On 28 April, Joe Biden said in his first address to the Congress, "I also told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe – not to start conflict – but to prevent conflict."
This statement, taken in isolation may not seem consequential but it is extremely significant, specially with a backdrop of rising geo-political tensions. Currently, at the centre of this upheaval lies an organisation called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD. This article aims to explore the founding of the organisation, its motivations and its geo-political implications.
The story of this organisation started with one of the most disastrous natural calamities in human history, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The United States, Japan, India and Australia went to the frontlines to provide humanitarian aid. This incidental Indo-Pacific coalition showed exactly what such an organisation would be able to achieve. The then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the 'Quadrilateral Initiative', which would see India join Japan, Australia and the US in a formal military dialogue.
The primary reason behind the initiative was to curb the growing influence of China. The country's modernised economy was growing rapidly, which put the Western powers at unease. Its military ambition was not hidden either and as the global hegemon, the US sought to contain its influence as soon as possible.
The Chinese opposition to this alliance was swift, it began even before the countries officially joined the organisation. Once the organisation was in place, China started to complain about the alliance to the member countries separately. All of the member states had robust trade relationships with the country. China was the largest bilateral trade partner with Australia while exporting and importing large amounts of goods with both Japan and the USA. Even though the allies held a joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, the alliance was tenuous at best and no country wanted to risk its trade with China. A year later, Australia terminated the quadrilateral agreement, putting the final nail in the coffin of QUAD, or so we thought.
The decade following the formation of QUAD was marked by drastic changes in the geo-political landscape. One of the most significant events for our purposes is the escalation of disputes regarding the South China Sea. China cites historical precedence and the 'Nine-Dash Line' to claim 90% of this strategically significant region, which violates the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and puts them at odds with multiple countries.
This region is important for several reasons to China. One-third of the global trade passes through this area, including 64% of Chinese maritime trade, including 80% of its fossil fuel shipments. Other countries like Japan, India, the US and Taiwan also significantly rely on the South China Sea for trade.
The strategic importance of this area is still growing as China has begun a massive naval rearmament. China has the most number of ships in the world. Even though it cannot match the US navy right now, China does not have to maintain a mighty navy to project global power. Their goal is to secure their own backyard, which is also known as the 'First Island Chain' containing long-term US allies like Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In fact, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is now a very real concern for the global hegemon. According to Admiral Phillip Davidson, the chief of the US's Indo-Pacific command, China can try to occupy Taiwan by 2027. This will not only besmirch the US's reputation as the global hegemon but also establish a Chinese foothold in the first island chain, creating critical security concerns for Japan.
Another important cog in the machine of Chinese world domination is the Belt and Road Initiative, which will connect Europe, Asia and Africa via land and sea. The 'belt' in the project title refers to land routes, consisting of six corridors which connect to the maritime shipping lanes in Pakistan. This will give China a new way to access the Arabian Sea and an alternative root to access the fossil fuels of the Middle East and Central Asia. But this is not only meant to project soft power.
China is giving out enormous loans to its associates to accomplish this goal, many of which have no way of paying them back. In return, China seizes the projects and takes strategic locations as collateral. It has already gained the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, Obock Military Base in Djibouti and the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. It has also acquired docking rights for its ships to facilitate smooth sailing in Sudan, Maldives, Somalia and Srilanka, under a strategy lovingly referred to as String of Pearls.
Dealing with upstart regional powers that plan to threaten the global status quo is nothing new for the US; it has done so ever since the end of the Second World War. There are two conventional approaches: threatening militarily or imposing trade embargoes. But none of these will be effective against China. According to this years' Global Firepower Review, China has the third largest military force in the world. and spends vast amounts of resources on their defense, surpassed only by the US. This, coupled with its economic potential and nuclear arsenal makes the country incredibly strong.
On the other hand, as the second largest economy in the world, China is far too integrated in the global trade for sanctions to take effect. One such attempt by Donald Trump backfired and hurt the US economy.
The relation between China and the QUAD members got increasingly hostile and as a consequence, the organisation was reformed in 2017. But the election of a new US president and changes in global dynamics forced the members to strengthen their ties more than ever.
After the humiliating incident regarding the Galwan Valley, India has become more concerned about the Chinese threat on their border. Even though it maintains a large army, the country has begun to modernise its navy. But a lack of funding is seriously threatening the project. QUAD will allow India to effectively cooperate with the USA to secure its naval boundaries.
Even though Australia was the first to pull out of the original QUAD, its relation with China has significantly worsened. After the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the Australian Prime Minister called for an independent investigation by WHO regarding the origin of the disease. This flared up tensions and started a full-blown trade war. China banned the import of Australian beef and coal and imposed extravagant tariffs on the import of barley and wine. The country has also told Australia to distance itself from the US or to 'suffer a fatal blow' to its economy. In response, the Australian navy has conducted multiple transits in the South China Sea this year and the country has pledged overwhelming force in the defense of Taiwan.
QUAD has two distinct opportunities in it's hand. The organisation has pledged to donate one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccination in the March of this year to South-East Asian countries. This will go a long way in projecting soft power in the region.
Another opportunity has presented itself in the form of Myanmar. The recent military coup and the subsequent protests have presented a serious threat to the economy of that country. Japan, as one of the largest investors in Myanmar, can have enough leverage to be a powerbroker and help the concerned parties reach a peaceful solution. If QUAD can resolve these two problems, they will have a solid start.
Bangladesh occupies a strategically significant area in Asia. It can provide its allies with a strategic anchorpoint in the Bay of Bengal which can be crucial in controlling trade in the Indian Ocean. It is no surprise that Beijing is concerned about the allegiance of Bangladesh.
Moreover, Bangladesh contains two important Chinese projects. The first is the BCIM Economic Corridor, which is designed to connect China to India through Myanmar and Bangladesh. Secondly, the Chittagong port is widely regarded as a part of the 'String of Pearls' strategy. But despite its obvious military potential, Bangladeshi government has expressly stated that it is purely for trade. However, allowing the port for military usage will allow China to threaten the Fourth Island Chain which consists of Diego Garcia, Hambantota and Gradar port.
But it seems unlikely that the country will join China as a military ally because Bangladesh has close historical, cultural and economic ties with India. On the other hand, if Bangladesh joins QUAD and the organisation seeks to resolve the power struggle in Myanmar, it can have a seat on the table and gain some leverage to solve the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Admittedly, there are a lot of moving parts for any of these plans to come into fruition. Bangladesh has decided on the path of neutrality for the time being, declared after the Chinese ambassadors warning against joining QUAD. On the other hand, the US State Department has 'noted' the Chinese warning and said that it respects the country's sovereignty. Retaining this position will allow Bangladesh to play off both sides and join the advantageous party later. QUAD's potential is far-reaching but its success is still uncertain. But it is certain that Asia is going to be at the forefront of global geopolitics and Bangladesh will have a significant role to play in coming years.
Readus Salehen Jawad is an undergraduate student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.