration that Australia, as chair of this arrangement, has championed.
There are strong signs of bipartisanship in recognising the importance of India, with five Labor parliamentarians, including Penny Wong, visiting Delhi for a leadership dialogue this week.
India will now be assessing whether this Australian bipartisanship extends to the Quad, where Delhi’s own intent is to hasten slowly – but absolutely not to step back.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review and is re-published here with permission.