China’s Options Towards the (Re)emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

Adam Ni is a researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.  His areas of interest include China’s foreign and security policy.  He can be found on Twitter @adam_ni.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (China) is facing the (re)emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia.  The unstated aim of the Quad is to constrain China’s growing power in Asia through possible military and economic cooperation that would raise the cost if Beijing challenges the status quo.

Date Originally Written:  February 28, 2018.

Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a scholar of China’s foreign and security policy.  The article is written from the point of view of Chinese decision-makers considering policy options in response to the Quad’s challenges.

Background:  The Quad can be traced back to 2007 when diplomatic efforts culminated in a multilateral naval exercise off the Bay of Bengal.  While the countries involved contended that their activities were not aimed at China, it was clear that these activities were largely a response to China’s growing power.  However, the Quad was short-lived with Australia pulling out in February 2008 under Chinese pressure[1].

Recently, the Quad has been revived in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China with expanded geopolitical ambitions.  In November 2017, officials from the Quad nations met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in the interest of all countries[2].  This meeting was followed in January by the meeting of the Quad navy chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue in India.  During the meeting, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, characterized China as a “disruptive, transitional force” in the region, and urged Quad nations to take measures against China’s “unilateral ways to change the use of global commons” and uphold “rule-based freedom of navigation[3].”  This sentiment was echoed by the navy chiefs of the other three Quad nations.

Significance:  While it is still too early to tell what the Quad would entail, in theory, it aims to constrain China’s growing power and to ameliorate China’s behavior by altering Beijing’s strategic calculus.  The military dimension of the Quad could take the form of expanded military cooperation that would raise the cost for China to use or threaten the use of force, including in relation to the East and South China Seas.  The economic dimension could take the form of expanded economic and infrastructure cooperation that would compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a grand plan to reshape the world economy with China at the center.

Option #1:  Reassurance.  China continues to emphasize to the Quad nations its intent to develop peacefully through public statements and diplomatic channels.

Risk:  Without pushing back against the Quad, the Quad nations and others in the region may believe that China is unwilling to impose a cost on them for challenging China’s security and economic interests.  This lack of push back may lead to further coalescence of the Quad and may even draw in other states in the region that have become wary of China’s growing power, including those that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Gain:  Option #1 may help to undermine the narrative of an ambitious China with a willingness to adopt coercive means to protect and advance its interests.  This option would strengthen the arguments of domestic forces in the Quad nations that advocate a softer approach in responding to Chinese power.

Option #2:  Punishment.  China applies a high degree of economic and diplomatic pressure on Quad nations to demonstrate the cost of challenging China’s interests and thus deter further challenges.  This option could take the form of economic coercion, formal diplomatic protests, and the downgrading of bilateral cooperation in key fields.

Risk:  Option #2 would strengthen the rationale for the Quad and the argument for constraining China’s power in the first place by demonstrating China’s willingness to adopt coercive measures against those that challenge its interests.  This option may further exacerbate the negative perception of China among the Quad nations, especially where there is already a lively debate about China’s influence (such as in Australia and the United States).  In addition, economic coercion may damage the Chinese economy and in the long run make the target economies less dependent on China.

Gain:  China demonstrating strength and resolve early on may lead to the collapse of the Quad if the Quad nations are not willing to pay the high cost of challenging China’s interests.  For example, Australia is highly dependent on China for trade and investment flows.  The Chinese government could put in place measures to reduce Chinese tourists or students from going to Australia and link these restrictions to Australia’s involvement with the Quad.  Such measures may also deter other regional countries from cooperating with the Quad against China’s interests.

Option #3:  Reassurance and caution.  China continues to emphasize its peaceful intent while also signaling its willingness to impose an economic and political cost on the Quad nations should they continue to challenge China’s interests.

Risk:  Option #3 may not be effective due to a lack of concrete cost imposed on the Quad nations, through, for example, coercive economic measures.  At the same time, the cautioning may be interpreted as an aggressive warning of China’s coercive intent, further exacerbating public anxiety in the Quad nations.

Gain:  This approach may be enough to forestall the further development of the Quad through providing reassurance but also signals China’s resolve to protects its interests.  Option #3’s key benefit is that it does not incur large political or economic cost for China immediately, but hinges Chinese retaliation on further Quad activities.

Other Comments:  The revived Quad is still in the early stages of its development, and it is too early to tell what the Quad would entail.  The above options are presented on the basis that the Quad may involve military and economic dimensions that challenge China’s interests, including its territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as its Belt and Road Initiative.  Given the diversity of strategic interests between the Quad nations in relation to China, there is a likelihood that the Quad will not develop beyond a mechanism for dialogue.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Indrani Bagchi, “Australia to pull out of ‘quad’ that excludes China,” Times of India, February 6, 2008. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Australia-to-pull-out-of-quad-that-excludes-China/articleshow/2760109.cms.

[2] “India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on Indo-Pacific (November 12, 2017),” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 12, 2017. Available at: http://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29110/IndiaAustraliaJapanUS_Consultations_on_IndoPacific_November_12_2017

[3] “‘China a disruptive power,’ say navy chiefs of Quadrilateral nations,” Times of India, January 19, 2018. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-a-disruptive-power-quad-nations-navy-chiefs/articleshow/62562144.cms.

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