The Quad: an unlikely friendship with unfriendly motives

Mar 22, 2021

Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor Peter Hartcher has told us that a historic friendship meeting between Japan, the US, Australia and India – the Quad, has begun. However, it’s not particularly friendly, or historic.

But it is an unlikely friendship, held together by the dangerous ambitions and distorted views that its respective members have over China.

Nor is it very historic. This Quad was preceded by four or more other attempts to have everyone gang up on China.

First came the ANZUS treaty of 1952. That was supposed to bind us against Japan but somehow morphed into an anti-China alliance. Then came SEATO – the abortive eight-state Southeast Asia Treaty Organization set up in the sixties to counter China’s alleged expansionism, over Vietnam especially.

In 1964 our foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, made a secret visit to Moscow to persuade the Soviet leadership to join us in Vietnam to stop alleged Chinese aggression. The fate of that idea was too short even to record. But I know it exists. I was there. Since then we have had two more Quads, the first in 2007-08 and now Quad Two. Do the SMH editors and its international affairs editor, Peter Hartcher, quite realize the machinations that led to the present Quad?

Mr Hartcher seems to have made a name for himself as an expert on China’s alleged machinations in Australia. He has no direct experience of China. Nor does he seem to know the language. His main claim to fame is six years in Tokyo, first as a correspondent for the SMH and later for the Australian Financial Review. It also seems that before his emergence in SMH as a resident China expert, he had never studied China or written about it.

There too he did not seem to know much about the language.

Promoting the Quad idea has long been on the security service agenda. It began with a strange 1967 ANU publication promoting a Japan, India, Australia alliance to meet China’s alleged aggression in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, and calling for an international conference.

Whether a university should be so political can be argued. But at the time the hysteria over China/Vietnam was at peak levels. And the ANU international relations department was cooperating closely with ASIO, as were many other universities.

That ANU move laid the seeds for Quad One. But by 2007 the Vietnam War was over and its partners – Australia under the Rudd government especially – were more concerned about their trade and diplomatic relations with China rather than confrontation.

Quad Two is a much more belligerent affair. We already know what the US is about – preventing the rise of any threat to its global ambitions, by force if necessary. Australia’s pugnacity and slavish pro-US attitudes have already invited Chinese retaliation.

India, with its emotional border disputes and complexes towards China, is a loose cannon. As a China desk officer in Canberra during the first 1962 border dispute, I saw close hand how China’s very justified reactions to India’s border infractions would be displayed as proof of unprovoked Chinese aggression.

There will be more disputes in the future and they will not necessarily be provoked by China.

But the joker in the pack is Japan. Its dangerous territorial disputes with China and its close connections with Taiwan mean an inevitable military confrontation as Beijing increasingly realises it has to rely on force to avenge the territorial and other injustices it believes it has suffered over the years.

Tokyo’s frantic enthusiasm for its military alliance with the US, and now for Quad Two, is borne from the realization that Japan cannot take on China alone. It wants the rest of us to come along and help.

Ready?

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