Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this June 16 satellite image by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/ via Reuters
Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this satellite image by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/ via Reuters

The Quadrilateral Security Dialog – the Quad – was formed in 2007 by Australia, India, Japan, and the United States with the intent of countering Chinese economic and military power. The group is languishing due to fluctuations in the level of commitment by Australia as well as a lack of enthusiasm by India.

In the early 2010s, Canberra agreed to have US Marines stationed near Darwin, a strategic point offering access to the Timor Sea and the Lombok Strait into the South China Sea. That force was more than 1,500 strong as of a year ago.

Canberra bailing out

Yet surprisingly, a recent article about Canberra backing away from the Quad suggests that its relevance is dwindling even though Australia is not ignoring the challenge of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Rather, Canberra is instead shifting its effort to forming an alliance with ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That seems to be a poor alternative since ASEAN nations, even combined with Australian naval forces, are no match for China’s navy. What has caused this unfortunate shift is Canberra’s fear of the hardline taken recently by Washington. Australia is concerned that a cold war between China and the United States will adversely affect Canberra’s trade with Beijing.

According to the Australian government website, Canberra is Beijing’s sixth largest trading partner and its fifth largest supplier of goods. China is Australia’s largest trading partner when both exports and imports are considered.

With that great a dependence upon trade with China, it is no surprise that Canberra is increasingly reluctant to join forces with Washington to face off with Beijing over the South China Sea. That thinking, however, will not protect Australia from China’s aggressive behavior as recent cyber-attacks by Beijing demonstrate.

India indecisive

India has always declined alignment with the West, preferring to take a more neutral position. That changed a bit under Indian Prime Minister Modi’s administration in the 2010s as relations took a turn for the better. Still, India prefers to not be seen as being in the West’s camp.

Even so, the relationship between India and China since the independence of both countries in the late 1940s has been marked by disagreements and – at times – actual conflicts. The latest quarrel is a border dispute in the Himalayans near Bhutan regarding the Doklam Plateau claimed by both.

The 2017 clash with Beijing over Doklam notwithstanding, New Delhi is still not committed to joining forces with the West to counter Chinese aggression – so far. Part of the problem is that New Delhi has yet to form a coherent strategic policy for dealing with Beijing.

Japan ready to step up

Tokyo, on the other hand, is striving to assume a broader role in international affairs, even regarding matters as far away as the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Understandably, this causes concern among other states in Asia because of Imperial Japan’s ignominious behavior during World War II.

In part, these concerns remain 70 years later due to Tokyo’s refusal to face its violent history squarely. Though not to be condoned, it is understandable since acknowledging Tokyo’s culpability during the war would directly impugn the reputation and honor of the current Japanese premier’s grandfather who was intimately involved in the highest echelons of Imperial Japan.

Regardless, Tokyo does seek to have a normal military along with all the rights and privileges that a fully-autonomous nation enjoys. This is not merely a resurgence of Japanese militancy but an aspiration to be a full-fledged partner of the United States in regional security issues.

Japan’s siding with the United States against China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean is utilitarian, for being an ally of Washington is a quid pro quo arrangement. Tokyo is in the crosshairs of Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles just across the Sea of Japan, and Japan is engaged in a dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Old Guard Returns

But as the Quad itself fades into irrelevance, Britain and France are rising to meet the challenge.

Indeed, Great Britain is returning to the Indian and Pacific Oceans in some force. By next year, London intends to muster a fleet of some 30 warships plus the necessary ancillary support vessels. It is unclear, however, whether all vessels would be deployed to assist in countering China.

At the same time, France is increasingly vocal about defending the freedoms of the high seas as other Europeans recognize the need for adding their contributions to the effort to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Is there time?

All this is well and good, but it might be too little, too late. After all, evicting Beijing from its weaponized footholds in the Paracel and the Spratly Islands would be difficult, and any such attempt could lead to a much wider conflict.  Equally bad is the fact that aperiodic Freedom of Navigations Operations (FONOPs) are insufficient in keeping China at bay.

It is not too late to prepare for defending Taiwan, however. Contrary to the idea of maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea – it is doubtful that is even possible –  the time for action is now. With China’s economy slowing, Beijing needs a diversion, and focusing on Taipei’s refusal to submit to unification with the mainland fits that need. FONOPs alone are not the answer.

Some in Beijing think that the optimum time for China to take the island by force, as hypothesized in an article from the American think tank Council of Foreign Relations, is before the 2020 elections in Taiwan. That does not offer much time in which to plan for stopping another territorial grab by China.

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