The fundamentals of the Quad

Since 2013, the Heritage Foundation, together with ASPI and think tanks in India (Vivikananda International Foundation) and Japan (first the Tokyo Foundation, and now the Japan Institute of International Affairs), has hosted a discussion called the ‘Quad-Plus Dialogue’. The 2019 iteration starts next week in Sydney.

The idea of a quadrilateral dialogue, of course, was not the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation or our partners. In fact, anyone familiar with it knows that it originated in Japan, during Shinzo Abe’s first stint as prime minister.

What Heritage and its partners did do was revive the idea and keep the conversation going until our governments signed back up. Throughout that effort, those of us from Heritage (I can’t speak for the other organisations) were guided by several key principles. Now that the Quad has been revived at an official level, it bears laying those out to help give shape to the way forward.

First, the forum would mostly be about China. We have never pretended otherwise. We weren’t insensitive to Chinese concerns with the concept of an official Quad. At some level, it’s understandable. No government wants to be the subject of a multinational discussion. Still, the impact of China’s rise to global power is something that must be acknowledged directly. Dissimulating would dilute focus in our home capitals, and not only not fool the Chinese but breed greater distrust.

Second, additional partners—what we called ‘plus’ countries—could provide critical perspective. At first blush, bringing other organisations or governments into Quad discussions may look like the expansion of an anti-China coalition. It’s true that including others allows us to explore for synergies in approaches to China, on maritime security, for example. More importantly, however, non-Quad countries serve as sounding boards. Their relationships with China will be affected by what the Quad does, as will their operating environments in the diplomatic, security, economic and other domains. They should be heard, not only because they deserve to be, but because they have valuable, unique insights.

Third, we recognised that all four Quad countries and the ‘plus’ partners have productive relationships with China—especially on the economic side of the ledger. Some of them have acute conflicting interests, such as over India’s land border and the China–Pakistan relationship, China’s claims in the East and South China seas, and the standing threat to Taiwan. But those conflicts aren’t the sum total of their relationships. Reflecting this reality, we never characterised the effort as anything resembling ‘containment’—which we calculated would be a perfect way to kill it, through irrelevance.

Fourth, coordination among the Quad countries shouldn’t be about economics. There’s sometimes a fine line between economics and security. Should the Quad coordinate on investment screening or technology development, for instance? Absolutely. But it can’t be about gaining market advantage vis-à-vis China. It should be strictly about minimising direct security risks. Neither is the Quad about shaping national economies, creating trading blocs or establishing exclusive supply chains. Such antidotes would only make worse the sicknesses caused by China’s market distortions.

Fifth, values matter. It’s no accident that the Quad countries are liberal democracies. Likewise, all of our ‘plus’ partners enjoy liberal political freedoms at home and support an interstate liberal order abroad. The former has mostly been implicit in our discussion. The way countries govern at home affects the way they interact with the world. Discussions of how to best craft the institutions of interstate order have been much more explicit.

Not everyone’s going to like this formulation of the Quad, especially those partial to the clean lines of global geopolitics. But the truth is that the political systems of the Quad countries, those of the ‘plus’ partners and China’s own are much too complex for that. Each country involved has conflicting internal interests, not to mention conflicting interests with one another. Of course, the Quad-plus countries share many interests, too, and not only those related to China. They come together for the express purpose of coordinating those overlapping interests.

The most important thing that unites the Quad countries, however, is an awareness that managing the rise of China is the defining challenge of our era. They know that getting it wrong will make the difference between war and peace, security and insecurity, prosperity and want, and freedom and oppression. This is what has brought our think tanks together for going on six years, and it should continue bringing our governments together long into the future.