Recent news that Australia’s Foreign Minister has indicated interest in taking part in a resurrected US-Australia-Japan-India quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN Summit is to be welcomed. It is an indication how much the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific has shifted. Positive as this latest development might be, it should nonetheless be regarded with caution.
The ‘Quadrilateral’ was never an alliance. It was a loose geostrategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests, but simultaneously, unwilling to provoke China by assuming the obligatory mechanisms of an alliance. Even then it buckled under pressure. Accused of being a NATO-in-the-making, it was far too full of self-doubt to be effective.
Chinese diplomatic opposition to the forum was keenly felt in June 2007 after Beijing issued demarches to all four countries, but Canberra’s asymmetric economic dependence meant that Australia felt it more than most. Within months of winning the election in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith unilaterally withdrew Australia from the quadrilateral during a February 2008 meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. While Australia was not the only country suffering internal divisions about the issue – there were doubters among the senior-most levels of the US Department of State and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs – it was the first to break ranks.
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