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OP-ED: Will a new coalition corner China?

  • Published at 10:41 pm October 20th, 2020
Why would Beijing want to commit suicide? REUTERS

Is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue destined to fail?

Introducing the Quad. It’s better than the mouthful: Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Which overpaid bunch of consultants came up with that one? 

The US, Japan, Australia, and India arrayed against the People’s Republic of China. The four are meant to be a core grouping. It expects a role for peripheral actors. Bangladesh is being offered a cameo appearance. As is Sri Lanka. High ranking Americans and Indians are conducting road shows. Vietnam and South Korea have already heard the sales pitch. 

The Quad today is a new, improved, upgrade of Japan’s original version launched by Premier Shinzo Abe in a speech in 2007 with the title: Confluence of the Two Seas. Hence we hear about the associated concept of the Indo-Pacific. 

The aims of the Quad are supposedly a free and open rule-based order. Question: Are the seas closed right now? Who benefits if they do close in the future? Whose rules are we meant to maintain? Who decided the Quad should be the enforcer? Who decided we need an Asian NATO? 

How do you say ‘suicide’ in Mandarin?

The Maritime Belt is China’s lifeline. So, why would China block its own arteries? The sea lanes, over which most of its trade moves, need to remain open and free for Beijing’s benefit. While it minimizes risks by land-based corridors in Pakistan and Myanmar, the bulk of its imports and exports will continue to cross the seas. 

In sum, it is China which is vulnerable, not the US. We have inverted reality. We have maximized all potential threats from China. If China were to interdict sea lanes, it would destroy its economy and the maritime element of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I am finding it hard to believe that Beijing wants to commit zi-sha. 

We have seen Asian alliances before

CENTO or the Central Treaty Organization was formed in 1955. Its members included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the UK. The US tactfully joined later. Its purpose was to shore up West Asian states against a perceived threat from the Soviet Union. The fall of despots led to new alignments. The Alliance could not manage political change. Pakistan, hoping for Muslim help in its wars with Russian-backed “Hindu” India, was disappointed. 

CENTO sponsored a rail line all the way from London to Tehran. A few miles of track were laid. Which pretty much sums up that organization. 

East and West Pakistan of the 1950s became a member both of the Middle East-based CENTO and the Southeast Asian-oriented SEATO. It made no sense for the Bengali delta to belong to CENTO. Neither did the Indus river-based “West Pakistan” have any links with Indo-China and Southeast Asia. 

Both alliances, run by Washington, ran into the ground and petered out. SEATO included Australia within its ranks, as well as the UK and France. The real aim was for SEATO to front the war in Vietnam under the banner of SEATO. Many members had cold feet and demured. It remained the “American War,” as they say in Vietnam. The alliance collapsed quietly in the late 1970s. 

Why did SEATO fail? It had a vague aim to counter Communism. Only the Philippines and Thailand were members from Southeast Asia. Indonesia and Burma refused to join. Pakistan withdrew after it received no help in 1971 over the emergence of Bangladesh. 

For Bangladesh, there was one spin-off. SEATO funded a cholera research facility in Dhaka. This later became the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b).

Coalition of the unwilling

The Quad is following the path of SEATO. It is talking about health (the Covid virus) with potential members. It is claiming the group is not trying to surround China and not exclusively military. That an “Asian NATO” is just “loose talk.” 

If it were only true. It will indeed be a loose framework. There will be regular naval exercises. That’s because the Quad is a coalition of mainly naval powers spanning “the Indo-Pacific.” Period. 

Remember George Dubya Bush’s “you are either with us or against us?” Which meant “join the Coalition of the Willing (if you know what’s good for you).” Bangladesh loyally announced its pledge of fealty. The Quad is another variation of that theme. 

I think it will be a Coalition of the Unwilling. Destined to fail. It does smell like the failed alliances of the 1950s. Then and now, America tells Asia who its enemy is and what it should do. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.

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