Has Shangri-La given birth to a new Quad?

Omar Adan

Global Courant

Singapore’s recently concluded Shangri-La dialogue has been one of the most high-stakes confabs in recent years, as multiple powers explored ways to avoid a full-blown New Cold War and armed confrontation between the US and China.

But with no sign of an immediate thaw between the two superpowers, new fledgling security groups are emerging on the fringes.

After months of intense anticipation, defense chiefs from the US, the Philippines, Australia and Japan held their first-ever quadrilateral talks on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Forum, in view of Beijing’s naval assertiveness.

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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Japanese Defense Secretary Yasukazu Hamada, Australian Defense Secretary Richard Marles and Philippine Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez held an unprecedented meeting with huge symbolic and major operational implications.

Topping their agenda was four-way joint patrols in the South China Sea for later this year, which, if held, would mark a major milestone in America’s development.integrated deterrence strategy to contain China’s rise in the region.

While the idea was downplayed earlier this year, Washington seems increasingly open to new four-way mechanisms alongside its existing “Quad” partnership with India, Australia and Japan, which is reportedly beset by internal division over confrontation Russia in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, yet another incident served as a stark reminder of the rising geopolitical volatility in the Indo-Pacific. After a rare joint sail of US and Canadian naval forces across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing responded with aggressive counter-maneuvers and strident diplomatic protests.

During a “routine” transit through the area, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and the Canadian HMCS Montreal reportedly came close to colliding with a Chinese naval ship, which hit the bow of the ship. US destroyer on two occasions.

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Just days earlier, the Pentagon released footage showing a Chinese fighter jet performing a similar maneuver, albeit in the air, against a US surveillance aircraft.

The Chinese J-16 fighter slashes right in front of the US RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft on May 26, 2023. Image: CNN/Screengrab

Rising tensions in the seas and in the air were mirrored by harsh diplomatic exchanges between US and Chinese defense chiefs at the Singapore forum. For his part, China’s defense chief Li Shangfu warned against a “Cold War mentality” in a not-so-thinly veiled joke against the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) and Quad alliance.

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“Essentially, attempts to push for NATO-like (alliances) in the Asia-Pacific are a way to kidnap regional countries and exaggerate conflicts and confrontations, which will only plunge the Asia-Pacific into a vortex of disputes and strife .” A Chinese official warned as he reiterated an uncompromising position on Beijing’s plans to “reunite” self-governing Taiwan.

For his part, US defense chief Austin warned against aggressive maneuvers against Taiwan, while underlining his expressed concern about the virtual disruption of military-to-military communication channels with China.

“I am deeply concerned that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is unwilling to work more seriously on better crisis management mechanisms between our two militaries,” Austin said during his speech in Singapore.

“The more we talk, the more we can avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” he added.

The deadlock in Sino-US relations has likely forced Washington to reconsider its earlier fears with new Quad factions in the region.

Earlier this year, US Deputy Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink on a regional tour in Asia played suggestions from a new Quad grouping, including Philippine Senator Francis Tolentino, who has pushed for a “own version of Quad” to check China’s ambitions in neighboring waters.

“I think in regards to what you mentioned, a new quad, I would say no. We are not looking for a new quad,” Kritenbrink said in an online press briefing during his visit to Manila last month.

“We do not intend to establish any new formal mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific at this time,” said the senior US diplomat, adding that his country “is happy to assist in the continued modernization of the armed forces of the Philippines, including in the maritime domain.”

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force at the Malabar 21 – an international exercise involving the Indian Navy, US Navy and Royal Australian Navy – to improve tactical skills and further strengthen Quad navies. Photo: AFP/EyePress News

Nevertheless, Kritenbrink left the door open to “opportunities in the future for close allies like the United States, the Philippines and Japan to look at ways we might expand our cooperation” amid growing discussions of a trilateral Japan-Philippine- USA (JAPHUS ) security group.

After the ensuing visit of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the White House and Pentagon last month, where the two treaty allies signed new bilateral defense guidelines, steps to forge de facto alternative quadrangles are being accelerated.

Historically, Manila served as the location for the two key moments in the birth of the original Quad. The first USA, Australia, India and Japan inaugural meeting took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila in 2007. Exactly ten years later, the leaders of the four powers, dressed in traditional Philippine barongs, held their first formal discussions at official level also in Manila.

Now the US is overseeing the emergence of a new quadrangular grouping, especially with the emergence of the Philippines as a new ally in Asia under a more Western-friendly regime.

During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Philippine Defense Chief Carlito Galvez took an uncompromising stance on the disputes in the South China Sea, signaling Manila’s hardening line against China’s assertiveness over its claimed features and islands.

“We view the 2016 arbitral award as not only determining the cause and law in the South China Sea, but also an inspiration for how cases should be considered by states facing similarly challenging circumstances,” Galvez said. for its Indo-Pacific counterparts.

“President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has strongly emphasized its directive to protect every square inch of our territory against any foreign force… The UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the 2016 arbitration are and will remain the twin anchors of our policies and actions in the West Philippine Sea and the wider South China Sea,” he added, highlighting his country’s commitment to strengthening maritime security cooperation with like-minded powers.

Last week, the Philippines, Japan and the US held their ground first-ever joint coast guard exercises in Manila Bay. Later this year, the US and its regional allies, including the Philippines, are expected to conduct potentially unprecedented quadrangular joint patrols in the South China Sea.

This photo, taken by the Philippine Coast Guard, shows Chinese ships anchored off Pentecost Reef, 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Closer intelligence sharing, more extensive joint exercises and arms transfers between the four allies are likely to follow, with Tokyo exploring its own visiting forces agreement with Manila, which has already hosted large-scale US and Australian military presences over the past decade.

In an official statement following the inaugural quadrilateral meeting of the Philippines, US, Japan and Australia in Singapore, Japan’s defense ministry said the four allies discussed “regional issues of common concern and opportunities to expand cooperation” while it promised new and pre-existing cooperation agreements.

“It was an honor to meet with Secretary Galvez, Secretary Hamada and DPM Marles to discuss opportunities to expand cooperation between our four countries, including in the South China Sea,” Austin said in a tweet following the meeting. “We are united in our shared vision of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter @Richeydarian


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Has Shangri-La given birth to a new Quad?

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