Opinion

Can the Quad rise to be an Asian NATO?

J Srinivasan | Updated on July 16, 2020 Published on July 16, 2020

The Quad must first help Asian nations reduce their dependence on China. Also, roping in Asean will strengthen the body

The Asia-Pacific, or rather the Indo-Pacific, is worried with the Middle Kingdom that, under ‘Ruler’ Xi Jinping, is increasingly turning expansionist. So much so that when the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, tried to resurrect his 2007 idea of a Quad or a “democratic Asian security diamond”, it found resonance.

The Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involves besides Japan, the US, Australia and India, all of which see an increasingly economically and militarily powerful China flexing its muscle in the region and beyond. They want to keep the sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific free. But can the Quad form the kernel of a larger Asia-Pacific alliance like the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)?

In 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UK and France signed a Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance to ward off any attack by Germany or the Soviet Union. A year later, this alliance was opened to Benelux and it became the Brussels Treaty Organization. Soon enough, talks expanded for a military alliance that would also include North America.

Thus, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 by Western European nations plus the US, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

Then, all the Western economies, except the US, were more or less in the same boat, trying to recover from the devastations of the War. Crucially, none of them looked to, leave alone being dependent on, the nation they saw as their key adversary — the Soviet Union.

Supply chains

But fast-forward to today. Not just most of Asia even the Quad members are dependent on Chinese supply chains. This alters the equation considerably.

Though the US and Japan should be able to reduce the dependence on China in some time, it will take a while for Australia and far longer for India, which actually has the most to gain from a NATO-like alliance. The other Asian nations are more acutely dependent on Chinese trade, and will need really persuasive arguments to come on board.

If indeed the US wants to create an alliance to counter, if not take on, China, it must first work to wean away Asian nations from dependence on China by, perhaps, sharing technology, shifting its supply chains out of China to other destinations, and opening its market to other nations.

Recall that Washington had opened both the political and economic doors wide to China. The epochal visit of President Richard Nixon in 1971 opened the political door. President Bill Clinton opened the economic door wider through the US-China Relations Act of 2000. These are the two key reasons for the rise and rise of the Middle Kingdom.

And it is necessary for Japan and Australia, with their technology advantage, to aid in this initiative. India, too, must help in the areas it has an edge such as IT/ITeS. Once the economic front is secure, Asian nations may feel more confident about the alliance and its leadership.

US must take the lead

The Quad can even consider taking over the Indo-Japanese Africa Asia Growth Corridor (AAGC). This is a multi-pronged initiative to enhance capacity and skills, infrastructure and development projects, and people-to-people partnership. It can well dovetail with a plan to wean countries, especially in Asia, away from China. It will provide a credible, and democratic, alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

While India, Japan and Australia feel most threatened by China and will be anxious to get an alliance going, the US must make clear its plans for the region and take the lead. It, after all, remains the most powerful country in the world and none of the other Quad members has the heft to shape events in the region. The US stationing two carrier groups in South China Sea is indication that Washington is taking the Chinese threat seriously. Quad can build on that.

And, only if the Quad members act in concert and with a purpose will Beijing take them seriously. As will the Asean, which wields considerable influence in the region. The Association of South-East Asian Nations will need to be roped in if the alliance is to become a reality first, and a force multiplier subsequently, in the shape of a NATO-like body.

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Published on July 16, 2020
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