The Squad and the Quad – New Fears and Power Equation in the Indo Pacific

The Defence Ministers from Japan, the United States, Australia and the Philippines on 2 May pledged to maintain the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, where all four share similar threats and concerns over China’s increasing assertiveness.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin met on Thursday with his counterparts from Australia, Japan and the Philippines to deepen ties and increase military consolidation. Pentagon officials have privately nicknamed the new quadrilateral grouping as  the “Squad.”

The defence chiefs of the “Squad” met for the first time in June 2023 on the sidelines of the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore.

The Squad reflects the security and military reality and taskforce that is agile and direct, compared to its counterpart of Quad.

With Quad’s relatively lacklustre momentum lately, the inclusion of Manila in the new joint supportive and coordinative naval readiness and resilience sends a new energised message of defiance and deterrence to China

It also sends a new intent to the regional security landscape that the regional alliance to strengthen the rules based order and to uphold the status quo of the international law remains ever persistent

It is also to send a strong message to both existing allies, future potential allies and current fence sitters in the region that regardless of the distractions of focus and resources in the ongoing war in Ukraine and the crisis in the Middle East and West Asia, the laser focus on China and the Indo Pacific region remains solid.

China views the US’s multilateral groupings, including the latest Squad initiative  as part of Washington’s attempts to contain China, warning that the grouping exacerbates risks.

Officially, the Squad’s main aims are to counter aggression and coercion and to defend stability and the rules based order, and to  ensure that defence capabilities among their militaries are increasingly agile, interoperable, and minimising mistakes.

Amidst ongoing rivalry and battle for supremacy in future and non conventional warfare and capabilities especially in hypersonic capacities,space force, cyber and digital supremacy and chips and critical resources, the US will  need as much consolidated support and connected geographical support points as possible in the realm of both conventional and non conventional support system both for conflict deterrence and conflict management.

While still leading in conventional naval capacity, Washington realises that Beijing is closing the gap in using regional tools of building closer geographical advantages including new bases such as Ream and in extending the edge of securing greater mitigation of food and energy insecurity with new strategic presence in the region.

The US will need to extend the gap in current naval and undersea capacities in thwarting Beijing’s geographical advantage and for this, Washington will need the support from regional players.

This is primarily in the form of transfer of capacities and in utilising geographical support systems rather than utilisation of regional capabilities in new cutting edge security and military capacities including hypersonic.

This new four-country consolidation of pact is critical in portraying unity, trust and confidence in showing a strong message to Beijing and in pushing back against Beijing’s intensifying military show off and activities in regional waters.

Last month, the four nations conducted their first full-scale joint naval exercises in the South China Sea,  “the Maritime Cooperative Activity,” to demonstrate the collective readiness and commitment to defend regional rules based order and to deter Beijing’s bellicosity.

Apart from boosting trust and commitment, the joint exercises and joint intent are critical in improving coordination, interoperability capabilities and building bonds in strategically coordinating and capitalising on the strength and advantages of each of the four players that will produce the best outcome and intended objective in the region.

Each of  the four powers has its own risks and concerns regarding China, especially in the region.

Manila is the most affected nation in recent times, being under a continuous barrage of Beijing’s host of measures especially in the Second Thomas Shoal, from laser incidents to water cannoning of Philippine’s vessels.

Tokyo has long standing disputes and concerns with Beijing, and disputes over the Senkaku Islands and historical wariness of past conflicts and WWII legacies provide systemic mutual wariness.

Canberra has seen its  ties with Beijing deteriorating during the pandemic era, with accusations over the virus origins and the subsequent economic and trade tools used by Beijing further creating a lasting realisation by Australia to revitalise its deterrent and defence capacities, starting with the Aukus pact.

Beijing’s increased presence and activities in the Pacific Islands  states further threaten Australia’s interests and intensify Canberra’s concerns.

Lloyd Austin said the grouping will be further enhanced, including having more joint drills and providing greater  security assistance to Manila

This new bloc is vital for both the US and regional players, especially Manila that is not part of the original Quad.

For Australia and Japan, this new bloc and partnership represents a more direct, focused and realistic security and military segment of assurances and deterrence with greater on the ground ease of conducting military activities, as compared to being bogged down by the softened and more bureaucratic Quad.

For the US, it gives a new justification and opening to bolster regional presence, close the gap, and utilise and leverage on other regional players’ advantage and support to push back against China.

While Aukus will take a longer time to yield its intended impact and that the membership and reach are limited, the Squad will have greater speed, agility, maneuvering capacity and legitimacy with less hindrances  and pushback from regional players. Realising that officially the region stands aligned with its balanced and neutral approach, the desire for a more reassuring and realistic security assurance and support has never wavered, especially in the wake  of increased rules defying behaviours and the spin off effects from the wars in Ukraine and the conflicts in West Asia.

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