The Quad as a Force-Multiplier in Building a Free, Open and Pluralistic Indo-Pacific Order

By Dr Tsutomu Kikuchi, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA); Professor of international relations, Aoyama Gakuin University

Ahead of a meeting of Quad leaders at the G7 in Japan, Tsutomu Kikuchi argues the four-nation partnership could be a catalyst for a “a new and stable order” in the Indo-Pacific.

Contrary to the prevailing outlook of the Indo-Pacific as a zone of conflict and competition, the region stands at a historic conjuncture, capable of building a free, open, and pluralistic order. The role of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries – Japan, the, US, Australia, and India – in building this order is crucial.

The Quad addresses the singular challenge of shaping order in a highly uncertain regional environment, where geopolitical conflicts between states are growing amid dense economic interdependence, and where the designation of ‘friend or foe’ is not as clear as in the Cold War era.

The Quad is unlikely to be a rigid, alliance-like institution with rights and obligations defined by treaties and mechanisms to implement them. And becoming an alliance is not the most appropriate path for the Quad in building a free and open Indo-Pacific.

As we consider the future of the Quad, it is important to understand its institutional characteristics and advantages. The Quad is an institution of multi-layered cooperation, including bilateral and trilateral cooperation among the four countries. In addition to alliances such as US-Japan and US-Australia, bilateral relations such as US-India, Japan-India, and Australia-India, and trilateral cooperation such as Japan-US-Australia, Japan-US-India, and Japan-Australia-India, have progressed greatly among the four countries. The evolving bilateral and trilateral cooperation mechanisms are the crucial building blocks supporting the Quad as a four-country cooperative entity.

The Quad is an inclusive institution open to non-members. It could expand cooperation with non-member countries through a "Quad Plus" approach. In fact, several bilateral and mini-lateral linkages between Quad countries and Indo-Pacific and European countries (e.g., Japan-US-Australia with the Philippines, Japan-India-Australia with Vietnam, Japan-India with Bangladesh, Japan-US-Australia with Papua New Guinea) have been promoted.

The Quad could play the role of a force-multiplier, enhancing the resilience of the entire region by interconnecting and networking the diverse forms of bilateral and trilateral cooperation that are emerging in the region. By assuming such a role, the Quad could become a major pillar supporting an architecture of regional peace and prosperity. The Quad has the potential to develop into a more effective regional institution than an “Asian NATO.”

Two conditions are necessary for a stable regional order: a balance of power and the legitimacy of arrangements underpinning the order (support of regional countries). The Quad can fulfill both conditions.

First, the Quad can help maintain the balance of power and manage competition among the major powers. The Quad has expanded its functions as a regional institution, strengthening the interoperability, maritime law enforcement capabilities, and maritime situational awareness of the four partners. These multiple layers of cooperation have enhanced the Quad’s role in the regional balance of power and are laying the institutional groundwork to evolve into an alliance-like collective defense arrangement in case of further military intimidation.

Second, the Quad provides an opportunity for a broad range of Indo-Pacific countries to become involved in shaping and maintaining the regional order. Many countries in the region, regardless of size and stage of development, have increased their national resilience to play a greater role in international relations.

While seemingly reluctant to be forced to choose among the major powers, they are building a variety of new bilateral and trilateral economic, political, and security partnerships with countries within and beyond the region to ensure maximum freedom of action in the face of strained relations between the major powers. They are not weak entities that merely sit on the sidelines of the power politics of the major powers. They are willing to exercise their agency in shaping the future of the region.

In this regard, it should be noted that in the uncertain international environment, where friend and foe are not always clear, and where competition and rivalry between major powers is intensifying amid growing economic interdependence, the freedom of action of small and middle powers and their capacity for external bargaining are much greater than is generally believed.

It is important for the Quad to promote cooperation with ASEAN, South Asian, and Pacific islands countries, which are situated along strategic trade routes connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, in order to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, the Quad should work jointly with the countries concerned to address the specific challenges facing them. The Quad’s approach to these countries should be tailor-made and not be a derivative of the policy toward China. The challenges facing these countries are diverse and not all of them are related to China.

If the Quad plays the role of a force multiplier that further deepens cooperation not only among its four members but also with non-Quad countries and creates synergies through networking, the architecture of international relations of the Indo-Pacific will change. While networks of US-centered alliances such as the US-Japan alliance and the US-Australia alliance will continue to be important for peace and prosperity in the region, they will become part of a diverse network of bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral cooperation involving many countries in the region.

International relations in the Indo-Pacific will be not only free and open but also more pluralistic, with a variety of countries of the region participating in sustaining a regional order, beyond the struggle between the United States and China for regional supremacy. China is expected to play a constructive role in such international relations.

Contrary to the publicly circulated narrative of confrontation and turmoil, the Indo-Pacific has a historic opportunity to create a new and stable order. I hope the Quad leaders – meeting in Japan this weekend - will further strengthen its function as a force-multiplier for constructing a free, open and pluralistic Indo-Pacific.

Tsutomu Kikuchi  is a professor of international political economy of the Asia-Pacific at the Department of International Politics, Aoyama-Gakuin University, Tokyo.