Will the QSD weaken or strengthen the existing order?
If the United States, Japan, India and Australia can effectively coordinate their military and economic policies through close consultation, information sharing or military exercises, it can significantly help to deter and dissuade Chinese hegemonic intentions. This will certainly contribute to the creation of a more stable power balance in the region. The QSD will also contribute to the establishment of a FOIP, envisioned by all four powers, by providing a foundation of such an order from its base. By creating such equilibrium, all regional powers, including Japan, Australia and India, could maintain constructive relations with China without fearing exploitation by or excessive dependency on this regional giant. While the United States has up until now played a major role as a regional balancer, Japan, India and Australia are expected to play an increasingly important role in maintaining a stable power balance in the region.
Creating a more stable power balance has become extremely important as US-Sino competition rapidly escalates. As power transition theory suggests, conflicts are most likely to occur when the power gap between a rising power and the existing hegemon narrows (Gilpin 1981; Kugler and Lemke 1996; Organski and Kugler 1980; Tammen et al. 2000). International tensions are expected to increase as the existing hegemon is likely to try to prevent the rising power from replacing its position through all necessary measures—often referred to as the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ (Allison 2017). Indeed, recent US policies towards China, including the imposition of high tariffs on imported goods or the direction of harsh criticism against Chinese foreign and domestic behaviour, appear to endorse such a pessimistic school of thought. To avoid a hegemonic war, and to escape from the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’, one must find a broader space that can accommodate both the rising power and the declining hegemon.
Expanding the geopolitical concept from ‘Asia Pacific’ to ‘Indo-Pacific’ can be understood as an attempt to find and create such a broader strategic space in the region. Unlike the Asia Pacific where the United States was a dominant power both economically and militarily, the Indo-Pacific has more diverse actors including China, India and some of the Southeast Asian countries. One consequence is that, while the United States and China may continue to be major players, other regional powers, including Japan, India, Australia and member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and even extra-regional powers such as the United Kingdom and France, will play a greater role in maintaining a stable and multiple power balance in the region.
This does not necessarily imply that the United States and regional powers would try to ‘exclude’ or ‘contain’ China. Instead, as suggested above, regional actors can build constructive relations with China without ‘choosing’ between the United States and China. The fundamental objective of the FOIP is therefore how to co-exist with China by creating an ‘open, inclusive and rules-based’ order, rather than to exclude or contain it (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan 2018). China is welcome to join the FOIP vision so long as it respects basic principles such as sovereignty, international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development. The QSD could provide an important foundation to create such parity which is necessary to maintain stable relations between China and regional powers.
Challenges for the QSD
Although the strategic interests of the four countries have increasingly converged, some significant differences seem to remain. These differences exist in each country’s strategic priorities, relationship with China, and visions for the future regional order. Furthermore, the intensification of Sino-US strategic rivalry could discourage, rather than encourage, the development of QSD cooperation.
Different strategic priorities
First, Japan, India and Australia have different strategic priorities, despite a broader consensus over the FOIP policy. Although Japan has expanded both its economic and military engagement with Indo-Pacific countries under the FOIP banner, many of those initiatives involve low-key cooperation in areas such as defence exchanges, soft and hard infrastructure development, capacity building, norm setting, or rule making (Ministry of Defense of Japan 2016). Japan’s primary security and strategic interests remain in Northeast Asia or in the defence of the Japanese homeland, rather than in the Indo-Pacific (or the even narrower Asia Pacific). Indeed, some Japanese experts argue that Japan should concentrate its available resources to its ‘core interests’, most notably addressing the threats and challenges regarding the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy close to Japan’s own shore, and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threats (Tsuruoka 2018). Such demand for Japan first’ may grow even bigger as Japanese security resources become increasingly constrained by both the country’s burgeoning financial deficit and an ageing society.
Like Japan, India’s primary security interests he in continental, rather than regional or maritime security issues. In particular, New Delhi’s chief concern is how to cope with local threats from Pakistan and China on its northern land borders, and this is why India is continually expanding its ground forces rather than rationalising and modernising them (Tarapore 2017). While India has rapid naval build-up capabilities, its ability to project naval power to the broader Indo-Pacific remains limited (Tarapore 2017, pp. 166—7). In fact, there is a significant mismatch between what the Indian Navy needs and what it will possess in the future (Liu 2018). The Indian Navy also suffers from the ageing of vessels, as well as delays in weapons deliver}' and research and development. Such a ‘continental mindset’ and shortage of naval power may limit its maritime presence beyond the Indian Ocean (Roy-Chaudhury and Sullivan de Estrada 2018).
While Australia has also broadened its strategic scope to the Indo-Pacific, its primary focus beyond homeland defence lies in ‘maritime South East Asia and the
South Pacific’, not Northeast Asia or the Indian Ocean (Department of Defence, Australian Government 2016, p. 17). This 'tyranny of distance’, as well as its concerns with the provocations of China, have prevented Australia from concluding a formal alliance with Japan or strengthening its strategic outreach to the Indian Ocean region (Satake 2018; Satake and Hemmings 2018). Some sceptics contend that for a middle-sized power like Australia it is too ambitious to attempt to encompass an area as huge as the Indo-Pacific (Wilkins 2018). While Australia has implemented the largest-ever naval build-up project, including doubling the number of submarines and constructing nine new frigates, the successful implementation of such a policy has been already under scrutiny due to increasing costs and delays in the planned schedule (Australian National Audit Office 2018; Maley 2018). Fully conscious of these limitations, Australia’s strategic thinkers, such as the former Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Peter Varghese (2018, p. 379), have rejected the idea of treating the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a 'single strategic system’. Opposing views of the Indo-Pacific due to different strategic priorities could make it difficult for Australia to closely engage with QSD cooperation in areas beyond Australia’s strategic focus, such as Northeast Asia or the western Indian Ocean.