Four steps to a successful Quad leaders’ summit
24 Sep 2021|

The AUKUS announcement will reshape the agenda of today’s meeting in Washington of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic grouping comprising Australia, the United States, Japan and India. While the agenda for this inaugural in-person Quad leaders’ summit would have been agreed weeks in advance, the AUKUS announcement will be a late but significant addition to discussions.

An important first step for Australia and the US will be to reassure their other Quad partners.

Due to the timing, more links are being drawn between AUKUS and the Quad than may have occurred had the two events been further apart. With AUKUS still very fresh, Japan and India will expect additional detail about the deal and reassurance from Australia and the US.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose government has reacted positively to the AUKUS announcement, will appreciate how this deal draws the US and UK deeper into the Indo-Pacific region. While AUKUS could open old wounds in the Australia–Japan relationship, the summit also provides Prime Minister Scott Morrison with an opportunity to smooth things over with his Japanese counterpart. To further reassure Japan, Australia and the US should emphasise the potential AUKUS presents for increased trilateral naval cooperation and interoperability.

With India, the situation is slightly different. The future of India’s trilateral consultations with Australia and France is in jeopardy, in the short term at least, with news today that the French foreign minister has pulled out of a meeting scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. However, India appears to believe AUKUS should be considered separate from other minilateral engagements, including the Quad. After the summit and down the track, the US should be prepared for India to seek new military technology deals with it, given that America has decided to share its most secret nuclear technology with Australia.

After reassurance, the summit needs to address what has been a much longer-term challenge for the Quad, its branding.

Despite the Quad committing to provide major public goods in the region, including a billion Covid-19 vaccines, and to cooperate on climate change and critical technology, Quad sceptics and critics remain. Each Quad member has had recent diplomatic, economic or security conflicts with China, and many regional countries are suspicious of the Quad’s underlying motivations. China has criticised the group as an ‘exclusive clique’ that will ‘drive a wedge’ between regional nations. In the absence of a strong public messaging campaign by the Quad, this ‘anti-China’ narrative has gained traction with some countries.

So, how can the Quad improve its image? Quite simply, good branding starts with better public-facing communications.

The Quad has produced a joint statement and a co-written opinion piece, and has announced multiple working groups. But it has no joined-up communications platform to present its achievements. The four nations publish information on the Quad through their national channels, such as the White House and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade websites.

While it may sound basic, a dedicated Quad web presence would help brand the initiative and provide a single source of official information to help counter inaccuracies. Down the track, a web-based platform could make it easier for the Quad to seize opportunities to partner with industry or civil society groups to help carry out its mandate on issues such as climate change, critical technology, infrastructure and supply chains.

At this stage of its evolution, the Quad’s goals and processes are complex. Step three needs to be consolidation.

The virtual Quad leaders’ summit in March greatly expanded the group’s remit, making pledges on vaccines, climate change and technology. Previous meetings had delivered commitments to cooperate in several other areas: maritime security, cybersecurity, quality infrastructure, supply-chain resilience, counterterrorism, disaster response and countering disinformation. All up, there are now 10 official Quad working groups, on issues broad enough for several subtopics.

Given the Quad is a ‘grouping’ and not an ‘institution’, having 10 areas for cooperation poses significant administrative complexities. The Quad needs to consolidate its existing activities and avoid making any new commitments, including at today’s summit.

One way to achieve this could be condensing its 10 working groups into three overarching pillars—regional public goods, technology and security. Consolidating its efforts in this way would provide structure to Quad cooperation, enable it to better articulate its priorities, and reduce the resourcing required to staff 10 working groups across countries and national agencies.

Having structure is one thing, but where should the Quad focus its immediate attention and resources?

Step four needs to be setting priorities. Delivering on its Covid vaccine commitment to the region is an obvious top priority. The Quad vaccine partnership has been meeting regularly and work is already underway. But what’s next? Because the vaccine commitment is so clearly a priority for the Quad and the broader region, there could be value in identifying what aspects of this pledge made it so compelling.

To begin with, Quad vaccine cooperation is responding to an immediate and overwhelming challenge for the region and stands to deliver a tangible benefit to countries beyond the Quad framework. Quad cooperation also makes sense because each of the four countries brings a distinct but complementary skillset to the table. Regional countries like that this cooperation has had a positive rather than negative character, as military cooperation would have. So, what other areas of Quad cooperation fit this bill?

As my latest paper sets out, the areas that most fit these criteria are critical technology, infrastructure and supply chains. All of these areas represent an immediate challenge for the region. The Quad countries have complementary skills that they are politically committed to, and each has a positive agenda.

This second Quad leaders’ summit presents a significant opportunity, although it also carries risk. The opportunity is to strengthen the Quad brand by creating an online platform to promote the outcomes of the group’s meetings and to consolidate and prioritise its commitments.

The risk is letting this engagement pass without providing more detail on current commitments—how they’re tracking and what’s next—and, worse still, further expanding cooperation, making it more difficult to deliver concrete results in the short term.

An in-person meeting that brings together four of the strongest democracies in the Indo-Pacific is a  big deal—let’s hope our leaders use the opportunity for more than symbolism and follow a four-step approach to success.