First Quad leaders’ summit polishes the democratic diamond
15 Mar 2021|

‘We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.’

— Quad leaders’ joint statement, ‘The spirit of the Quad’, 13 March 2021

The leaders’ meeting of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners Australia, India, Japan and the United States is a potent promise, a sparkling moment for the reborn ‘democratic security diamond’.

The Quad mission ranges from vaccines on land to vessels at sea: finance, manufacture and distribute one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines across Asia by the end of 2022; ‘meet challenges to the maritime order in the East and South China Seas’.

Four disparate democracies can do much together, not least to reassure Southeast Asia that it has agency and options (Quad-speak: ‘strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality’).

The ambit and arc of the Quad’s ambitions can mess with Beijing’s mind. Given all the hurt China has been dishing, what’s not to like?

The Quad leaders’ statement talks about responding to Covid-19 and climate change, and addressing ‘shared challenges’ in cyber space, critical technologies and counterterrorism. Then there’s the biggest ‘C’ of all, an emphatic presence even when not mentioned. The irony is that China is the godfather of Quad 2.0. The four democracies are present at the creation, but conception came from China’s coercion.

Australia walked away from Quad 1.0 in 2008 because we had high hopes about China and doubts about Japan and India; Canberra bet on Beijing rather than Tokyo and New Delhi. Now the race has changed dramatically, the stakes are even higher, and Australia puts new wagers on Japan and India to reinforce its traditional bet on the US.

Quad 1.0 sunk, Kevin Rudd says, because the US and India weren’t keen, and neither was Japan after Shinzo Abe departed from his first term as Japan’s prime minister in 2007. Quad 2.0 arrived, Rudd notes, because Xi Jinping has ‘fundamentally altered the landscape’ by projecting Chinese power, and strategic circumstances have ‘changed profoundly’.

The mission of Quad 2.0 becomes more than patrolling the Indo-Pacific—the ambit of Quad ambition meets today’s angst and ambiguity.

Returning as Japan’s prime minister in 2012, Abe began work on the Quad’s second coming, describing it as a ‘democratic security diamond’ that would be all about the maritime domain. Abe’s diamond image was based on ‘a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific’.

The logic of the democracy diamond today is to outplay and outweigh a China that the US describes as an assertive competitor, ‘combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system’.

Australia, India, Japan and the US are being driven together as much as they’re naturally coming together. A new cohesion is shown by the simple fact that the three prime ministers and the president issued a joint statement from their summit; previously, when the Quad foreign ministers met, each country gave a separate written account of the talks.

The summit statement on ‘the spirit of the Quad’ offers lots of sparkling facets. The outcomes fact sheet pins detail to the ambition, with a Quad vaccine partnership and vaccine experts group; a climate working group; and a critical and emerging technology group on standards, telecommunications, biotechnology and supply chains. The contests will happen in labs and factories as well as on the far seas.

As an aside on the internal battles of Australia’s Liberal–National coalition government, the Quad statement about climate change (‘a global priority’) marks another step in Scott Morrison’s delicate effort to herd his fractious flock up the path to the UN climate conference in November.

From domestic politics to geopolitics, the game is on the move.

For the Biden administration, the Quad puts an exclamation point on the shout that the US is back. The democracy diamond demonstrates America’s chameleon skill in Asia: the ability to do formal alliances (Australia, Japan and South Korea), de facto alliances (Singapore and Taiwan) and partial or quasi-military relationships (Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam). The Quad demonstrates India’s slow, firming shift to become a de facto US ally. The US military says what’s being built with India can be the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’.

Ever seeking to anchor the US in Asia, Canberra and Tokyo now have another anchor point in New Delhi. The anchor image responds to a permanent reality: China will always be in Asia, while the US presence is always a choice Washington makes.

Choosing the Quad, the US is renewing its promise to the Indo-Pacific as much as it’s joining with three fellow democracies.

The head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, says ‘the diamond of democracies’ can build into something bigger: ‘Not in terms of security alone, but in terms of how we might approach … the global economy, critical technologies like telecommunications and 5G, collaboration on the international order—just much to be done diplomatically and economically.’

The Quad isn’t an alliance. The Indo-Pacific democratic diamond won’t match the four-pointed NATO star. The outlook of the Quad members is as different as their democracies (note the time-zone differences, stretching across the date line, in conducting the virtual summit of the four leaders).

US military flexibility—that chameleon ability—means the Quad rests on its alliances with Australia and Japan and the de facto alliance forming with India.

As Michael Green observes from Washington:

In military terms, the US–Japanese–Australian trio is far more interoperable than the four are together, though the recent resumption of joint naval exercises will help. The Quad will be one part of a variable geometry of alliances and diplomacy in Asia. After this summit, it will now clearly be one of the most important parts.

Indo-Pacific maritime security is the ‘one issue that makes the Quad the Quad’, Salvatore Babones argues:

The Quad is never going to go to war with China. In any case, treaty alliances and military procurement partnerships are more effective tools for preventing war than a loose international grouping. What the Quad can do is provide a backbone for broad Indo-Pacific maritime security cooperation that tamps down China’s brinkmanship across the region.

The Quad will feed into US musings about reforming the 1st Fleet, last on station in the Pacific in 1973, to increase its naval presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 1st Fleet could be headquartered in Singapore and/or Western Australia. (After the lengthy wrestle about paying for US Marine Corps facilities in Darwin, Canberra is match-tough to grapple with the Pentagon over the dollars.)

Not so long ago, a bigger US presence in the ocean India calls its own would have produced howls from New Delhi. Now such a build-up would fit with India’s hardening strategic understanding of China’s hegemony vision, and the maritime dimensions of the Quad mission.

As diamonds are formed by high temperature and pressure, so the Quad bonds four democratic powers that feel the force and weight of Asia’s coming power.