“Japan is not now and will never be a tier-two power,” declared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in February 2013. He was there to champion the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the United States, India, and Australia. He succeeded in his mission.
Abe had three goals with the Quad. The first was strengthening Japan’s own national defense capabilities. The second was seeking to buttress liberal internationalism and free trade in the Indo-Pacific. The third was encouraging the US to dig in for the long haul in East Asia, rather than retrench in the face of Chinese aggression and ambition. The dialogue with India and Australia was intended to draw them into the same threefold commitment. It has worked, to the growing concern and annoyance of Beijing—which for years had dismissed the Quad as a vague notion and the Indo-Pacific as an incoherent one.
Abe had initiated quiet bilateral talks with India, the US, and Australia during his first term as prime minister in 2006–2007. His intention was to align the maritime democracies in support of a world order of liberal trade and human rights, as a hedge against the rising power of China. The idea of the Quad had languished for some years. Now it is up and running.
The main reason the Quad has cohered and has become serious is that China’s rise has become militaristic and expansionist under Xi Jinping, whose rule since 2013 overlapped with that of Abe’s in Japan (Abe served as prime minister in 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020, longer than any other in modern Japanese history). While grounds for some unease existed a decade earlier, which had led to Abe’s moves in the early 2000s, there was no room for doubt by late 2020 when the first full-fledged Quad summit convened in Tokyo.
To understand the significance of the Quad, it is important to grasp two things: the acute danger posed by China to democracy in the Indo-Pacific region and the evolution of Japan’s grand strategy under Abe. Both developments occurred during the first two decades of this century, and both will shape the strategic environment in the coming two decades.1
China’s military budget has grown tenfold during the years of its economic boom since 19902. It has built a massive and still growing blue water navy, professionalized and hardened its army, modernized and streamlined its air force, developed powerful strategic and anti-ship missile forces, worked strenuously to develop cyber and anti-satellite weapons systems, and is on track to achieve nuclear parity with the US and Russia by 2030. This is the biggest peacetime military buildup in modern times.
All that, combined with China’s militarization—in clear violation of its explicit undertakings to the contrary—of the South China Sea; its increasing threats to Taiwan and harassment of the Japanese occupation of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands; its minatory stance toward the Philippines and Vietnam; its wolf warrior diplomacy; its economic sanctions against Norway, South Korea, Lithuania, and Australia; its open aggression against India on their common border; its mercantilist trade policies; and Xi Jinping’s avowal that China aims to become the world’s number one power by 2049 have woken up the world’s democracies.
In a recent, trenchant book, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley of the American Enterprise Institute argue that the danger of China initiating a war is becoming acute not because China is now heavily armed or economically ascendant but rather because its leaders are aware that its rise has peaked and that their economic, demographic, and military weight will begin to decline by no later than 20303. China, therefore, has a closing window of opportunity to stake its claims—not least Taiwan—before its power to do so wanes.
This takes some absorbing, given the decades of hype about China being “destined” to rise to the top. Lee Kuan Yew’s statement of the late 1990s, “China isn’t just another big player. It’s the biggest player in the history of man,” became almost dogma among many pundits for a while. That, in turn, led many observers to insist that China’s rise could not be contained, that it would have to be accommodated, and that the US would have to be urged to cede primacy to China or face humiliation and defeat.
Brands and Beckley’s view of the situation puts such prognostications in a starkly different light. China’s population is rapidly aging, and its population is now on a trajectory to fall from its current 1.4 billion to 700 million by late this century. Its productivity is stagnant; its debt levels are astronomical (at 335% of GDP); its environment is disastrously degraded due to the reckless charge toward urban industrialization; and the structure of its state-dominated economy obstructs rather than facilitates its future growth and flexibility.
Strategic hedging, which began with concern about China’s rapid rise, must now take cognizance of the anxiety and recklessness that could well attend its impending decay. It was just such anxiety and recklessness, Brands and Beckley argue cogently, that led Imperial Germany to start World War I in 1914 and Japan to plunge into war with the US in late 1941.
It was, they point out, also such anxiety that led Athens, in 431 BCE, to come to the aid of Corcyra against Corinth, an ally of Sparta, and precipitate the Peloponnesian War. Graham Allison had his history wrong when he coined his famous idea of the “Thucydides Trap.” The “declining hegemon” Sparta did not start the war. Nor did the “rising hegemon” Athens do so out of hubris. Athens challenged Sparta out of concern that it had peaked and faced a serious challenge (with Corinth bidding to become a serious rival in sea power). And Athens, the “rising power,” was defeated in the war.
We could find ourselves at war with China within a few years, they argue, because China—like Athens, Imperial Germany, and Imperial Japan before it—feels hemmed in and pessimistic about the trend of things running against it and not in its long-term favor. Yet the solution is not to appease China. It has to be deterred and that could prove to be a prolonged, hair-raising exercise in brinkmanship.
Hence, the second coming and coalescing of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Foreseeing serious problems with China, Abe shifted Japan’s grand strategy two decades ago from the longstanding Yoshida doctrine that informed Japanese policy since 1945. An advocate of cooperation with the Anglo-American powers before 1935, Yoshida Shigeru became Japan’s preeminent leader, its Konrad Adenauer, after the catastrophic defeat of 1945.4
He set in place a doctrine of relying on the US for security, while avoiding involvement in its wars in Asia or elsewhere and concentrating on economic prosperity. That strategy worked brilliantly—until the rapid rise of Chinese power and ambition demanded that it be rethought.
Abe set in place Japan’s first national security architecture since 1945, reached out to India and Australia, began Japanese rearmament, and openly spoke of the need to defend the liberal order across the Indo-Pacific—a term he more or less coined—against the hegemonic ambitions of China and its authoritarian and mercantilist regime.
India, under Narendra Modi, equivocated until China used naked force in the Galwan Valley in the summer of 2020. That prompted the Quad summit on October 6, 2020 in Tokyo. Australia, under Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007), was also equivocal5. Under the Rudd government (2007–2010), the Quad was seen as dead and buried. This changed, for both India and Australia, in 2020.
The US, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hedged on the Quad as well. That changed to some extent under Trump and signally once Biden took office in January 2021. And when the Labour government in Australia led by Anthony Albanese replaced the conservative Morrison government in late May 2022, both Albanese and Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong headed straight to Tokyo for the Quad summit.
Michael Green, director of the US Studies Center in Sydney, has shown how Japan’s grand strategy has evolved since the late 19th century,6 when Japan emerged from self-imposed isolation with the Meiji Restoration (after 1868).
There were three major phases before Abe. The first originated in the 1880s and 1890s, when the architects of the Japanese modernization program, Aritomo Yamagata and Ito Hirobumi, listened to the Austrian scholar Lorenz Von Stein. He spoke to them about a “line of advantage” that Japan would need to define and defend in order to secure its sovereignty and prosperity.
Japan needed to develop a powerful modern navy and to cooperate with the Anglo-Americans to secure trade in the Pacific Ocean. Broadly speaking, this was their policy until the 1930s, when anxiety about the collapse of the world order led them to embark on their conquest in China, followed by war with the Anglo-Americans and attempted conquest of South East Asia. That ended in total defeat. The third phase was the post-World War II Yoshida doctrine of maritime self-defense and economic integration into the American world order.
What Abe and his national security architects, such as Kanehara Nobukatu, have done is react to a second apparent breakdown in world order by making very different choices than their forebears did in the 1930s. They seek to lock the US into a defense of the Western Pacific and the East Asian littoral against Chinese ambitions and to actively buttress democratic order, liberal trade rules, and human rights across the Indo-Pacific.
Japan has been proactive in contesting China’s plans. That’s what the Quad, or what Kevin Rudd has quite reasonably dubbed the Quad 2.0, is all about.
Rudd, just appointed Australian ambassador to Washington, has authored a recent book urging that a catastrophic conflict between China and the US can be avoided. He is surely correct. The question is how to deter China from initiating such a war. The Quad states clearly do not seek one but are rearming and aligning in reaction to China’s militarization and plain ambitions.
Rudd’s argument is that the 2020s will be a dangerous decade, but not for the reasons advanced by Brands and Beckley. Rudd does not foresee China’s secular decline. He sees an inevitable strategic competition that needs to become a managed strategic competition, like the Cold War, if a catastrophic hot war is to be avoided.7
Rudd is rather vague, however, as to how China is to be drawn into the diplomatic and strategic dialogue that this managed competition will require. Nor does he contemplate how China should be constrained given its general unwillingness to play its hand as what Washington has long called “a responsible stakeholder.” It is precisely for these reasons that the Quad 2.0 has arisen and that its member states are rearming, with China as the driving concern. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has added to the alarm of the democracies. The prognosis by Brands and Beckley strongly suggests that the Quad now has serious work to do in the 2020s. War has become a distinct near-term possibility.
1For the single best summation of how all this emerged and what it means, see Rory Medcalf Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (La Trobe University Press, 2020).
2Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Military Expenditure Data Base, https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex. In 2021, China’s official military expenditure grew from $21.8 billion in 1990 to $270 billion in 2022.
3Hal Brands and Michael Beckley Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (W. W. Norton and Co., 2022) especially chapters 2, 3, and 4 titled “Peak China,” “The Closing Ring,” and “Danger: Falling Powers.”
4John W. Dower Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954 (Harvard University Press, 1988) is the classic account, especially chapters 10, 11, and 12.
5One of the most trenchant critiques of the Quad was by Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China, in China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order (Melbourne University Press, 2020) pp. 137–153. His misfortune as an analyst is that his book went to press just as the Quad was cohering under Chinese pressure, in late 2020.
6Michael J. Green Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo (Columbia University Press, 2022).
7Kevin Rudd The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China (Hachette, 2022). See especially pp. 202–219 and 397–400.