The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, India, Australia and Japan has found a new lease of life after China’s militarization of the South China Sea, acquisition and fortification of a new — and China’s first — naval facility in Djibouti, and growing naval activities in the Indian Ocean.
With the Chinese navy consolidating its presence in the Indian Ocean and building a base in Djibouti, as well as foraying into the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, major European powers have been unsettled. France and Britain are already busy stepping up their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
In February, Paris sent warships to the South China Sea and also deployed a nuclear attack submarine in the region. Before the annual Jeanne d’Arc training and patrol mission commenced in February, the French Navy said that the mission is not just a training mission, but a true operational deployment that is part of France’s defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is worth noting that the French-led task force is to dock in countries at odds with China. Singapore is not a claimant to the disputed area, yet it is bolstering its security partnership with the US and India, which side with the Southeast Asian nations, challenging Chinese territorial claims.
In the Indian Ocean, the French territories of Mayotte and Reunion, strategically located in the southwest quadrant, are both considered an “overseas department.” They operate as “interlocking military stations,” together with French military facilities in Djibouti.
The UK has announced that the newly launched aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is to be deployed in the South China Sea.
The Quad, though a strong concept, will remain weak in reality unless it embraces the Indo-Pacific strategy in a more holistic way. For this, a Quad+6 that involves Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, France and the UK, along with the original Quad members, is an idea that could provide a viable alternative to geopolitical security in the region.
The entry of France and Britain would strengthen the Quad, as their navies have berthing rights and defense staff offices in Singapore.
Vietnam has been the most stubborn nation in defending its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea against Bejing. In January 2017, then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe pledged to provide six patrol boats for Vietnam’s coast guard.
In March 2018, the US Navy aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, with a contingent of 5,000 sailors and aviators, anchored at the port city of Danang — the first port call to Vietnam by US Navy ships since 1975.
Vietnam and India have also been steadily strengthening bilateral ties, and have signed a memorandum of understanding on Cooperation between the Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership and the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute.
Indonesia controls four vital sea lanes of communication for international trade and shipping, namely the busy Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits, three of which link the Indian and Pacific oceans, which would make it an important member in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The last two are particularly useful for the Chinese navy’s submarine operations, as they are less traveled routes and at a distance from the Malacca Strait.
The inclusion of Taiwan might come as a surprise as it does not have diplomatic relations with either the members of the original Quad or the proposed Quad+6 alliance. However, Taiwan shares strategic objectives in the region and has approached the US, Japan, India and South Korea for a partnership in the Indo-Pacific strategy. Under its New Southbound Policy, Taiwan has engaged with most of the countries involved, and has further enhanced its engagement with India and ASEAN countries.
Taiwan’s participation is important as it controls Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest island in the Spratly chain (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), along with Pratas Island (Dongsha Island, 東沙島), which controls the South China Sea’s northeast exit. Taiwan has the capacity to emplace radar and sensors to gain a more accurate situational awareness of the surrounding areas in the South China Sea.
This makes Taiwan an important ally for not only furthering the Indo-Pacific strategy, but also for monitoring China’s expansion in East Asia. Participating to ensure the neutrality of the South China Sea, and continuing safety of air and sea navigation, is important for Taiwan, as it can then insist on a role in discussions on maritime territorial claims. However, Taiwan would need to recalibrate its position on maritime claims to avoid being subsumed by Beijing.
The Quad+6 would find additional support in the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, which was inaugurated by India and Japan. The AAGC would actually delineate an Indo-Pacific Freedom Corridor, funded by Japan and using India’s know-how of Africa.
The inclusion of these six countries would create a more inclusive balance of power within the existent Indo-Pacific framework and go a long way toward achieving the dream of multi-polarity. It would provide a viable alternative to ASEAN, which has been reluctant to move forward in addressing the challenges it faces due to its charter of deciding only on the basis of consensus.
Namrata Hasija is a research fellow at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi.
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