QUAD has array of resources at its disposal to promote our common interests: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell « Khabarhub
Wednesday, June 19th, 2024

QUAD has array of resources at its disposal to promote our common interests: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell

Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell is the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs and Director of the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers.

Prior to standing up the journal, he was the acting director and managing editor of Air University Press and the acting dean of the Air Force Research Institute.

Earlier, he served as a human intelligence collector and Korean linguist for the US Army. He has taught at various institutions of higher learning in the United States and was an assistant professor in the Technology Integration Division at the Defense Language Institute–Foreign Language Center.

Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell on American Grand Strategy, QUAD, Indo-Pacific Strategy, Future of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, the US stand on Trans-Pacific Partnership and several others.  Excerpts:

There is an ongoing debate on QUAD as to whether it’s a security alliance (often termed as the Asian NATO) or a group of like-minded partners advancing a common vision with a laid-out agenda in the Indo-Pacific region? In your view, what is QUAD and is it here to stay?

Obviously, at the moment, the QUAD is much more rhetoric than anything and there is a lot of talks both in front of the cameras and behind closed doors.

It’s somewhat difficult for those of us on the outside to know exactly what sorts of agreements have been made behind the scenes; however, aside from great many photo ops and enhanced joint military exercises and a little bit of diplomatic posturing, it doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of substance yet.

And little if anything has been done to institutionalize the QUAD, which if it’s ever going to grow beyond the dialogue is obviously necessary.

Without institutionalization, it may remain a little more than a dialogue, a talk without action; it serves little purpose particularly when faced with a determined and unrestrained adversary.

Rhetoric is not going to change the way China is acting in the region and that’s supposedly what QUAD is all about.

If we go back to the most recent meeting of the QUAD, where was China mentioned? Nowhere.

Obviously, it’s not a one-dimensional framework either, there are other things that need to be talked about, and some of those are trade and putting forward a unified diplomatic and perhaps military front against not just China but other adversaries and threats in the region, including international terrorism.

Unfortunately, at this point, it doesn’t seem to have grown beyond dialogue yet and obviously, there are meetings on the horizon.  At the moment lots of talks, not much action.

What are the potentials and limitations of the QUAD based on the four dimensions of power — diplomacy, information, military, and economy, also known as DIME?

There are a lot of different potentials across all four dimensions of the DIME construct.

Diplomatically, the QUAD and the potential QUAD Plus that the member nations of these would-be bodies would be able to synthesize the many initiatives that are out there in the Indo-Pacific, including promoting a secure free, and unfettered Indo-Pacific.

This includes bringing together India’s ‘Act East Policy’, Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’, Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.

All these initiatives are around there but we need to synthesize a little bit so that they are working in conjunction with one another instead of being at loggerheads or redundant with one another.

For the informational dimension, the QUAD has a fantastic array of resources at its disposal to promote our common interests in the region and to counter the deceitful disinformation and propaganda emanating from Beijing.

There needs to be a more concentrated effort among member states to tap into those resources to project a unified strategic messaging to counter Beijing’s efforts in this regard.

Militarily, the QUAD gets a lot of pushback from those who aren’t fans of the construct, but there is sound merit in creating a defense alliance akin to but not identical to NATO.

Obviously, they are completely different regions with quite a bit of different concerns. So, take the lessons learned from NATO and apply those to designing a new Indo-Pacific treaty organization—or whatever we end up calling it.

And as a first step, I argue we must be dust off the former Southeast Asian Treaty Organization we had back in the ‘50s through the ‘70s; it wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t aimed at what the QUAD countries are aiming at now, but some of the languages are in there.

If it had been genuine, we can reify that and repurpose it; then I think we have a workable document that is already out there which might take a little bit of tweaking to make that work.

One of the biggest challenges to the military integration of the QUAD, however, is India’s continued reliance on Soviet- and Russian-made weapon systems that lack interoperability with the Western systems we use in the other QUAD countries.

We have all these joint exercises and what not, but there is a disconnect somewhere between those Indian systems and what we are using in the West.

One of my colleagues the other day, in a presentation with one of the think tanks, pointed out that you can take an Australian officer and put them on a Japanese ship and everything will be fine. They will be able to integrate and communicate perfectly because there is an operation on similar systems.

You can’t do that by taking an Indian officer and putting them on the bridge of a Japanese or Australian or American ship.

And the same thing would happen if we were to swap pilots amongst the different aircraft. So that’s something that needs to be addressed really if we are going to fully integrate in terms of the military.

But that might be a little overblown too. We have fought world wars in the past with the allies who were operating in different systems, and we managed to pull it off. But I think in the day of high-tech everything becomes a little bit problematic.

There should be greater joint professional military education, some language training, and you know just training programs that bring together all of the members of the QUAD more profoundly. We need to incentivize programs where we can do new cross-training and cross-educating amongst the different QUAD countries.

Finally turning to the economic dimension, we find a host of different and sometimes competing economic programs by the four nations, and institutionalizing the QUAD would allow members to merge many of their programs, which would reduce redundancy, save money, and provide a better-targeted approach to regional challenges.

This would also demonstrate a resolve to offer a workable counter initiative to China’s BRI. Right now, we have got America pushing the Blue Dot Network, for example, Japan pushing their particular package, and India offering certain things to some of its neighbors, and Australia through the Pacific Step-up offering certain financial packages to some of the island nations.

If we were able to merge those into a QUAD Initiative, we can pull out our resources and probably will have a better return on investment.

And it would also provide means to move the supply chain out of China into partner countries and like-minded third-party nations and really make an economic impact that demonstrates to China if you don’t follow international norms and international law there’s going to be ramifications, and this will drive home the point because one thing that could cause regime change in China is the loss of affluence, and they are quite cognizant of that in Beijing.

If they saw the potential for the loss of affluence and possible rise of dissent within the country because of that loss that would maybe make some change in their behavior rather than you know all of the military muscle-flexing that goes on currently.

So, among the most concerning limitations to these efforts is the mercurial change in American foreign policy over the past several decades.

We jump from the Bush administration to the Obama administration to the Trump administration to the Biden administration; there is some consistency there. But there is also a lot of inconsistency there, and the QUAD is a perfect example.

We are in QUAD 2.O now for a reason. A lot of people want to point a finger at other members for why that happened, but when you get right down to it if Washington had put more effort into it and actually made that pivot to Asia that was talked about but never materialized then we wouldn’t have lost QUAD 1.O. it would have continued on through.

I’m a little bit hopeful that the one thing that hasn’t been thrown under the bus since the change in administration is that QUAD is worth pursuing.

But to be honest, it is difficult for our allies and partners to know where Washington will stand on important issues—such as the QUAD and all of these economic opportunities that we are presenting out there— three years down the road from any presidential elections.

As I will talk about later, with the current political polling and everything, we may be looking at another change in administration within the next three years; so, that’s got to be somewhat disconcerting for our allies and partners in the region.

When it comes to QUAD, how parallel are the US, Australia, Japan, and India’s aspirations and goals?

I would say more than the parallel, the aspirations and goals of different members are more complementary. Obviously, each of the four countries is highly introspective at times.

There are some social issues we are dealing with here, everyone is dealing with COVID-19, Japan’s got issues at home as well, India with Kashmir and Modi’s perceived handling of COVID, and in Australia similar types of things going on.

With these types of things going on, sometimes there are distractions from foreign policy. I can’t speak to this phenomenon in other Quad countries, but I can tell you in the US the bulk of our people are blissfully unaware of what foreign issues we are having, and it is certainly not a good thing.

However, if we are able to take care of the affairs in our own part of the Indo-Pacific in terms of foreign policy and military patrolling and tackling international terrorism and all of those things—either on our own or with the allies—so long as these complementary trajectories remain intact, it frees up other members to do the same in their subregion of the Indo-Pacific and assist others when needed.

For instance, India is not so interested in the South China Sea as Japan and the US are; however, New Delhi is more interested in issues related to the Indian Ocean, which remains a secondary and sometimes tertiary interest in Tokyo and Washington.

However, a strong India, able to project diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power throughout the Indian Ocean region, frees up US, Australian, and Japanese resources to focus on their sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific.

So, if we are all doing it in conjunction with another, or preferably, under some kind of institutionalization, we can do it thoughtfully instead of doing it out of habit—then it does create a situation that is favorable in promoting aspirations and goals that are common to us.

Likewise, with an economically vibrant Australia and India, we move from the threat of economic coercion by  Beijing. These are important to the US and Japan as well. I think it is perfectly fine within any alliance or partnership for its members to have divergent interests and aspirations, as long as they are able to support and complement one another.

That’s essentially what a partnership is for. It’s not to make everybody a carbon copy of one another or for everybody to be playing the same role within the institution.

Rather for everybody to play the role assigned, to support one another in pursuing their common interest and goals. Hence, not necessarily parallel but certainly complementary, and something that I think we can build upon.

What hopes does the US have for the upcoming first in-person QUAD summit likely to be held this fall in Washington DC? What does it anticipate to achieve out of the meet?

To be honest, I might not be the best scholar to answer this. It’s very difficult to remain objective about this. The current administration has shown very little understanding of the region in my view.

Despite drafting a lot of its team members and veterans from the Obama administration, it’s important to remember that many of these key players on the team were the same ones who orchestrated the Obama administration’s failed pivot to Asia.

So, there is the question of whether this is the A team or naught. They talk a good game, but they fail to produce meaningful results.

The recently proposed Central Asian QUAD, for example, shows just how out of touch the Department of State seems to be in the region.

First of all, it’s supposedly based on economic grounds. These countries are so far down the list of US trade partners as to be insignificant.

There is no market for US goods, and these countries—aside from military goods and donated agricultural commodities.

Second, Afghanistan is about to become Talibanistan again—thanks to the absolute bungling of the situation thereby the current administration. Over and over again, each administration seems to feel the need to lean on Pakistan as if it’s some kind of reliable ally in the region.

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, and even before that, any information or intelligence we gave to Pakistan, the ISI turned right around and fed to the Taliban.

And it is so disconcerting to see the efforts that should be going into the building and maintaining and growing the original QUAD with India, Japan, and Australia going into some ill-conceived second QUAD with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

And it’s mind-boggling. It distracts from and draws resources away from the original QUAD—the members of which are tried and trusted allies and partners of the United States.

So, I really think it’s perhaps not too wise to expect a whole lot out of this QUAD summit. I think this is just going to be a lot of photo ops, handshaking, empty rhetoric at the end of the day, and it’s going to be overshadowed by the fall of the democratic regime in Afghanistan.

The fall is symbolic not just for us having poured 20-plus years into trying to make this into a vibrant democracy and increasing stability in the region but also for India, NATO countries, Australia, and Japan too, who have poured tons of resources into efforts there.

And now we are just pulling out and letting it all fall apart. What does it say about us as a guarantor of security and as a reliable ally?

I think it says horrible things, and I think those kinds of concerns would be viable topics for discussion at the QUAD summit. And if they are brought up, that would probably derail the entire summit, and it could conceivably derail the entire QUAD effort. So, I don’t have a whole lot of hope for anything productive coming out of the QUAD Summit.

What are the challenges in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the region? What could be the viable options for dealing with maritime disputes in a rules-based order?

The most glaring obstacle is Chinese aircraft and naval vessels challenging the US and its allies and partners as they conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and over-flight operations.

This dramatically raises the risk of conflict, and it’s only exacerbated by what’s going on in Taiwan as well. Second, the Quad countries are not on the same page on this subject, as witnessed by the US FONOP’s in waters India holds to be sovereign waters.

Here we are, trying to build a Quad and assure our partners that are on their side, and we insert US naval vessels into the water India holds to be theirs. It doesn’t send a very good signal to New Delhi that we are on the same page.

We can disagree about whether or not those are international waters or Indian waters, but actually taking the initiative to put our ships in there at a time we are trying to build a partnership doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It could completely disrupt the progress that has been made in forging close ties through the Quad.

Bringing in QUAD member’s coast guards more fully into the equation could be a benefit. These services are typically tasked with law-and-order responsibilities rather than war-fighting missions; as such, they are better suited to engage the violators of sovereign waters; hence, it is less likely to be escalating to a shooting match.

China understands this. which is why Beijing used the China Coast Guard and passed the new law in the past couple of years to give them greater authority.

It allows them to violate other nations’ sovereign space because China believes that such craft is less likely to be fired upon.

At the same time, using this law-and-order sort of vessel creates the illusion that China has some kind of sovereignty over the waters that they really don’t have.

So, if we are to engage coast guard to coast guard instead of having our big blue-water ships go up against Chinese ships, this would be beneficial at least from optics and also from the fact that we can call their bluff to some extent without having to worry about shooting war over such kinds of engagements.

The overflight issue is a little more complicated. We have the air defense zones in the Indo-Pacific being violated by the Chinese, it’s a little bit more difficult in such settings because we don’t have the air equivalent of the coast guard that can go up there and basically tell them to back off.

Do you think the USA is likely to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in the near future?

That window of opportunity, I think, is quickly closing. The current administration has struggled to find any traction on foreign policy.

To be honest, it diverts most of its attention toward domestic issues here in the United States, and in doing so, it has expended much of its limited political capital in DC.

Should the current polling continue on its current trajectory, the Democrats will lose its control over the Senate and possibly the House?

At which point, President Biden becomes a lame duck in not being capable of pursuing any of his agenda, including joining any of the trade blocs in the Indo-Pacific.

So, I just don’t think the intention is there, and it definitely doesn’t seem like an emergency—even though there was a lot of talk about it during the election.

It’s kind of a blessing and a curse—not joining, we give free rein and influence over these trading blocs in a manner that doesn’t benefit the QUAD at all, particularly since India has not joined RCEP either, shows that while some in the Quad partners are in, others are not.

It looks like we continue to pursue our hub-and-spoke model of diplomacy and military cooperation in the region.

Perhaps, in the current environment, it isn’t enough when it comes to these economic endeavors. So, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

You know that Biden rallied American allies at the G7 meeting of wealthy democracies and treaty partners at NATO, before his sit-down with Putin. Was this sequencing a strategy or a symbolism to create a unified-front posture in order to bolster Biden’s position regarding Russia?

I think it was mostly symbolism; part of it was just poking his predecessor in the eye in saying look what a good friend I am to the Europeans. Trump had a very stormy relationship with the Europeans and brought up some important points. Under NATO, they are supposed to meet a certain percentage of the defense spending and a certain percentage of what NATO does in terms of troops, money, and efforts.

However, those things did not resonate well with the Europeans, who did not like to be called out about it. So, I think part of it was Biden going there to assuage the feelings of the Europeans and make them feel less worried about Trump.

A lot of it was symbolism both in terms of trying to one-up Trump on the world stage and also to assure long-time friends that we are going to continue to provide the support for our joint ventures.

But coming back to whether it was strategic or symbolism, what exactly did Biden get out of this meeting with Putin? Absolutely nothing. Did it stop the Russian pipeline or convince Germany to abandon it?

No. If anything, the Biden administration is all talk and no action—in some ways, the polar opposite of Teddy Roosevelt.

The Biden administration talks with a loud voice but carries no stick. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying was, “Speak softly,” engage in diplomacy, “but carry a big stick,” and so if we can’t get along, there will be ramifications.

The current administration is all rhetoric and diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy, which obviously provides some wonderful photo ops, but it doesn’t really lead to any action or benefits, really. So, to get back to your question, I didn’t see any strategy in it. It was just a photo opportunity.

As troops leave Afghanistan, can we take it as the US shifting military focus from counterinsurgency and conflicts in the Middle East to competing with powerful near-peer rivals, such as China?

I don’t think that the withdrawal takes any movement towards a great-power competition. First of all, Afghanistan is part of South Asia—or Central Asia, depending on how you want to draw the map.

US withdrawal from the country hands it over to the Taliban, with the Chinese already making overtures, so if we are looking at the withdrawal meaning something in terms of competition with China, then we are strengthening the Chinese hand.

If they are able to gain influence with the Taliban and they already have Pakistan in their back pocket, it won’t take a whole lot of resources to get the Taliban to follow suit.

The Taliban was created by Pakistan and shares a lot of common goals with the intelligence services in Pakistan.

So, I don’t see that the withdrawal will do us any good. If anything, it strengthens our adversary’s hand. As I mentioned, it’s a huge loss to the other QUAD and the NATO countries that invested in building up the democracy in Afghanistan and tried to work them into some kind of regional trade as well.

All of this is causing us to question the reliability of the United States as a guarantor of security, at the very time when we are trying to maintain partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and to show that we are more reliable than China.

If I’m Xi Jinping, I’m laughing my head off right now at how foolish the US looks in withdrawing from Afghanistan, at least in the way that we are withdrawing.

I think it would connote that we are open to refocus in other places in the Indo-Pacific, but if that’s the case I haven’t seen any of that.

And having brought up the Central Asian QUAD earlier, it does not seem that we are focusing anywhere. If anything, we are doubling down, but doing it from a weaker position.

By withdrawing our troops from the region, we lose a huge leverage block that we had in terms of trying to assure that Afghanistan stays democratic and the ability to make Pakistan behave a little bit better than it would have otherwise.

One of these two scenarios is going to play out when the Taliban takes control, either they are going to try to spread into other ‘stans’ like Tajikistan or Uzbekistan and other places like that—and they are already lashing out at some of the minorities in Afghanistan and have their roots in these other countries—or China gains influence and is able to temper the Taliban to some extent so that they are placated in maintaining their own borders and not spreading, but doing so at China’s behest.

So neither one of those scenarios plays out well for us or for the other QUAD countries. Indian, Japanese and Australian investments in the region and Afghanistan are going to suffer or be wiped out completely, while China is able to roll in and take over those operations or is at least able to deny the QUAD countries the benefit of keeping those. Thus, it is not a good situation at all.

How do you view the role and significance of middle powers esp. the South and Southeast Asian countries in the region? How can these countries jointly work with the US in different avenues in the region?

I think it’s terribly important, especially if we are going to accept the idea that we are no longer a superpower and moving toward a multipolar world or bifurcated environment where we have two competing great powers but they don’t have the same kind of leverage over their individual blocs that we had during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In either one of those situations, middle powers are given a lot more influence, because they have the ability to, kind of, maneuver amongst the different great powers and amongst themselves to pursue their own aspirations and their own goals.

I think, if you look at the way the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework were phrased, ASEAN played a significant role in recognizing the fact that working through the organization can sometimes be more beneficial than working with the individual countries that are a part of that organization.

If we work through ASEAN, then we are able to be a friend of a friend and kind of reap the benefits therefrom.  And at the same time, work with an organization that is fairly democratic and has the ability to influence other countries that may not be democratic to move toward that.

I think the Indian Ocean Rim Association is another acronym out there with countries we can work with, perhaps with the exception of Iran.

I like to talk about all of these different organizations that are out there that are like a bucket full of Lego pieces. We have the master block that we build on—that we can plug into all of these international organizations and work with some of the middle powers and put those blocks into a shape that is conducive to the QUAD and our own aspirations and yet also provides a viable alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Route and proves to be beneficial for everyone engaged in there. Obviously, it’s not just South and Southeast Asian countries that are interested.

The British are coming back into the area, we’ve got the French, several European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands that have published their own Indo-Pacific strategies in the past couple of years.

We just published an article by Stephen Nagy talking about Canada’s need for an Indo-Pacific strategy. And these are middle powers we can bring into the equation too, and we should probably foster some folks from the Indo-Pacific countries of South America and East Africa to get involved too as this then provides a very holistic approach to working middle powers into the QUAD Plus construct would be the perfect way for doing so.

But again, if we don’t institutionalize the QUAD itself with core four countries, then QUAD Plus is never going to come into existence either.

So we are back to where we started, if we don’t institutionalize the QUAD, then talking about the role and significance of middle powers and working these international organizations into what we are hoping to accomplish in the region is going to become much more problematic.

This is because all four QUAD countries will then pursue their own courses of action, which may lose their complementary trajectory if we are not working together.

What is America’s grand strategy, and what does the history of American grand strategy tell us about its current goals?

I am not entirely convinced that we are operating under any grand strategy at the moment. It seems like we are bent on accepting the narrative that we are no longer a superpower and not just one party either.

I’ve been bashing the current administration quite a bit throughout the interview, but the previous administration too gave some indications that maybe we are not a superpower anymore, maybe we are one among a couple of great powers.

And if we accept that and sit back on our laurels and accept a new world order that is dominated by Beijing because we are not joining the organizations that are shaping the new world order, then I don’t think that is much of a strategy so much as a surrender.

It is one thing to continue thinking of ourselves as a superpower or to accept our role as one of a couple of great powers and another thing to withdraw from the world order altogether or just to sit back and let Beijing get stronger and stronger without challenging them.

Naturally, this isn’t the first time in American history that we have witnessed such a malaise, as termed back in the Carter administration.

It’s not too late for us to reverse course and to go back to the history of American grand strategy, that kind of waxes and wanes with the different personalities in the White House.

It would necessitate a tremendous change of mindset in Washington in the form of a complete transformation of the current administration’s approach or seismic shift in the voting in 2022.

We haven’t talked about the Indo-Pacific in terms of grand strategy that much until the past couple of decades and this itself is somewhat a shift in American grand strategy thinking.

But have we completed the transformation to accepting the idea of Indo-Pacific? Yes, we changed Pacific Command’s name to Indo-Pacific Command, and we talk Indo-Pacific all the time.

This wasn’t the term that came up with the Trump administration, Hillary Clinton was using it before, and I believe others before her; and so, it transcends the political parties.

But has the idea of the Indo side of the Indo-Pacific construct really taken hold? All you have to do is look at where we are focused in terms of what strategy we have out there, South China Sea, East China Sea, and Straits of Malacca—and then where is the Indian Ocean side of that?

So, are we engaged that much with Mauritius, have we started talking with Mauritius about what happens if a Labour Party government in the UK comes to power and hands Diego Garcia back to Mauritius, with all the assets we have stationed in Diego Garcia? Do we lose that?

Well, if we haven’t fostered a decent relationship with Mauritius or come to some kind of agreement with them, then we very well may. And then what happens?

Has China convinced them that they would be a better tenant there? They come in and basically take over whatever we left behind. That would be a huge blunder.

Do we have a good relationship with Seychelles, Comoros, or Madagascar?

We’ve got some decent relationships up in the northern part of the Indo-Pacific—with Qatar and Oman etc.—but as far as the current administration on whether it’s following any grand strategy, I am not sure I see it.

We do have some legacy pieces of diplomacy and military relationships that are still there, one we talked about earlier, with Pakistan for example, which I find to be ill-conceived.

Last week, Defense Secretary Austin was there, reassuring Pakistanis of the commitment to hosting a wonderful relationship with Pakistan, which again as I pointed out earlier is nothing but a lopsided relationship, with us relying on them and them taking advantage of us.

I think the concern is we don’t want to completely lose Pakistan to China, but I argue that it is pretty much a done deal already.

So, I do think we were influenced by the history of American grand strategy, but I am not sure they are following any strand of it in the current administration—and even if we are, then it’s pretty much behind the scenes, not out there for general consumption.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in this interview are those of the participant and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents)

Publish Date : 22 August 2021 10:12 AM

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