Australia rejoining Quad will not advance regional prosperity, unity

By Li Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/15 18:18:40

US President Donald Trump's Asia visit has given a fresh push to Australia to rejoin the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007. Under the guise of establishing an "Asian Arc of Democracy" - with Japan, the US, India and Australia, Quad is aimed at including countries from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and then to Central Asia, "virtually all the countries on China's periphery except China itself." The concept of Quad was reinforced by joint military war games named Malabar, and has been dubbed the "Asian NATO."

In April 2007, the Australian Navy joined Malabar exercises off the Japanese island of Okinawa. A month later, then prime minister John Howard signed up to Quad, but his successor Kevin Rudd soon announced a pullout. Although sources reveal that Australia's withdrawal was due to Quad's internal contradictions, Rudd's decision to leave remains a target of criticism by Canberra's hawks as embarrassing Japan and appeasing China. India's rebuff to Australia's appeal to return to Malabar exercises in July was blamed on Rudd's decision to quit.

In fact, Quad never lost its momentum inside Australia. The hawks will not miss any chance to push the government back to the table. They claim that Australia has no choice but to revive the quadrilateral security dialogue in order to counter Chinese power. Ministerial talks between Australia and Japan over Quad were held in Tokyo in June. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently confirmed that she had discussed the resurrection of Quad with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono.

To shroud its military nature, member countries are making a renewed pitch saying that Quad is aimed at providing infrastructure funding across the Indo-Pacific region in a transparent and responsible way so as not to encumber developing countries with unsustainable debt. This rhetoric, together with public declarations that the group is not intended to contain China, sounds hollow.

Nevertheless, Canberra appears to be a willing and enthusiastic listener. Indeed, Australia never hides its reservations about transparency and standards of governance of the China-led Belt and Road initiative. Some conspiracy theorists have even claimed Beijing has nefarious hidden plans for the initiative. This explains Canberra's refusal to officially endorse the Belt and Road or link it to the Developing Northern Australia strategy.

Yet, the prospect of reviving Quad has led to criticism from Australia's strategic commentators. In particular, critics argue that the quadrilateral group is an attempt to divide the Asia-Pacific along Cold War fault lines, which does not serve Australia's long-term interests. Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China, criticized Quad, saying it "was completely at odds with decades of regional diplomacy that sought to unify the region along non-ideological lines to promote regional cooperation and integration." In a similar vein, Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center, said that Quad would simply add more strategic mistrust and strains to the worsening security environment of Australia.

Unfortunately, in the increasingly fraught Asia-Pacific strategic background, we are witnessing Australia's growing willingness to resurrect Quad. In the eyes of those Quad enthusiasts, it is in Australia's national interests to enhance security ties with the US and its allies.

This logic, however, is confusing. Australia is unlike the US, which regards China as a competitor; unlike Japan, which perceives China as an immediate threat; and unlike India, which has border disputes with China. On the contrary, China contributes immensely to Australia's sustainable economic growth.

Besides, membership of Quad is potentially costly and constraining to Canberra, but it does not entail any expense to Washington; Tokyo wants to stay in for selfish interests; India remains silent on the issue. Given its recent austerity budget, why should Australia be involved when the pay-offs are uncertain?

The answer lies in Australia's paradoxical psyche - to quote Mark Beeson, an Australian professor, "Australia's principal prospective foe is also its most important trade partner." For many years, Australia perceived China as a threat, and was trapped in a self-made dichotomy between security and economy. With burgeoning two-way trade, it started leaning for security on like-minded allies to counter its economic dependence on China.

This has prevented Australia from forging strong ties with China, even in areas like investment and infrastructure. An alliance is a threat to non-members, which may trigger a spiral of uncertainty and insecurity. In this sense, Quad contributes only to divide the Asia-Pacific into hostile armed blocs. If Australia is to embrace a prosperous, rule-abiding region, it needs to be more forward-looking, less delusional, more neutral and less biased.

The author is a lecturer at the School of Economics of Henan University.


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