Advancing Japanese diplomacy through the Quad: Why it matters for Tokyo
23 May 2022|

The Japan–Australia–US–India Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or ‘Quad’, has gained increasing salience in Tokyo’s efforts to advance its own vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and its broader diplomatic objectives. With the next quadrilateral leader’s summit, to be held in-person in Tokyo tomorrow, it’s worth examining why Japan has so assiduously placed the Quad at the forefront of its regional diplomacy.

Japan initiated the FOIP in 2016 as an unprecedented diplomatic initiative based around three core pillars—rule of law, economic prosperity and peace and stability. The US, and then Australia and India have progressively endorsed this approach and now the FOIP has become codified as the formula around which Quad cooperation has coalesced. The Prime Minister’s Office of Japan (Kantei) has launched a new Quad website in which advertises its mission statement as ‘practical cooperation in various areas, including quality infrastructure, maritime security, counter-terrorism, cyber security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, with the aim of realizing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)”.’

Uniting its Quad partners around its own vision for the Indo-Pacific must register as a significant success for Japan’s reinvigorated diplomatic agenda. It is also indicative of the greater efforts that Japan is investing in its external relations as part of its avowed ‘proactive contribution to international peace’.

The FOIP encompasses a range of policies and practical agreements that explicitly serve to shape the Indo-Pacific in the direction of a ‘rules-based order’. Such an order, as exemplified to in Quad statements, places emphasis on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, freedom from military, economic and political coercion, and promotion of regional stability and economic prosperity. With increasing challenges to this order—ranging from Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas to North Korean nuclear-missile development and Russian aggression in Ukraine—Tokyo (along with its partners) has stressed the need to prevent the region being governed by the axiom of ‘might makes right’.

Two further dimensions to order-building through the Quad on the FOIP model are pertinent. The first is the material balance of power in the region. As China’s strategic weight waxes relative to the US and its allies, bringing India into alignment with the American alliance network—as an individual strategic partner and through the Quad—assists in redressing the shifting power balance in a way favourable to Japan. This is not to suggest that the Quad will be formalised into an ‘Asian NATO’ as its critics claim, but that quadrilateral cooperation does provide a measure of strategic reassurance for Tokyo.

The second is the ideological dimension to Quad cooperation. For Tokyo, uniting four of the region’s most significant democracies is seen as desirable in a world in which democratic liberalism is endangered, human rights are violated and free trade is imperiled. Indeed, Tokyo has long sought to build an ‘Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’ (in 2007, when the Quad first convened) or a ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ (in 2012, upon the return of Shinzo Abe as PM). Upholding such principles, and thus the progressive consolidation of the Quad, tangibly supports Tokyo’s implementation of ‘values-based diplomacy’.

From this, it’s clear why Japanese diplomacy places such a premium on the Quad given the intersections with its own foreign, economic and security policy objectives (as stated in the 2021 diplomatic bluebook). In other words, Japan has much to gain from championship of the Quad.

But in return, Japan has much to offer its Quad partners on the basis of the shared interests and values identified above.

Japan has been undergoing a quiet revolution in terms of its national security strategy over recent years. The combination of domestic security reforms, new security legislation and the restructuring and re-equipping of the Japan Self-Defense Forces makes Japan a far more forward-leaning and capable partner to the other Quad members. The proposed doubling of the Japanese defence budget, if it eventuates, will be a game-changer in Japan’s national security posture.

Thus, all the Quad partners collectively and individually benefit from what Japan brings to the table in terms of achieving common aims. Here, I identify just three ways in which Japan can purposefully contribute to aspects of the Quad agenda.

First, Japan’s economic contribution will be impactful in terms of its technological prowess and its ample official development assistance polices and investment capacities. Japan’s’ existing Partnership for Quality Infrastructure policy is indicative of the contribution it can make to providing the pressing needs for developmental and infrastructure needs in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and beyond (through the Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group). Japan is also well positioned to contribute to the Quad’s mandate for advanced technological collaboration in relation to green technology, clean energy, robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber, space, the electromagnetic spectrum and other emerging defence technologies.

All of this capability will assist in the Quad’s aspirations to establish a ‘secure technology ecosystem’ and to share standards through the Quad Senior Cyber Group, as well as to assist members to collectively keep pace in the unfolding technological competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Reinforcing this, as economic security concerns become increasingly salient in regional strategic competition, Japan’s proven record with regard to multilateral economic institutions and regimes positions it well to contribute to shared Quad objectives in areas such as rules/standards-setting and increased connectivity initiatives. Thus, Japan’s own efforts to deepen cooperation, including economic integration with Southeast Asia, through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, reinforce the Quad’s objectives to recognise ‘ASEAN centrality’. The same applies to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Japan can also make a significant contribution in the maritime sphere. With impressive naval and coast guard capabilities, it can confidently help deal with issues including law enforcement, maritime domain awareness, partner capacity-building, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It is well practised in responding to natural disasters, for example, both domestically and overseas, often in tandem with Quad partners, such as the 2004 core group response to the Boxing Day Tsunami. The Quad discussed HADR for the Ukraine earlier this year. As a maritime nation, Japan can do its part in the Quad shipping taskforce, designed to establish low-to-zero-emission shipping corridors and green and decarbonise the shipping value chain (in coordination with the Quad climate working group).

Recognising that regional challenges cannot be addressed by any country alone, Japan is a keen proponent of Quad cooperation in terms of the national benefits derived from minilateralism and as an active and meaningful contributor to its mandate. Indeed, Tokyo’s sustained championship of minilateral cooperation through the Quad and other mechanisms is testament to the emergent leadership role the country has assumed in regional affairs.