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Author Response

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.


My article, “Balancing Act”, was subtitled “Making Sense of the Quad” and it was intended to do just that. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving India, Japan, Australia and the United States has often been misunderstood – sometimes wilfully, as with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s early 2018 claim that it was a passing fad which, along with the notion of the Indo-Pacific, would “dissipate like ocean foam”. Well, here we are, three years on, and the idea of cooperation among Indo-Pacific partners to balance Chinese power, typified by the Quad, is going strong.

The foreign policy debate in Australia has come a long way in recent years, and recognition of the Quad’s relevance and durability has fast become mainstream. It is good to see two of the nation’s leading specialists on Japan and India, Professor Rikki Kersten and Dr Pradeep Taneja, complement my analysis with their fine-tuned explanations of why the Quad makes particular sense for those countries.

Kersten notes that Japan’s evolving strategy of building coalitions to balance China – including via the Quad – is “anything but normal”. I suspect we are ultimately in agreement here. My point that Tokyo’s wider security activism in the Quad and elsewhere is about “asserting Japan’s strategic normality” was a way of saying that Japan is now willing to play power politics, promote and protect its interests, and fight coercion with coalitions and deterrence, ending the self-abnegating era of its diplomacy.

Both correspondents rightly point out that Australian policy-makers need to be aware of the distinct national agenda of our Quad partners. I agree with Kersten that Australia needs to appreciate the nature and extent of Japan’s strategic ambition in the region. My point is that such ambition is broadly congruent with Australia’s interests and values. Neither country wants our region dominated by one power – a shared goal that underscores the strengthened Australia–Japan partnership. This was reflected in ministerial and prime ministerial meetings in late 2020 – including Scott Morrison’s first overseas trip since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – and in new agreements spanning defence, technology and infrastructure.

Likewise, Taneja points out that India has its own motives. He shines a light on India’s adroit diplomacy in strengthening the Quad, notably through inviting Australia back into the Malabar naval exercise in late 2020, as my article anticipated it would. At the same time, he notes India’s ability to juggle other arrangements involving China, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the China–Russia–India summit. I agree that New Delhi has good reason for seeking this kind of omnidirectional engagement: in a confusing and multipolar world, it’s a nice thing to have. I am not so sure, however, that it is sustainable. We have just lived through a deeply consequential year, and for India the shock of 2020 extends beyond COVID-19 to include a brutal reassessment of its relations with China. Violence on a contested border has compounded Indian popular mistrust of China for years to come. No wonder India is intensifying its investment in a whole range of China-balancing partnerships, including the Quad. It’s quite likely that India will increasingly privilege them over what is left of its China engagement, especially if its willingness to reject Chinese infrastructure (the Belt and Road Initiative) and technology ambitions (the entire suite of Chinese phone apps) is anything to go by.

Given Australia’s own confronting year with China, we can expect that Canberra will have plenty of reason to advance its agenda of Indo-Pacific coalition-building in 2021, seeking safety in numbers. The question remains how supportive the various partners will be of one another as China keeps making the going tough. An Australian priority will be to ensure that the Biden administration recognises the Quad and the wider Indo-Pacific balancing strategy for what they are: authentically partner-driven initiatives that warrant sustained American support.

Rory Medcalf is a professor and head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Read correspondence on “Balancing Act” by Rory Medcalf from Rikki Kersten and Pradeep Taneja.


AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is correspondence to Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.