FEB 25, 2018 @ 10:00 PM105
I write about the political economy of China and its major industries
File photo of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, left, and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy contribution–The Belt and Road Initiative–has attracted acres of positive press coverage since it was unveiled in 2014, but has lately inspired an apparent rival in the resurrected form of the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. These four democracies each have their own security concerns about China's more assertive foreign policy posture, but they also have a shared commitment to the existing "rules based order" as a key mechanism for protecting, and projecting, their own principal security and economic interests. For this reason, it's perhaps incorrect to see the "Quad" as a rival to the BRI so much as a restatement of what the BRI has set out to challenge.
The "Quad" started out focussed largely on security cooperation, but in its first incarnation in 2007 Australia found that China's concerns were sufficient for it to walk away, not wishing to be perceived as "hostile to China." Subsequent shifts in the political mood in Australia, along with some high-profile concerns about Chinese overseas influence operations, have inspired a reconsideration. And with similar levels of mistrust emerging between China and both the U.S. and India, the "Quad" has rather unexpectedly sprung to life again. Perhaps the most salient feature being the geopolitical footprint, which approximately overlaps the maritime element of China's own Belt and Road Initiative.
This time, however, concerns are not simply about security, but expand into trade and ultimately encompass–to some extent–development policy. The reasons for this expanded agenda are not especially hard to discern either. During the first period of talks about security contacts between the U.S., Japan and Australia were relatively uncomplicated given the preexisting relationships. India, however, was the outlier and was at the time pursuing a China-friendly policy on trade and development, having joined with them to block progress on the Doha round of trade negotiations. This was also a time when the BRICs were being talked up as a forum for developing country cooperation.
Since then perspectives of China by all the participating states have steadily evolved. Most particularly, China has gone from presenting a credible appearance of being a "status quo" power, in that it was widely assumed China's rise would bring it into broad alignment with the existing structures of world governance, to becoming a very clear "revisionist" power, even to the extent proposing its own parallel institutions and advertising itself as a viable "alternative model" of both internal and external development. With the addition of the Belt and Road Initiative to China's strategic aspirations and its increasingly abrasive self-confidence, the "Quad" has suddenly come to prominence once again as a template for deeper cooperation across a range of security and economic domains.
Not a rival
On the face of it, China's financial commitment to spend in the region of $1 trillion on ports, railways, and the infrastructure of trade will likely never be matched by the "Quad" who have made no comparable commitment. Nevertheless, China has a tendency to announce enormous numbers, only for the reality to end up a little different. Furthermore, at China's estimation, almost every occasion in which Chinese companies are investing overseas seems to be included in the overall summary of BRI investments. Even maps of prospective trade routes include ports in India which has openly declared itself against the project, going so far as to suggest it resembles colonialism. So there is a danger of overestimating China's intentions somewhat.
More to the point, whatever China does, the maritime element of the BRI will always be a medium commonly known as "the sea" which already connects most of the known world, and whose freedom has been guaranteed by both U.S. and formerly the UK for a few hundred years now. And unless China's revisionism exceeds current estimates, it's likely to remain free.
Lastly, although the "Quad" may seem like an innovation, it is already institutionalised in each of its putative member state's shared and pre-existing commitments to the post-war international order. In a sense, therefore, the BRI has proved to be a contrast which has now revealed the strategic importance of cooperative commitments to the freedom of the seas, ever advancing trade links, the Asia Development Bank etc. It could even be argued that the "Quad" is not really a response to the BRI or indeed a rival, so much as a latent precursor, always there in outline, if perhaps somewhat overlooked.
Will BRI stand the comparison?
Whatever one thinks of China's strategic aspirations, recent developments in Sri Lankahave made clear to several countries–now backing out of China financed projects–that development assistance from China comes with silk strings attached. Perhaps the most important function, therefore, of the "Quad" beyond recommitting its members to an already existing "rules based order" is to remind people in developing countries that there are costs to doing business, and what appears to be a free lunch almost never is. In any event, the "Quad" has quickly gained momentum as an alternative to the BRI. The reality is it's just a new iteration of an old idea