The Malabar joint exercises with US, Indian and Japanese vessels in 2018. Image: Handout/Agencies

MANILA – China’s strategic opportunism in the South China Sea has not only alienated its smaller neighbors but is also turbocharging the formation of a so-called “Quad” anti-China alliance of like-minded Indo-Pacific powers.

Last week, the US conducted simultaneous naval drills in the Pacific and Indian Oceans with democratic allies and partners Australia, Japan and India. The four countries comprise the on-off “Quadrilateral” defense arrangement, a concept that envisions establishing an “Asian Arc of Democracy” around authoritarian China.   

Last week’s drills followed directly on a major US policy statement on the South China Sea, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s wide-reaching claims in the disputed maritime area “illegal” while implicitly backing those of Southeast Asian claimants.

Now, the US is actively courting India as a firmer pillar of the Quad. For the first time, India has been invited to attend a US-hosted G7 Summit, which historically has gathered Western and Japanese leaders. US President Donald Trump has announced his intent to host an expanded 11-member summit, also including Russia, South Korea and Australia, in a move to counter China.

Warming US-India strategic ties coincide with India’s recent skirmishes in the Himalayas with China, where a crude clash in June resulted in the killing of at least 20 Indian soliders. They have also come hand in hand with increasingly frequent and geographically expansive joint naval activities with treaty allies Japan and Australia across both the Indian and Pacific oceans.

For the first in over a decade, Australia is set to return to India’s annual Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan in the latest sign of deepening military cooperation among China’s rivals.

An Australian naval officer shows weapons to Indian Navy counterparts during the AUSINDEX 2017 joint exercises held in Australia. Photo: Twitter/Commonwealth of Australia

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has called for a “democratic security diamond” in the Indo-Pacific, is one of key architects of the new alliance of like-minded powers. Since the mid-2000s, Abe has actively pushed for greater strategic cooperation between India and the US-Japan-Australia trilateral alliance.

The proposed Quadrilateral, first proposed as a dialogue back in 2007, has met obstacles over the years. Intent on preserving stable ties and vital trade relations with China, India and Australia were until now often reluctant to participate in an ostensibly anti-China alliance.

Similarly, US administrations were more focused on combating terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while the Barack Obama administration was still mainly committed to an engagement strategy with China despite talk of a “pivot” of strategic resources to Asia.

But the rise of more conservative leaders in India, Australia and the US – coupled with deepening geopolitical tensions with China in recent months – has given the Quad new and potentially pivotal strategic life.

Unlike its more cautious predecessors, the Trump administration has fully embraced the Quad as a bulwark against China. And recent US rhetoric speaks to the idea of a new Cold War world split on democratic and authoritarian spheres, with the Quad in the former camp and China in the latter.   

During a high-profile speech on July 24 at the US-India Business Council’s India Ideas Summit, Pompeo announced that the “Quad is revived” and that his country “desires a new age of ambition” in its blossoming partnership with India.

US President Donald Trump talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Photo: AFP / Michael Kappeler

“We don’t just interact on a bilateral basis. We see each other for what we are: great democracies, global powers and really good friends. India is one of the few trusted, like-minded countries whose leaders I call on a regular basis for counsel and collaboration on issues that span continents,” Pompeo said during the online event.

“I’m confident that our relationship is only getting stronger. Let’s emerge from this current challenge more resilient and innovative than before. And let’s seize this moment to deepen cooperation between two of the world’s greatest democracies,” he added.

Seizing on growing anti-China sentiment in India following the deadly Himalyan clashes, Pompeo called for an alliance against and economic decoupling from Beijing.

“It’s important that democracies like ours work together, especially as we see more clearly than ever the true scope of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said while commending India for banning 59 Chinese apps amid recent border skirmishes.

“Our infrastructure projects, our supply chains, our sovereignty, and our people’s health and safety are all at risk if we get it wrong,” he added, in line with the Trump administration’s encouragement of allies to reduce economic and technological dependence on China.

A day later, during a major speech on China, Pompeo effectively announced the end of half-a-century of strategic engagement with China.

In his most incendiary rhetoric against China yet, the US diplomat questioned the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime, which he said “almost always lie[s]. The biggest lie that they tell is to think that they speak for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, oppressed and scared to speak out.” 

“Beijing believes that the Quad is built to encircle and contain its rising global and maritime ambitions, with the US Navy as the fulcrum of cooperation in the emerging alliance. Beijing’s suspicions were reinforced last week when the US Indo-Pacific command oversaw simultaneous exercises in two oceans where China is likewise seeking to be a maritime power.

Aircraft carriers the USS Ronald Reagan (bottom) and USS Nimitz were both recently deployed for drills in the South China Sea. Image: Handout/US Navy

The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which was twice deployed this month to the South China Sea, was joined by the USS Ronald Reagan in conducting drills with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean.

“While operating together, the US and Indian naval forces conducted high-end exercises designed to maximize training and interoperability, including air defense,” Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, said in a July 20 statement following the joint drills.

Significantly, the exercises took place around India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are located just off the northern reach of the Malacca Strait that separates the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. As much as 80% of China’s energy imports travel through the narrow passageway.  

Strategic analysts note the US could potentially move to block the strait in a conflict scenario, a hard strategic fact often referred to as China’s “Malacca dilemma.”

Beijing, including through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has bid to diversify its energy import routes by investing in ports that could allow for more land-based shipments via Pakistan and Myanmar. Neither nation, however, has the infrastructure in place to substantially mitigate China’s Malacca risk.   

Last week, the USS Ronald Reagan strike group also conducted joint drills with Japanese and Australian naval forces in the Philippines Sea in the Western Pacific.

Full Quad exercises are on the near-term horizion. After years of reluctance to irk China, India has invited Australia back to this year’s annual Malabar exercises for the first time since 2007. The joint exercises will be held in the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing had previously dissuaded then China-friendly administrations in Canberra against participation. Now, however, Australia has announced a major defense build-up in response to the perceived threat of China’s growing naval prowess and presence in the Western and South Pacific, traditionally its sphere of influence.

Over the weekend, Australia followed the US in declaring China’s South China Sea claims as “illegal.”