New perspectives for the revived Quad

In late 2017, the revival of an idea over a decade old—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—created a wave of debate, concern and anticipation across the world. The Quad, as it is commonly referred to—or, more precisely, Quad 2.0, as this is its second life—is an informal dialogue between four of the world’s major democracies: the US, Japan, Australia and India.

Quad 2.0, like Quad 1.0, is a controversial yet important idea that has survived the test of time. The four members’ first major get-together was in December 2004, when they responded to the massive Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in a coordinated multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation. Following that, in 2007, the first informal meeting between the four happened on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila. Soon afterwards, the first naval exercise involving all the Quad members drew Chinese diplomatic protests, after which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled Australia out of the exercise. Quad 1.0 fell into lethargy.

It’s controversial because it’s perceived to be a way of containing China, which makes it unpopular among many of those who believe that China can’t be contained. Other critics say that it’s an improbable platform for cooperation, especially in the area of defence, among such a diverse group. Concerns (and misconceptions) have also arisen among regional actors, particularly ASEAN, which is said to see the Quad as a way of bypassing its own centrality.

After a decade, the strategic environment has become more tense, and concerns about China’s actions and position in the region, as well as globally, continue to deepen, justifying the revival of the concept. It was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concept of a ‘democratic security diamond’, unveiled in December 2012, that first brought the Quad back to life. And in November 2017, Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kano gave an interview that again focused attention on the Quad idea.

Perhaps Quad 2.0 has received substantially more attention than is warranted by its meagre showing to date. Three meetings of officials (not even ministers) from the four governments have been held, without producing binding official joint statements. Yet, Quad 2.0 has become one of the most contested ideas in current geopolitics. Why?

To objectively answer that question, ASPI’s latest Strategic Insights reportQuad 2.0: New perspectives for the revived concept, comprising a selection of pieces from The Strategist—provides a diversity of perspectives on the relationship between the Quad and a range of countries’ national and regional interests. The contributors shed more light on the prospects for the development of Quad cooperation and explain how the individual nations involved in the Quad, as well as regional actors that are concerned about it, will respond to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Unlike Quad 1.0, Quad 2.0 seems to have gained bipartisan support in Australia. The government’s 2017 foreign policy white paper confirmed Canberra’s strong commitment to trilateral dialogues with the US and Japan and, separately, with India and Japan: ‘Australia is open to working with our Indo-Pacific partners in other plurilateral arrangements.’

India has been said to be the most ambivalent of all. The Strategic Insights report includes nuanced and diverse views from Delhi about how Prime Minister Narenda Modi is likely to approach India’s participation in the Quad. India’s vital interests in the Indian Ocean and China’s activities in the area can make the Quad more compelling as a framework for strengthening Delhi’s security.

Official policy documents affirm the US’s full commitment to Quad 2.0 as one of Washington’s key security avenues. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which President Donald Trump signed recently, reads in part:

(1) the security dialogue between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan is vital to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to promote—

(A) a rules-based order;

(B) respect for international law; and

(C) a free and open Indo-Pacific; and

(2) such a dialogue is intended to augment, rather than replace, current mechanisms.

This raises a question about whether the US government sees the Quad as part of the policy of confronting China, which has gained momentum after hardline national defence and national security papers, Trump’s tariff war, and Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute calling out China as a strategic competitor.

Out of the many question marks that punctuate each Quad member’s national debate about the utility of the grouping, one thing is clear: their views remain barely coordinated.

This is apparent even to external observers. An original ASPI survey has shown that, despite the common view that ASEAN is suspicious about the Quad, ASEAN member states evince a wide range of dissimilar opinions and assessments of the value of security cooperation amid growing challenges. The disparate views among individual ASEAN member states, as well as the gap between political leaders and intellectuals in the region, reflect the complexity of the strategic environment today.

A key to the success of the Quad is its relationship with the Indo-Pacific concept. Quad 2.0 coincides with the promotion of the theme of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP), also articulated (although not without differences) by the four partners, which adds to the general confusion. Because the Quad shares some of the principles that are supported by the FOIP, the two are often conflated. But while the FOIP advocates openness and inclusivity, the Quad is a minilateral, which by definition has exclusive membership and a limited and sharply focused agenda.

In each case, more conceptualisation is needed: both the FOIP and the Quad continue to suffer from a lack of clarity, and as a result are gaining limited external support.