Gang of Four

In 1954, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru told the Parliament that his government opposed military pacts because they converted areas of peace “into an arena of potential war.” The South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was not intended to provide security to the countries of South-East Asia alone. Formed in Manila, SEATO included the US, and because of the presence of this major power, Nehru argued, “it inclines dangerously in the direction of spheres of influence to be exercised by powerful countries. After all, it is the big and powerful countries that will decide matters and not the two or three weak and small Asian countries that may be allied to them.”

SEATO remains in effect. But it has recently been supplanted by a more ambitious undertaking. Once more in Manila, this time at the sidelines of an Association of South-East Asian Nations regional meeting in May 2007, four states (the US, Japan, Australia and India) met to create the Quadrilateral Initiative, also called the Quad or the Axis of Democracy.

Over the past five or six years, the navies of these four countries have conducted a series of bilateral and trilateral military exercises. In April, the US, Japan and India held a naval drill in the Sea of Japan. The Indian and US navies have jointly operated in the Indian Ocean, notably near the strategic Straits of Malacca. These games culminated this September, when the navies of the four powers held a joint exercise called Malabar 07 in the Bay of Bengal. Thirteen US warships joined seven Indian, two Australian and two Japanese (apart from one Singaporean frigate). The substantial presence was Indian and American.

Indeed, the Indian government led by the Congress Party has moved quite eagerly into an alliance with the Bush agenda. In 2005, the US and India announced a new strategic partnership based on the foundation that both are formal democracies that have some shared interests. This relationship had been fostered for a decade by increased economic and military ties. One part of this new framework was the US-India nuclear deal, which opened the door for nuclear commerce and for a further weakening of the international framework against nuclear proliferation (a framework already battered by the refusal of the “nuclear powers” to countenance disarmament). When Bush took office in 2001, he substantially withdrew the sanctions placed on US trade with India as a result of the 1998 nuclear tests. From the start, long before 9/11, the Bush agenda included drawing India into an alliance along with its closest partners (Japan and Australia). The Bush team and the Indian Congress are eager to portray this nuclear deal as a stand-alone arrangement over energy policy. In actuality, it is a welcome mat for the creation of a new geo-political alliance, with India, Japan and Australia in a sub-imperial role. To push the Bush hegemony, the targets at the two ends of Asia are China and Iran, both of whom have emerged as convenient instruments to energize new military pacts that benefit the Bush agenda.

Isolate Iran.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Delhi in 2006, she urged the Indian government to break its historical ties with Iran. Rice focused on Asia’s new peace pipeline, a gas duct that would travel from Iran through Pakistan into India. This major undertaking was expected to tie these three countries into an energy arrangement and to deter rash move toward instability (such as the Kargil War of 1999). But it meant that the Indian government would maintain its close ties with Iran. Instead, Rice promised to make up for the energy shortfall with nuclear energy (although this is estimated to cover only 7% of India’s considerable energy needs). The centrality of the nuclear deal for the Bush team was not economic, but it was to find another level for its political project of isolating Iran.

The US government demanded a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal with India: India must vote against Iran at the IAEA (which they did in 2005 and 2006, “coerced” by the US, as former US Assistant Secretary of International Security and Non-Proliferation Stephen Rademaker said earlier this year). In 2006, the Hyde Act intended to bypass US law on nonproliferation and pave the road for nuclear commerce with India demanded that the US government “secure India’s full and active participation in United States efforts to dissuade, isolate and if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat) fulminated, “I want to be damn sure that India is mindful of US policies in critical areas such as US policy towards Iran. India cannot pursue a policy vis-à-vis Iran which takes no account of US foreign policy objectives.” Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat) wanted an amendment that demanded that India cut its ties with Iran, a position that was rejected by the anyway bellicose US Congress. What they voted for was deemed a sufficient message to Iran.

Encircle China.

The Quad’s ships went toward the Straits of Malacca that connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. This inlet is the pathway to almost 100,000 ships a year (to increase by 50% in less than twenty years). Half of China’s oil supplies go through the channel (a quarter of all world oil shipments make the passage). The message to China was clear: the Quad is capable of shutting down the Straits and throttling China’s economy.

This hostile intent is very public. In the Pentagon’s 2006 defense review, the Generals write, “Of all the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages absent US counterstrategies.” Of the counterstrategic measures proposed, the most important one is “security cooperation and engagement activities including joint training exercises, senior staff talks, and officer and foreign internal defense training to increase understanding, strengthen allies and partners, and accurately communicate US objectives and intent.” The picture that graces this section of the report is of a US F-15 Eagle pilot in discussion with a Japanese F-15 pilot at Nyutabaru Air Base, Japan, and the caption reads, “The US alliance with Japan is important to the stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

At Sophia University, when Rice was asked about China she drew not only upon the Japanese connection, but also India and South Korea. “I really do believe that the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S.-South Korean relationship, the U.S.-Indian relationship, all are important in creating an environment in which China is more likely to play a positive role than a negative role.” Despite her demurs that these are not anti-China alliances, the basic message is that they are designed to make China behave in a positive (pro-US hegemony) way or else it will have to face the consequences. Rear Admiral Rick Wren, the commander of the USS Kitty Hawk, was far less diplomatic. He told the International Herald Tribune, “Certainly we are a bit wary of China. They seem to be fairly opaque in communicating what they intend to do with this large military buildup.” The Australian government is as candid as Wren, with its worry that Chinese military modernization “could create misunderstandings and instability in the region.”

The Shakening of the East.

As NATO expands eastwards, and as the Quad comes into effect, both China and Russia have reacted with exertions of their own. In a forthcoming book from New Delhi’s LeftWord Books, the former diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar considers that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming a “NATO of the East.” Formed in 1996, the SCO includes Russia, China, and four of the Central Asian states (it was initially called the Shanghai Five, and renamed in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined). As the Quad formulated its own moves, the SCO countries conducted a military exercise of their own, the Peace Mission 2007 held in Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Volga-Ural region, as well as in Urumqi, in China’s Xinjiang. The 6500 troops that took part in this exercise showcased not only their military prowess, but also the increasing cooperation between China and Russia. When Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi are asked if their military moves are a threat to China, they typically say that there exercises are for goodwill and not for threats. Mimicking this kind of rhetoric, Russia’s Sergei Ivanov said of the SCO games, “The military exercise is not targeted at a third country.” The heat, in other words, is up.

The Quad is not on firm foundation. Japan’s Shinzo “Flame of Reform” Abe crash-landed in the Diet, when the Japanese people failed to back his moves to remilitarize the country. His successor, Yasuo “Do it to me” Fukuda is weakened and is anyway far less liable to be as militaristic as Abe. Australia’s John “One Australia” Howard, in his fourth term as Prime Minister, enjoys low popularity ratings, largely because of his continued support for the Iraq Occupation, and for his enthusiasm for the Bush agenda. One reason Howard is keen on the militarization of Japan is that Australia’s exertions in the Gulf mean that it does not have the military power to extend its paws into the South Seas and South-East Asia; it needs Japan. But even the Conservatives are unclear about their prospects in the forthcoming elections, with Labor’s Kevin Rudd holding firm at a 65% approval rating. India’s Communist parliamentarians have the Congress Party’s feet to the fire; their principled anti-imperialism will not allow any concession toward allowing India to become the sub-imperial contractor for the G-7 countries. “The Americans will ask us to snap relations with Iran and scrap our gas pipeline project,” said the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s General Secretary, Prakash Karat. “This is an attack on our sovereignty. The Left will not allow the US to shape Indian foreign policy.”

In the US, meanwhile, a handful of people know about Bush’s agenda on the high Asian seas. Bush is unpopular, but Bushism is a doctrine widely shared among the ruling elites. The Democrats and the Republicans are united in their view that US primacy must be preserved at all costs, and that China and Iran threaten this position. The anti-war movement’s concentration on Iraq, and now Iran, is strategically important, but it also serves to blind the public on the broader agenda, notably what is unfolding in the Indian Ocean, in the South China Sea and in the Sea of Japan.

It is time for the anti-war movement to broaden its analysis, to put up banners against the Quad and its ancillary strategic partnerships. As Nehru said in 1954, these alliances do not create a zone of peace; they manifest themselves as a region of potential war. That war, against China, against Iran, might not occur in the next few months, or even in the next few years. But if this kind of buildup continues it will happen inevitably in the future.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).