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US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral effective counterweight to China, but foolhardy to underestimate Beijing

It is a sign of the times that when the United States-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral was first floated as an idea by Shinzo Abe in 2007 – as a counterpoise to an increasingly assertive China in his first term as Japanese prime minister in 2007 – the grouping was loosely-knit and unsure of itself. It was hardly a surprise then that when power passed into the hands of Kevin Rudd in Australia, he pulled out from it and the pack of cards collapsed into a heap.

The then Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on the cusp of a visit to China and meetings with the then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao in January 2008, declared that India is not part of any so-called 'contain China effort', after being asked about the quadrilateral.

Leaders of India, Japan, Australia and the US met in Manila this week. PTI

Leaders of India, Japan, Australia and the US met in Manila this week. PTI

Today, the same quadrilateral, revived a decade later at the behest of Japan by Abe in his second avatar as prime minister, is, on the face of it, more assertive and determined to thwart the Chinese dragon.

The Chinese have indeed bared their fangs by asserting tacitly their claims to control the sea lanes in the South China Sea and are potentially looking at controlling the high seas in the Indian Ocean too through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which would give them easy access to the sea.

A more assertive and hawkish United States under Donald Trump, a more confident India dictated by the strategic considerations of Narendra Modi and a more determined Malcolm Turnbull in Australia besides the never-say-die Abe make up a formidable team to lead the quadrilateral challenge to China.

Not surprisingly, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang warned on Monday that "the relevant grouping should be open and inclusive and not aimed at excluding any third party.

"We welcome the development of friendly cooperation between relevant countries, but we hope this will not be directed at any third party," Shuang said, in what can be seen as the first sign of Chinese nervousness.

Meanwhile, another clever ploy by the United States establishment has given the Chinese a jolt. America's recent use of the phrase "Indo-Pacific" as opposed to "Asia Pacific" carries a lot of import for India, to Beijing's discomfiture.

It was first brought up by Abe in 2007 in a speech to the Indian Parliament but was virtually forgotten. Recently, Rex Tillerson, the United States secretary of state, used it in a major policy speech in Washington. Trump, in his visit to China, also referred to the India-Pacific.

Though it would be imprudent to make a song and dance about it and to cock a snook at the Chinese, India couldn't be happier because it was feeling stifled by the insidious Chinese measures to gain control over the seas in much of the world, which could hit Indian trade severely and broaden the hegemonistic designs of the Chinese. Modi indeed leans heavily on his National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, who is a past-master in strategic matters.

China is not naive as to not understand that the United States is the sole military superpower in the world and outspends the next 26 countries in its annual defence budget. Besides, China has a flourishing trade with all four 'quad' countries, often with huge surpluses, which could come under question if it flexes its muscles. All four countries collectively putting pressure on China to balance out the trade could be their next move as they consolidate the gains.

The United States has already spoken about alternative financing models given the concern of unsustainable debt in many of these smaller countries because of OBOR.

With Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan having counter-claims over the resource-rich South China Sea area, any support to them in their common quest to maintain the freedom of the seas with help from the United States could jeopardise Chinese dreams.

Sensing the danger from US machinations, China made it known to the United States on the eve of Trump's China visit that it wants joint cooperation with it in developing next-generation nuclear power technology. In a meeting with Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and chairman of TerraPower, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for closer China-US cooperation in developing the next-generation nuclear power technology. This is a ploy to increase US-China inter-dependence.

TerraPower, LLC signed a joint venture agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation to form the Global Innovation Nuclear Energy Technology Limited.

That an official-level meeting between the 'quad' countries took place in Manila on the eve of the ASEAN summit is an indication that there is due seriousness and urgency over a meaningful headway in the security and strategic cooperation between the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

It is all set for a summit of the four leaders to concretise an action plan to ensure sustained freedom of the seas and to stall any Chinese moves to gain control over the sea-lanes and thereby hamper world trade. That India is a key player in this exercise is a tribute to our diplomatic prowess and to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

But it would be foolhardy to underestimate China. The Chinese indeed have a penchant for springing surprises and India in particular needs to be on guard all the time.

Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 12:34 PM

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