Left to right: Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo pose for photographs before a Quad Indo-Pacific meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on October 6, 2020. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Datiche / Pool

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s legacy in international politics will play out over the coming years. He, more than any current leader, advocated early cooperation in the face of China’s rise.

Abe’s legacy

Abe was responsible for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept, as well as the proposal for greater political and security cooperation via the Quad.

In his “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech in August 2007 in India, Abe recognized that the “Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.”

The idea of closer cooperation among the four democracies in Indo-Pacific region was initially explored on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum summit in May 2007. Since Abe’s first government was short-lived (2006-2007), and the US and Australian administrations under Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd respectively wanted to avoid antagonizing Beijing, the idea remained dormant. But it was not abandoned by its author.

Later, in his December 2012 essay “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Abe envisaged “a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the USA form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific.”

“I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capacities in this security diamond,” he said.

Donald Trump

Ironically, the unilateralist administration of US president Donald Trump breathed life into the Quadrilateral Dialogue as well as the FOIP by establishing the US Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 and formulating the recently declassified document “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.”

Xi Jinping

The impertinence of Chinese President Xi Jinping has unquestionably driven closer Quad cooperation. This result is surprising because Beijing’s foreign-policy establishment is populated with realists who understand balancing.

As a result of Xi’s behavior, even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in its “2030 report” mentions China: “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China – based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders.”

Rising Chinese maritime assertiveness along the First Island Chain antagonizes Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others. The situation could further deteriorate under the new Chinese maritime-police law that entered force on February 1.

This law allows the Chinese Coast Guard “to take all necessary measures including the use of weapons to stop infringements and eliminate dangers” when “foreign organizations and individuals” infringe upon China’s “national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”

Like-minded cooperation

As the First Berlin Crisis accelerated the formation of NATO, the escalation of the tensions along the First Island Chain may be a similar pivotal moment cementing cooperation among states threatened by China.

Even India, a state that has traditionally eschewed this sort of cooperation, has been driven toward the West. Non-alignment has suffered under repeated blows from China. Recent violent border skirmishes highlight Beijing’s revisionist foreign policy. But this revisionism is also clear in the long-term usurpation of Indian water rights.

While India still dismisses the idea of an Asian NATO, security cooperation is no longer anathema. Reassessing its relationship with China likely led to inviting Australia to the Malabar exercise in 2020 after a 13-year hiatus.

The Quad’s potential

The combined potential of the Quad is significant. According to the Global Firepower Index 2021 Military Strength Ranking, the US occupies first place, India fourth, Japan fifth and Australia 19th. The strength of potential Quad partners including South Korea (sixth), France (seventh), and the UK (eighth) should also be acknowledged.

Moreover, military power is not the only benefit of cooperation among these states. Quad members and possible partners are among the most technologically adept countries in 21st-century technologies. These technologies include artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, robotics and other advanced capabilities.

With 6G (sixth-generation telecommunications) research looming, Quad members and like-minded states should cooperate on common standards for establishing safe networks.

Quad challenges

However, the Quad remains underdeveloped and there is ample room for missteps. For example, Quad members each have their own Indo-Pacific strategy. There are significant overlaps but also differences, as demonstrated during the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo in November 2020.

Still, the very formation of guidelines for the region shows movement in the right direction and has been welcomed by Japan. On January 25, foreign ministers of the European Union, which is formulating its own Indo-Pacific strategy, discussed areas of possible cooperation with their Japanese counterpart.

Japan’s future role

Analysts routinely frame Japan’s FOIP strategy within two central issues to nearly all debates about Japan’s security: China’s rising power and the US security commitment. The significance of these points was confirmed once again during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s call with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi on January 23. Austin explicitly included the Senkaku Islands under America’s treaty obligations.

In the wake of Abe’s decision to step down, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has continued his predecessor’s approach. This is unsurprising given the Indo-Pacific region’s centrality not only for Japan’s economic interests, but also increasingly to geopolitics and global stability.

In recent years, Japan has strengthened security cooperation with other Quad members. During the visit to Tokyo of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last November, the Reciprocal Access Agreement was signed. In November 2019, the first India-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting took place.

Japan has also deepened military cooperation with the US. It has purchased a significant number of F-35s, creating the world’s second-largest fleet of those jet fighters.

These trends will continue so long as China engages in revisionism.

Joe Biden

Ultimately, the success of the FOIP and Quad depends upon the commitment of the emerging administration of US President Joe Biden. The administration is currently focused on domestic issues but is unlikely to find bipartisanship there. Instead, it is in policy toward China that broad bipartisan support can be crafted. To this end, the US should beef up both its military footprint and its multilateral engagement.

Besides returning to the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement, the US should join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) sooner rather than later.

With the establishment of the less ambitious, Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last November, it is important to animate the more ambitious CPTPP.

Since Trump’s abandonment of multilateralism, the bearers of rule-making in the Indo-Pacific region have been mainly middle powers such Japan and Australia. It is essential that the US participate in creating rule moving forward, otherwise the gap could be filled by less liberal views.

The Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that the global economic ecosystem is fragile and that over-reliance on production bases within a single country is dangerous. The diversification of the production bases and supplying chains may be more challenging for some Quad member than others.

Indeed, China will use industrial policy to complicate and hinder such diversification. Solidarity and mutual cooperation among Quad members and like-minded countries is therefore essential.

The Quad should not be envisaged at this stage as a grandiose alliance. It is better understood as a partnership of countries seeking increasing cooperation in various layers. China’s behavior will dictate how deep and far this cooperation goes.

Michael Tkacik

Michael Tkacik holds a PhD from the University of Maryland and a JD from Duke University. He has published articles in a variety of journals. Tkacik’s current research interests include the implications of China’s rise, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and nuclear-weapons policy across Asia. He is a professor of government and director of the School of Honors at Stephen F Austin State University in Texas.

Erik Lenhart

Erik Lenhart holds an MA in political science from Charles University and is a former research assistant at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He has been active as an Asia analyst and published several articles related to Chinese geopolitical thought.