A trilateral exercise between the U.S. Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

Memories are short. On Tuesday, as foreign ministers of Australia, Japan, India and the United States meet in Tokyo to form what will be known as the Quadrilateral Dialogue – four nations cooperating to meet China’s alleged aggressiveness in  Asia – few will remember that the original idea of a Quad goes back much farther, to the early 1970s.

At the time, Canberra had convinced itself that the war in Vietnam was needed as a response to a supposed Asian conquest plot by China “relying in the first instance on its puppets in Hanoi.”

SEATO – the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization – had been created in 1954 to stop that alleged communist threat to Asia but had only managed to attract the Philippines and Thailand as Asian members.

A Quad was seen as necessary to attract the larger Asian powers – Japan and India.  
But little concrete was achieved and, with the ending of the Vietnam war in 1975  and the collapse of SEATO in 1977, talk of anti-communist or anti-China alliances died out.

Today we are supposed to face a new challenge from China. Hence the revival of the Quad.  But what precisely is this new threat we are supposed to face? Today there is no Vietnam war or threat of Asian instability. It seems the only threat is the fact that China exists and its economic power is growing.

There is not much that the Quad powers can do about that.

US President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a combination photo. Image: Twitter

True, Beijing lays claim to some islands in the East China sea to which some other Asian nations also lay claim. But, then, so too does Taiwan. The total area of the islands claimed by Taiwan but contested by other Asian nations is far greater than that of those claimed by Beijing.

This was in effect also the 2016 conclusion of the UN tribunal set up to consider rival claims.

And if we go back into history, or to the US-brokered 1951 and ’52 peace treaties with Japan, both Chinas can claim some legal basis for their claims.

Beijing’s opposition to Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China sea is also seen as proof of aggressiveness. But Beijing does not claim the islands for itself; it does so on behalf of Taiwan, whose claim has a strong historic and geographic basis.

In fact, it was so strong that under pressure from the Taiwan lobby in the US, Washington refused  Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku islands when the Ryukyu Islands including Okinawa were returned to Japan in 1971.

The US only recognizes Japan’s administrative rights.

Even the name of the islands is not Japanese. Senkaku is a translation of the name Pinnacle Islands given by British explorers in the area in the 18th century.

The Chinese name – Diaoyutai or Fishing Platform – goes back much farther.

Elsewhere, it is hard to find examples of China’s alleged aggressiveness. There is much reference to the Sino-Indian frontier war of 1962 and Indian claims of Chinese aggressive pressure ever since.

Indian and Chinese troops at a Himalayan mountain border outpost. Image: AFP

But as China desk officer in Canberra’s foreign ministry at the time, I know for a fact that the relevant Western ministries all have the material proving the 1962 conflict was due entirely to New Delhi’s “forward” policy in the Himalayas beginning in the late 1950s – a fact that even Indian observers have since confirmed.

It is very likely that the several small frontier conflicts since have been due more to India’s sense of wounded pride rather than Beijing actively seeking to cause trouble.

So where, apart from the fertile imaginations of the Quad members, have we seen proof of Beijing’s alleged aggressiveness? If there is any belligerent talk coming out of Beijing today the most likely cause is the belligerent attitudes of the Quad members.

Based in Japan and a former president and vice-president of two Japanese universities,  former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark continues to follow events in Asia.