The Quad at 19

By Satu Limaye, Vice President, East-West Center.

Despite the cancellation of the Sydney Quad summit, Satu Limaye argues the times and conditions are right for the four-nation partnership to deliver its “public goods” agenda in the Indo-Pacific – but it still has work to do to win the region’s acceptance.

As the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (The Quad) prepare to meet for the fifth time this weekend at Hiroshima in Japan, this minilateral organization marks its 19th year with much promise. The Quad is evolving from an unplanned origin in the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004, sporadic engagement between 2007 and 2017, a renewed commitment in 2017 to exchanges on strategic outlooks, and regular meetings since 2021 between Quad leaders and foreign ministers to address key challenges in the Indo-Pacific. These include an active public goods agenda covering “health security, climate change and the clean energy transition, critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure and connectivity, addressing the debt crisis through sustainable, transparent and fair lending and financing practices, space cooperation, cyber-security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security and counterterrorism.” The frequency of leader-level interactions (five in three years) via a relatively new and informal organization with a widening agenda speaks to the Quad’s robust ambitions.

The unfortunate but necessary cancellation of the Australia and Papua New Guinea stops on his Indo-Pacific travels this week will itself have no impact on the Quad’s momentum. The four leaders still plan to meet in Hiroshima, Japan, on the sidelines of the G7 this weekend and the underlying conditions favour greater relevance for the Quad. The conditions already exist for an action-oriented agenda that seeks to meet Indo-Pacific needs, offer choices of providers, and protect high-standard rules, values, and interests.

Among them are intensifying strategic competition and decoupling between the US and China; China’s aggression and coercion towards Quad member countries; armed aggression by Russia against Ukraine; decreased support for globalization amidst a broader power diffusion and drift in the international system; an increase in Japanese, Australian and Indian national defence capability, including closer coordination with each other and the US; and tempered ambitions about ASEAN-led “passive design” regionalism, leading the U.S. and allies and partners to create new “active design” minilateral configurations (e.g., AUKUS, supply chain, and minerals security coalitions).

Still, the Quad has some maturing to do. First, it must calibrate its ambitious commitment to being a “force for regional and global good” with existing institutions and efforts in the Indo-Pacific, particularly ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). In addition to working with these established organizations, the Quad countries should work actively on their respective engagements with these subregions on the Quad’s public goods agenda and coordinate and deconflict their efforts. The Quad should not be defensive about offering another platform to coordinate and provide public goods or pressing for its values and interests vis-à-vis ASEAN or the PIF. ASEAN and PIF, too, are pursuing their own internationalization efforts with other countries and organizations to maximize their own interests.

Fortunately, neither ASEAN nor PIF have opposed the Quad’s work, understanding that it leverages their autonomy, choices and benefits; buttresses US and allied presence in their subregions; poses no direct challenge to their core institutions; and fills gaps their own institutions are unable to meet. The risk of US-China strategic competition being superimposed on Southeast Asia and the Pacific is a reasonable consideration, but it is offset by the advantages the Quad could offer to meeting regional and national priorities. The Quad must ensure that it meets such significant expectations while avoiding framing deliverables starkly in terms of strategic competition.

In a similar spirit, the Quad should continue to emphasize non-traditional security issues rather than undertake efforts to become an overt security organization. While the recent meeting of Quad defence and military officials is welcome, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for the Quad to become a military security organization; not necessary because existing alliances and new configurations based on alliances such as AUKUS are better suited to handle traditional security challenges and not sufficient because the Quad includes one country, India, which is not going to be a formal ally of the other three members of the Quad even as it increases and enhances the ability to work with all Quad members on both traditional and non-traditional security. After all, the Quad’s origins in 2004 were operational and military rather than diplomatic.

Among areas where the Quad enjoys comparative advantage, and on which the region’s public goods requirements converge, is the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Partnership (HADR). Hopefully, the Quad can soon announce the finalization of the Partnership’s Standard Operating Procedures that would enable the HADR partnership the legal and operational basis to respond in a coordinated manner to the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief needs that inevitably will present themselves. The Quad’s strong emphasis on maritime cooperation is also well-conceived and specific efforts to improve information-sharing, capacity-building, maritime domain awareness, and countering illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing challenges. Now the Quad needs to take the next steps to utilize the Quad Maritime Security Working Group and move further forward on the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA).

And finally, precisely because the Quad has announced such a robust agenda, and the member countries also seek to pursue similar efforts through other mechanisms such as the G7, G20, and APEC, the Quad needs to follow through with its agenda for public goods with demonstrable and visible results that benefit Indo-Pacific countries. Simply expanding the agenda at each meeting without highlighting specific contributions to that agenda will place more attention on the “say do gap” that could undermine confidence in the Quad.

A nineteen-year-old Quad is a “young adult” among regional minilaterals; old enough to have begun cementing some lines of effort that speak to its strengths and interests, but flexible enough to adapt to opportunities and challenges. The Quad will remain and indeed become an even more useful minilateral functional organization in the Indo-Pacific if it implements its ambitious agenda in ways that make Indo-Pacific countries seek the Quad’s activism. That is, there must be a “demand-side” for the Quad as robust as the recent upsurge of the “supply-side” of the Quad. When these are in near equilibrium, the Quad will have emerged as a more mature minilateral for the Indo-Pacific’s public good.

Satu Limaye is Vice President, East-West Center. The views expressed here are personal.