The leaders of the Quad countries gather in Japan this weekend on the sidelines of the G7. Following the sudden cancellation of the Sydney Quad summit, Anshita Shukla and Arun Sahgal assess the group's progress and conclude its practical agenda for cooperation can make a valuable contribution to the region, despite the intrinsic strategic differences of its four members.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has emerged as a critical force to reckon with the tumultuous geopolitical changes occurring in Asia. It is an unlikely partnership, birthed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and undergirded by the “Confluence of Two Seas” speech by Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The congregation of the four powers – Australia, India, Japan, and the USA – was short-lived in its initial incarnation in 2007, as strong condemnation from China, and the disinclination of India and Australia to antagonize their neighbour unravelled the partnership. However, the template created then, propelled the four countries in the following years to establish between themselves an extensive and expanded network of bilateral and trilateral security dialogues and joint military exercises, even during the period the Quad was in formal abeyance.
A decade of deterioration in the regional security environment, driven by Chinese bellicosity and grey zone assertions, once again resurrected the Quad to meet mounting challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The geopolitical risks provided momentum for the resurgence of the Quad characterized as a “democratic security diamond” by Shinzo Abe. From their first meeting on the side lines of the East Asia Summit in Manila in 2017, the reinvigorated Quad partnership has met regularly on a biannual basis, with meetings at the level of foreign ministers and leaders.
Throughout the waxing and waning of the Quad, the goal and mission of its members has often appeared ambiguous and divergent. These differences arise from distinct geopolitical challenges, unique domestic political systems, economic realities, and disparate visions of regional order. In the absence of distinct goals, the partnership is driven by shared concerns and common interests, focused on the escalating challenge from China.
The grouping ascribes to the notion of “a free and open Indo-Pacific which is also inclusive and resilient”. This is a laudable, but fraught aspiration. The reality is that the Indo-Pacific is not inclusive. China has driven a wedge with its attempt to control the South China Sea. Moreover, the US and some in the Quad continue dally with the Japan-US vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which is a construct freighted with liberal assumptions and the primacy of democratic values that does not always sit easily with the region.
The Quad largely avoids tackling contentious questions of ideology head on by focusing on the practical. These areas of cooperation include promoting joint counterterrorism efforts; increasing production of quality vaccines and ensuring access to them; promoting high-standard infrastructure; combatting the climate crisis; partnering on emerging technologies, space, and cybersecurity; and developing transparent 5G and beyond-5G networks, among others. Due to strategic ambiguity in goals, the Quad shields itself from many of China’s critiques and allows member nations with distinct national interests to converge on areas of common concern. This heightens the utility of minilaterals to deal with common challenges, leaving room for closer partnership and alliance under adverse conditions.
The success of Quad lies in the fact that on many of these soft security concerns, the Quad countries have been able to mobilize resources and deliver results. Some important initiatives include the $5.2 billion COVAX programme, under which the Quad countries together delivered over 670 million vaccine doses, of which at least 265 million were to countries in the Indo-Pacific. They launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness “designed to work with regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and combat illegal fishing”. In 2022, the countries operationalized the Quad Partnership on Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific to enhance capacity, capability, and coordination in disaster relief operations. The 2022 Leader’s Summit concluded with the launch of the Quad Fellowship to facilitate STEM research among Quad countries.
Despite being a soft security mechanism, the Quad retains an underlying construct of security architecture. All the member countries are embedded in security dialogues and exercises at bilateral or trilateral and even quadrilateral levels, as in the case of the quadrilateral Malabar naval exercise. Examples of the extensive network of military exchanges include the expanded scope of AUSINDEX, an Australia-India exercise; Talisman Saber, an Australia-US exercise, with the recent addition of Japan; an India-Japan bilateral fighter jet exercise; the Southern Jackaroo (2017) and Kakadu (2016) multilateral exercises, hosted in Australia; South Korea-USA-Japan anti-submarine drills (2023); and the Pacific Dragon exercise, comprising Australia-Canada-South Korea-USA-Japan. While, these exercises remain disassociated from the Quad, they serve the critical function of fostering interoperability and evolving common operational practices.
Notwithstanding hard security concerns, countries economically intertwined with China such as Japan and South Korea remain averse to posturing the Quad solely as an anti–China bulwark. It is this dichotomy that is behind hesitancy among Quad members to adopt a more concrete security agenda.
Nonetheless, China’s rise, and its attempt to dominate strategic space is forcing Quad partners to coordinate their security responses to emerging regional challenges. This is discerniblefrom the way the US is harnessing allies in East Asia and the Western Pacific to build up capacities and capabilities – through initiatives like AUKUS, Japan’s investment in military capability enhancement, South Korea's capability development, and new bases in the Philippines – while upgrading its own Pacific posture.
India, despite facing a continuing challenge from China on its continental border, has somewhat different operational priorities and strategic focus to the US and other Quad partners. While the focus of the US and its allies is East Asia and Western Pacific centric, India’s challenges are in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. More importantly, the region, although strategically significant, is not the primary area of security concern for either the US or its regional allies. India is left to deal with the multi-domain China challenge and its collusion with Pakistan, on its own, albeit with some support from the US and other Quad partners.
It is this difference in perspective that forces India to be guided by its national interest as a stand-alone power to maintain neutrality and an independent foreign policy, while the US, Japan, and Australia (traditional allies) exhibit cohesion in their regional approach.
Looking to the future, the Quad needs a structured agenda-setting mechanism, including a credible security architecture. On current projections, contestation in the Asian rimland will be the major cause of instability. Strategic balance will be defined by the nature of this competition. This requires a credible security architecture that must include a whole of Indo–Pacific approach. The security environment is likely to become increasingly hostile as China militarily modernizes and flexes its muscles from the high Himalayas to the Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.
For the moment, an unstructured agenda and evolving set of goals will allow the Quad to gradually come to terms with the geopolitical realities of the time. Yet the Quad’s biggest shortcoming also arises from that very lack of clear definition, relieving the group of the burden of delivering on goals. Quad countries converge when they can on what they can. Still, on the positive side, it at least institutionalizes regular dialogue and avenues for cooperation by establishing partnerships, working groups and initiatives.
While the Quad will continue to flounder due to intrinsic differences, it is a critical partnership because of its ability to institutionalize the delivery of public goods in Asia and support an international rules-based order.
Anshita Shukla is Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Brigadier Dr. Arun Sahgal is Senior Fellow Regional and Strategic Security at the Delhi Policy Group. He was previously the founding director of the Office of Net Assessment, Indian Integrated Defence Staff, and a member of the Task Force on Net Assessment at the Indian National Security Council.