South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Photo: AFP

Skeptics have raised doubts about the Quad members’ unity after India’s decision to abstain from the UN resolution against Russia over the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Despite repeated statements from Australia, Japan and the United States, particularly US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that they understand India’s concerns, new narratives are emerging with regard to India’s partnership with the Quad members, with some even arguing for the possibility of a China-India-Russia entente to counter US influence.

Of particular interest are rumors of Japan joining AUKUS (thus rendering the Quad obsolete) and one that projects South Korea as an alternative to India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

While “JAKUS” rumors have been debunked, the South Korea narrative seems to be gathering traction, based on reports that it will attend the Quad Summit this month as an observer (which has since been denied) and in statements made by Major-General Jung Hae-il, president of Korea National Defense University, at this year’s Raisina Dialogue. 

There are compelling arguments in favor of South Korea’s inclusion in the Quad. The country’s “burgeoning industrial-military complex” and “vibrant democracy” have been said to make it both an ideal partner and “a key player in the broad US-led effort at preserving a rules-based order in the region.”

It helps that Yoon Suk-yeol, the newly elected president, has reiterated South Korea’s interest in deploying advanced US weaponry, especially the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. This argument has some merit – and what a valuable addition South Korea would be to the Quad (or Quad Plus, as the case may be) – but it is flawed on several counts.

First, while the incoming South Korean administration led by President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has expressed an interest in pursuing a more assertive foreign and security policy, this is primarily in relation to North Korea. There is no indication that South Korea aims to take on China, as the Quad is supposed to do.

South Korea and China have established strategic and cooperative partnerships. China remains South Korea’s largest export market, representing 25% of total exports in 2020. The two countries have bilateral trade agreements and are part of regional trade agreements like Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP).

China is also an important stakeholder in the Northeast Asia region, which remains South Korea’s primary security area of concern. South Korea is mindful of the influence China exercises over North Korea, and would not likely join a forum that overtly seeks to balance China, as the Quad does.

South Korea has been evasive on its stance on the South China Sea territorial dispute for a long time. It has even avoided a confrontational approach in responding to China’s airspace and maritime incursions into its own territory.

Second, while South Korea’s inclusion would be valuable, it would still be insufficient to assist the Quad in effectively containing China.

More important, despite already having one of the most powerful standing armies in the world and continuing to strengthen its power-projection capabilities, South Korea has shown little interest in maintaining a presence outside the Northeast Asian region, with overseas deployments confined to humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. This may yet change under the Yoon administration, but seems unlikely for now.  

Third, joining the Quad would require it to align itself increasingly with Japan. That makes strategic sense, for South Korea and Japan share similar security concerns, that is, China and North Korea.

It has helped that Yoon has consistently stated that one of his goals is to improve South Korea-Japan relations. However, this may prove challenging given the particularly “frosty” South Korea-Japan relations under the Moon Jae-in presidency, and an ongoing trade war and the perennially sensitive comfort women issue.

Relations between these two nations have not always been good, burdened by the legacy of World War II. It is not surprising that Yoon has proposed a novel and somewhat convenient approach to overcome this by pushing for a more “future-oriented relationship.” Before joining the Quad, Seoul must go through a lot of catharsis. 

Another critical aspect is that, even if South Korea does join the Quad, it will not be able to replace India. This is simply because India is far too important a strategic partner to lose.

While membership in the Quad has obvious advantages, India’s geographic location, size, and military capabilities as the world’s second-largest army, ranking fifth overall (ahead of France, Israel and South Korea), and a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean, make India an ideal strategic partner for the Quad.

It gives the Quad a unified front to deal with the China threat. In terms of military capabilities, India is ranked fourth in the Indo-Pacific region according to the Lowy Asia Power 2021 Index, the next closest to the US other than China and Russia.

India may disagree with Quad members on Russia, but unlike South Korea, its stand on China is clear and consistent, as seen by New Delhi’s position on AUKUS.

Imagine a scenario, albeit an unlikely one, in which India decides to swing toward China, as suggested in a recent Asia Times article. The political and security ramifications to the Quad would be significant.

It would also lose a member that, because of its non-aligned tradition and strategic autonomy, is seen with substantial legitimacy by nations outside the Quad. This is essential, because it suggests that the US, no matter how powerful, does not have carte blanche to act per its wishes, while ensuring that the Quad can be expected to act objectively and on “actual” rather than “imaginary” threats in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Also, while it is true that India’s strong connections with Russia appear to have caused a wedge within the four members of the Quad, this oversimplifies the dynamics among them. Furthermore, as one of the authors of this article has argued in a separate piece, China, not Russia, “poses a serious danger to the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic balance” for India.

India has made it crystal clear that it will not jeopardize its relations with Russia, upon which it depends heavily for military supplies, even as it faces increasing calls from the US to do otherwise. It is worth noting that New Delhi’s firm yet friendly response has not gone unappreciated in Hanoi, which is seen as a strong prospective member if the Quad grows and mutates into the “Quad Plus.”

The Indo-Pacific region, if not the global politico-strategic landscape, exemplifies the level of complexity in contemporary international politics. The emergence of minilaterals such as the Quad and even AUKUS is purely to address the growing complications of this “multiplex world.” It is upending the long-held belief that the enemy of my enemy must inevitably be my friend.

This is the reason we do not think the Cold War, with its clear lines of demarcations between “us” and “them,” will return.

The only way this may perhaps change is if leaders like Yoon take a stance that goes beyond satisfying South Korea’s short- and mid-term economic and security goals, and make moves to turn the strategic contests in the region into an ideological battleground, which does not appear realistic at this stage. India’s issue-based multi-alignment, however, makes sense in this defragmented international system.

Rahul Mishra

Rahul Mishra PhD is a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, where he heads the European Studies program. He is also associated with the University’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. His publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century: New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_

Peter Brian M Wang

Peter Brian M Wang is has held various positions in the Malaysian government, primarily at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). He is currently attached with the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), where he lectures and undertakes research on economic and international-relations policy. He is working on his PhD at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He tweets @PBMWang