The past fortnight was perhaps one of the most important ones this year, both in terms of what happened and what it means for the region in the long run. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India, may finally be coming of age and is on its way to become the core of the regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. With this fortnight’s announcement of Australia being invited to join the Malabar naval exercises this year by India, old doubts about the Quad’s future or viability have finally been laid to rest.
Malabar, the Quad and strengthening defence ties all round
This week, the Indian defence ministry issued a statement announcing that the Australian Navy will participate in this year’s Malabar military exercises to be held later this year in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. While the permanency (or otherwise) and nature of Australia’s participation (whether as an observer or full participant) are still unclear, it’s beyond doubt that Australia’s inclusion marks a significant step forward in strengthening the Quad. Australia had last participated in the Malabar exercises in 2007.
This announcement comes on the heels of the second Quad foreign ministerial dialogue held in Tokyo on the 6th of October. Traditional issues such as maritime security, humanitarian and disaster relief and counter-terrorism were discussed, along with, cyber security, critical technology, critical minerals and resilient supply chains, according to the Australian government’s media release. An in-person ministerial engagement amid a pandemic is hugely significant as it reflects the growing commitment of the Quad nations to cooperate with each other.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne also visited Singapore and met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. The leaders affirmed the strength of their bilateral relations and discussed a range of regional and global health, economic and security issues.
On a similar note, Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds also visited Japan and Singapore this week in a bid to reaffirm and strengthen respective bilateral defence ties. Significantly, Australia and Japan have agreed to allow Japanese defence forces to protect the former’s military assets in non-combat situations. Both nations have also agreed to increase surveillance in the South China Sea in the face of China’s growing aggression. At the time of writing, Reynolds is conducting her first visit to Brunei.
Meanwhile, the Australian navy is participating in military exercises in the South China Sea together with the US and Japanese navies.
Japan’s renewed Southeast Asia push and Washington’s ‘prudent’ diplomacy
New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia this fortnight, marking his first overseas trip since assuming office. Suga is said to be following his predecessor’s steps in prioritising the Indo-Pacific and the visits strengthened Japan’s relations with the Southeast Asian nations, especially through key discussions on advancing defence cooperation. Moreover, Suga’s visit to Southeast Asia was aimed at reassuring ASEAN that the Quad is not shaping up as an ‘Asian NATO’, as China is now accusing it to be, and was also meant to reinforce Japan’s commitment to ensuring the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea.
While we’re on the subject of diplomacy, the Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto visited the US last week upon invitation from his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. The US finally granted Subianto a visa, after denying it for several years, in light of various allegations of human rights abuses against him. According to ASPI Senior Analyst David Engel, engagement with Prabowo makes sense and is necessary for Washington’s long-term ties with Indonesia, something that should continue under a Biden administration.
Thai protests take a serious turn
Pro-democracy protests in Thailand have taken a serious turn this fortnight, with a heavy police crackdown on protesters, who have been thronging Bangkok’s streets in thousands to demand for constitutional reforms and freedom of speech, and also for the current Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation. The protesters also want a reduction of the powers of the monarchy, which is considered sacrosanct in Thailand. Reports suggest that several protesters have been arrested in the past two weeks. The prime minister has recalled parliament this week to deal with the crisis. More troublingly, a Thai court has ordered the closure of a news channel, Voice TV, which has been critical of the government and has links to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The government is also increasingly internet surveillance and is attempting to ban encrypted communication apps such as Telegram.
Chinese and Taiwanese diplomats’ brawl in Fiji; geopolitics reverberates across the Pacific
Chinese and Taiwanese diplomats engaged in physical altercation at an event to mark Taiwan’s national day on 8th October in Fiji, where Chinese diplomats gatecrashed. Both sides accuse the other of starting the fight, although The Guardian reports that it was the Chinese diplomats who began harassing the guests at the event and attacked the Taiwanese officials when confronted by them. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, called the event a serious violation of the One China policy and blamed the Taiwanese officials for displaying the flag of a ‘false country’. The Chinese embassy in Fiji has taken up the matter with the Fijian government.
On another note, the US government has stirred a controversy by announcing a massive US $25 million grant to Malaita, a province of the Solomon Islands, which is demanding independence over the country’s 2019 decision to switch diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. Washington’s decision could further exacerbate tensions in the tiny Pacific island nation, which is already grappling with internal discord. Experts also worry about Pacific nations becoming pawns in the greater US-China geopolitical competition.
Ardern scores a historic win
Closer to home, Jacinda Ardern won a second term as prime minister of New Zealand in the recently concluded elections. The Labour Party secured a historic mandate, winning more votes than any previous elections for the past fifty years, and claiming 64 out of 120 seats in a unicameral legislature.
As Anna Powles and Joanne Wallis argue, there are signs that New Zealand’s position on China is hardening and, as a result, mirroring the more ‘hawkish’ Australian stance. The new Ardern government, write Powles and Wallis, must continue to walk the tightrope on China and engage with the Pacific nations to ensure the continuity of their Pacific reset.
Significance for Australia
It wasn’t a coincidence that Australian, American and Japanese leaders spent a good part of this fortnight engaging, and shoring up defence ties with, their Southeast Asian counterparts. It’s clear that the US and its allies see a stable and free Southeast Asia as the key to a stable and free Indo-Pacific. Their outreach was also meant to reassure Southeast Asian nations of their commitment to ASEAN centrality, given their traditional concerns vis-à-vis the Quad.
The Malabar decision is a momentous one, even if not surprising. Even though it comes against the backdrop of a months’ long boundary dispute between India and China, the announcement is more a reflection of burgeoning India-Australia ties, than anything else. As C Raja Mohan notes, ‘Delhi has no interest in bringing its Quad partners into India’s territorial battles against Beijing. It is about expanding India’s bilateral security ties with Australia, whose potential is immense.’
China has responded in an uncharacteristically measured way, saying it has ‘noticed’ of the Malabar decision and that it ‘believes that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability’. The US, on the other hand, has welcomed India’s decision, with Deputy Secretary of State Steve Beigun remarking that the Quad should become ‘more regularised’ and ‘formalised’ with time. Therein, lies the real challenge of the Quad, with several indications that India, Australia and Japan aren’t quite on the same page with the US, where institutionalising the forum is concerned.
Nonetheless, from an Australian perspective, the past fortnight was significant for what it symbolised- as Graeme Dobell points out, Marise Payne’s three overseas visits amid the pandemic this year have been to the US (the alliance), to Tokyo (for the Quad) and to Singapore (ASEAN centrality). ‘The message of the meetings is to build substance with the symbolism’.
Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.