Squaring the circle — that’s how a problem that defies solution, a task that’s always impossible and unachievable, is often described. In this case, it wholly befits the task assigned by the U.S. president of maintaining a tottering U.S. hegemony in South and Southeast Asia. The policy that has been carried out since 2010 by Barack Obama to that end, the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, has proven unsuccessful. It was expected that Donald Trump’s recent 12-day visit to five East Asian countries would bring clarity to his policy, about which, as early as the election campaign and thereafter, many doubts and fears have arisen in the region’s countries.
The expectations clearly didn’t pan out, especially since the entire trip took place in an atmosphere of increased tension over the bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea and from Pyongyang, and at a time when future U.S. trade policy has been brought into question by the categorical rejection of trade liberalization and Trump’s “America First” approach.
As it turned out, Trump used the trip and the stage of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that took place in Da Nang to announce, as the primary goal of his policy in Asia, the creation of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Observers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington calculated that in his speech at the APEC summit alone, Trump uttered the phrase “Indo-Pacific region” 10 times.
This expanded definition of the borders of APAC wasn’t at all new. It was adopted long ago at the Pentagon to define the area of responsibility for the command of the U.S. 7th Fleet in Hawaii, which extends to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.* It’s found many times in various Australian documents. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke about it while giving a speech in the Indian parliament back in 2007 during his first term as head of government. The essence of his idea was as follows: In response to the rapid rise of an authoritarian China, Asia’s richest democracy (Japan), its most populous democracy (India), and its largest democracy by land mass (Australia), together with the democratic hegemon (U.S.), would enter into regular consultations on security issues. As is well known, all such “consultations” have been more often than not the first step toward the creation of military alliances.
China, naturally, didn’t appreciate what looked like an obvious attempt to forge a coalition of like-minded states in opposition to it. After the first attempt to hold such consultations, it sent notes of protest to all four countries. India and Australia, whose priorities then were strikingly different from Abe’s plans, decided that it wouldn’t be worth creating problems for themselves, and they showed restraint. Then the “quartet” was put on the shelf and basically forgotten until October 2017, when Abe, with a new mandate following successful elections, once again raised the issue.
And now, as Trump’s visit to Asia showed, the U.S. president has seized upon it. The “quartet” he came up with (in English, "quad," which may also be translated as “quartet”) should, according to strategists from the president’s team, from now on be the main geopolitical factor in Asia. This bears witness to the fact that the U.S. isn’t going to retreat and give up its hegemony, and it appears that it’s set its sights on creating a military alliance of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to contain China.
In November in Manila, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, a meeting was held by the senior officials of these countries. Usually, such meetings are held at the level of deputy foreign ministers. They once again gathered for a so-called four-way dialogue in order to discuss the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Observers consider the result modest at present. A mutual probing is underway. But what was important was that everyone adopted the new definition of the region to which U.S. diplomacy had switched over. It was a break from the previous name, which had been adopted throughout the world — the Asia-Pacific region.
In agreeing to resurrect the “quartet,” the participants of the meeting identified seven priority areas of cooperation, namely: a rules-based order in Asia; freedom of navigation and overflight; respect for international law; enhanced connectivity; maritime security; North Korea and nonproliferation; and the fight against terrorism. After the meeting, all four governments made almost identical statements of intent to continue the consultations.
However, many unclear issues still remain for all sides, and the devil, as always, is in the details. India and Australia have quite a few such issues. India is a member of a group of nonaligned nations, and joining the “quartet” won’t be easy, as they say, to “sell” at home. Australia, like the U.S., has close economic ties with China, its main trading partner.
Now the question arises as to what the “quartet” will do next if it even goes anywhere at all. It isn’t hard to make the three-way exercises that have been carried out more than once by the U.S., Japanese and Indian navies four-way exercises. But to be successful, it will be necessary not to just take security measures, which only confirm China’s fears but will also help it win over the much needed trust of small and medium-sized states of the region. The “quartet” will have to more clearly state what it considers a “rules-based order.” Does it mean that it’s necessary to somehow correct or rewrite the rules altogether? So it might be yet another example of a soap bubble disguised as policy.
*Editor’s note: Diego Garcia is an atoll in the British Indian Ocean territory.