The Quad as an enabler of regional security cooperation

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (commonly known as the Quad), an informal grouping comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India, made a return in 2017. Have the Quad’s prospects improved after it failed to take off when it was first introduced in 2007?

The answer is a qualified yes. The main reason for this positive reading is the emergence of the Indo-Pacific strategy in the regional security discourse. The relevance of the Quad is augmented as the states within it and beyond begin to form their security policies based on the Indo-Pacific geographical concept. The Quad could serve as an enabler to strengthen security cooperation among its four members, as well in other bilateral, trilateral and multilateral arrangements in the complex regional security architecture.

The region is facing rising uncertainty. China’s reclamation and militarisation of reefs and islets in the South China Sea, the stand-off between India and China in Doklam, and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula are just some of the key strategic issues that regional states are concerned with.

At the macro level, the US–China competition has intensified, as witnessed in the escalating trade war. While China has benefited from participating in the US-led postwar order, it is also clear that the rising power prefers to reform the order to suit its interests. Beijing is pushing an ambitious agenda involving the formation of China-led projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Concerns also stem from the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ and anti-globalisation policies, as well as its questioning of the value of alliances in Northeast Asia.

The potential revision of the East Asian regional order brings strategic uncertainty, especially in relation to the US’s role, China’s intentions, and the strength of ASEAN’s unity and centrality in the region.

The entry of the Indo-Pacific concept into the regional discourse has had two important consequences. First, the strategic theatre for the US and its allies and partners is increasingly being defined by a wider geographical lens, beyond East Asia. This broadening increases the strategic importance of India and Australia in ensuring stability in the region alongside the US and Japan.

Second, as a counter to the ‘US is in decline’ narrative, the Indo-Pacific focus prolongs US-led predominance and leadership in the region.  The US military changed the name of its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command, highlighting both the influence of the Indo-Pacific notion on strategic policy and America’s intent to preserve the US-led order in the Indo-Pacific region.

With the rising prominence of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s no surprise that the Quad made a return in 2017. Officials from the four countries have held two meetings since 2017, which is notable progress after a 10-year hiatus. All four nations support the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ theme, albeit with some variations between them.

The Quad serves as a convenient platform for the four members to come together. The fact that it is a small, informal arrangement made up of like-minded states makes it relatively easy for them to engage effectively in security cooperation.

The Quad acts as an enabler in two specific situations. First, it allows the four states to build confidence in security cooperation based on mutual trust, common values (such as to maintain a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’), and a shared vision of regional and international order.

Second, it strengthens cooperation through other multilateral security arrangements in the region. All four countries are integrated into the ASEAN-led regional security architecture through their status as dialogue partners of ASEAN. They are members of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, the East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. They are also members of the US-led Rim of the Pacific biennial naval exercise.

At the same time, the four members are engaged in bilateral and trilateral security initiatives. The Quad could not only exist alongside these security arrangements, but work with them to ensure regional stability.

No doubt, several challenges remain that could hamper the Quad’s effectiveness. These include the strength of the members’ political will for supporting the Quad (especially in India), the varying threat perceptions held by the four states, and ASEAN’s concerns about the Quad.

Regardless of the much-discussed weaknesses, the time is ripe for the Quad in the Indo-Pacific era. However, it will be most effective if it remains an informal enabler of security cooperation in the ASEAN-led security architecture.