Revival of the Quad in the Indo-Pacific: New Zealand’s dilemma

The Quad grouping consists of Japan, the US, Australia and India. (Photo: PMO of Japan/Facebook)

The Trump administrations interest in reviving the Quad grouping in the Indo-Pacific security region creates a considerable dilemma for New Zealand as it continues to seek a balance between the US and China, writes Marc Lanteigne.

OPINION: After almost a year of ambiguity and guesswork regarding United States foreign policy towards East Asia, some clarity has appeared as a part of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) document by the White House in December 2017.

Not unexpectedly, China is frequently mentioned in the paper, including as a challenger to US power, a potential military competitor, and as a state seeking to displace the importance of the US in East Asia.

But it is the inclusion of two concepts in the Trump administration’s new US security strategy that opens up questions for New Zealand’s foreign policy, as it continues to seek a balance between the two great powers.

The first is the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a security region encompassing both East and South Asia, and the second is the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘Quad’, which may evolve as the platform for a more formal security organisation in the region – one that might seek to create a more overt balance of power against a rising China. Should either or both concepts evolve into official components of a ‘Trump Doctrine’, the result could be the most significant shift in Pacific Rim cooperation since the 1990s.

The question then for New Zealand, described in the NSS paper as a “key US partner contributing to peace and security across the region”, would be whether and how it might fit within either of these two policy models.

The Indo-Pacific

The idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a zone of security concern has been longstanding in Australian foreign policy, featuring prominently in the 2012 White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, published by then-PM Julia Gillard’s government. The term has also been used in various ways by policymakers and analysts in India, Indonesia and Japan, and even to a degree in China, to reflect the confluence of Indian and Pacific Ocean interests.

The unexpected inclusion of the Indo-Pacific in the NSS paper and in Trump’s recent foreign policy statements has raised questions about its rationale in US-Asia policy. One explanation might indicate a desire to distinguish Trump’s approach from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and to formally bring to a close the ‘pivot’ strategies towards Asia which dominated Obama’s approach to Pacific Rim security.

The return of the Pacific Rim governments to Cold War-type divisions ... would do little to serve New Zealand’s regional interests.”

The inclusion of the Indo-Pacific concept could also be interpreted as an acknowledgement that the strategic concerns facing the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, ranging from economic security to counter-terrorism to shifts in state power, have become intertwined to the point where a ‘super-regional’ approach is necessary.

A third possibility is that the US is using the Indo-Pacific idea as a signal to China that India is being folded into US security policy in East Asia, in order to more directly balance rising Chinese power.

While all three explanations may have merit, the underlying question is whether the Trump government’s use of the phrase indicates not only closer strategic relations between New Delhi and Washington, but also whether groundwork is being laid for more explicit policies designed to check Chinese power.  

The Quad

Related to these concerns is the seeming revival of the ‘Quad’ initiative, which has its origins in the first government of Shinzo Abe, as Japan and the US were starting to come to terms with the potential challenges China would present to regional security. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Abe proposed a coming together of Japan and regional partners Australia, India and the US based on their shared democratic backgrounds of mutual concerns about regional security. 

There was also a possibility the proposed Quad cooperation could be extended to include military coordination, but political realities eclipsed any further progress. Despite steps taken to avoid tacitly labelling the Quad as an initiative to counter Beijing, the then-government of Hu Jintao denigrated the talks as a throwback to the cold war and an attempt to create a ‘little NATO’ in Asia.

Even among the four potential partners there was controversy, including concern such a structure would create a costly provocation against Beijing. The first major blow came in 2008 when Kevin Rudd’s new administration in Canberra began to pull away from the Quad idea. Abe was forced from office in September 2007, but continued to put forward the idea of a ‘security diamond in the Asia-Pacific upon his 2012 return as prime minister. The end of the George W Bush government, the beginning of the Obama administration and the ‘pivot’ strategy further dampened enthusiasm for the Quad, and the idea fell into abeyance until 2017.

During a working meeting at the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Manila, representatives from the four governments discussed a return to the Quad grouping. In statements released by the US State Department, the Manila meeting looked at issues including maritime security, international law and the nuclear threat of North Korea, as well as deepening security cooperation. The NSS paper added that the US would “welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India”.

Despite no specific mention of containing Chinese power, the underlying concern remains that the Quad could be the catalyst for a more formal security organisation, and perhaps even the creation of a ‘Quad-plus’ with the inclusion of other governments in the region. Two possible additions might be Singapore, which had expressed interest in the original Quad idea 10 years ago, and South Korea, which has been cooperating with the US in deploying the THAAD missile system to protect against attacks by North Korea, over the strong objections of Beijing.

Tricky balance for New Zealand

The question of where New Zealand might fit within a re-emerging Quad regime is becoming more pressing, and was a major topic of discussion at the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand trilateral meeting in November 2017.

Although New Zealand engages many of its regional neighbours in security dialogues, including the venerable Five-Power Defence Arrangements and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing mechanism, the formalisation of Quad talks would create a considerable dilemma for New Zealand, given its interest in maintaining strong diplomatic and economic relations with all the major players in the region.

New Zealand has been seeking to maintain its relations with the US, even in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP – but it also very much wishes to avoid endangering key economic ties with Beijing. The return of the Pacific Rim governments to Cold War-type divisions, which were ubiquitous in the region before the 1990s, would do little to serve New Zealand’s regional interests, and so the changing relationship between the US and China, and the new policies that may emerge as a result, indicate New Zealand might be balancing on a much higher wire over a much smaller net.

Marc Lanteigne is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University Auckland. He attended the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand trilateral meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as part of an Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation. Views expressed are personal to the author. 

– Asia Media Centre