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Not the time to deal out Beijing

By Alan Dupont - posted Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Any attempt to turn the existing trilateral security arrangement between Australia, Japan and the US into a quadrilateral alliance by including India would be a serious foreign policy miscalculation and should be resisted.

Reputedly an initiative of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, the idea reflects the neo-conservative belief that China will inevitably become a serious threat to US strategic primacy in Asia. Cheney apparently considers the best way of hedging against China's rising power is to bring together a coalition of states united by a common desire to limit China's influence.

Constraining China is hardly a new idea or propagated only by neo-cons. But Cheney has gone much further down this road by promoting the virtues of an alliance of like-minded, democratic nations that would include India, Asia's other rising power.


India, it should be remembered, once fought a bloody border war with China and despite a recent thaw in Sino-Indian relations remains deeply suspicious of China's strategic intentions.

Proponents of the quadrilateral alliance argue that it makes strategic sense for the region's four great democracies to take out insurance against the possibility of a future Chinese military threat or foreign policy adventurism. Some have even suggested that no one could construe such an alliance as having aggressive intent.

Such arguments are either naive or wishful thinking. It is difficult to see how any Chinese Government would not regard the establishment of a quadrilateral alliance as a hostile act when it is clearly aimed at constraining Chinese power. Adding India to the equation will feed China's well-developed paranoia about strategic encirclement and risk returning the region to the bad old days of the Cold War when Asia was divided into two ideologically and strategically opposed blocs.

If China feels threatened then it is hardly going to sit back and do nothing. An obvious response would be to construct an opposing alliance, most likely involving members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation which includes, among others, Russia and potentially Iran. China might also become less helpful on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation.

This would be detrimental to our security interests as well as those of the US, Japan and India, illustrating how one country's ill-considered quest for security can increase the insecurity of neighbours and ultimately heighten everyone's insecurity.

A quadrilateral alliance would run counter to the whole thrust of post-Cold War multilateralism in Asia, which aims to construct a new security paradigm based on inclusiveness and the identification of common security interests. That is why key regional bodies such as the ASEAN Regional Forum exist, and why any effective multilateral framework for dealing with the region's intractable security issues must include, not exclude, China.


A case in point is North Korea. The US has learned the hard way that there can be no solution to the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons without China's active engagement. It was primarily Chinese pressure and patient diplomacy that brought the North Koreans to the negotiating table.

Of course, values matter in foreign policy and there is no disputing the fact that China is not a democracy. But shared values alone are not a sustainable basis for building an alliance and the absence of shared values is not a reason for excluding China.

To say that Australia would not contemplate a security arrangement with a non-democracy flies in the face of historical experience and our own history in particular. The Western democracies effectively allied themselves with Stalin's Soviet Union against the greater threat posed by Nazi Germany in World War II. And Australia signed a security agreement with Indonesia in 1995 when that country was still ruled by president Suharto, because the agreement was seen to be in the national interest, not because we shared common values.

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First published in The Australian on March 26, 2007.

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About the Author

Alan Dupont is Professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He was previously the foundation Michael Hintze Professor of International Security at the University of Sydney and CEO of the US Studies Centre.

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