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The Future of Asia’s Quad: Managing the Perceptions Gap

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Trans-Pacific View

The Future of Asia’s Quad: Managing the Perceptions Gap

Despite some ongoing adjustments, the key regional challenge for the Quad is addressing a lingering perceptions gap in some quarters.

The Future of Asia’s Quad: Managing the Perceptions Gap
Credit: The Diplomat

Earlier this month, Asia’s Quad – the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue which groups the Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – was mired in yet another controversy amid media reports which suggested that a top U.S. defense official had cast doubt about its prospects in a speech delivered on March 7. Though the controversy itself was quickly extinguished in a clarification by Washington, the fact that this is just the latest in a series of such occurrences should reinforce the wider perceptions gap that the Quad faces in the region despite the realities of how it has actually evolved and the actual support that it does or does not enjoy.

The Origins of the Perceptions Gap

Since the Quad’s initial genesis during the George W. Bush years, it has faced a clear perceptions gap between what it is and could be in reality, and what some perceive that it is or fear that it may end up being. For instance, while media portrayals often trace the Quad back to the expanded Malabar Exercise in 2007 that originated from the U.S.-India bilateral relationship, suggesting a military and maritime focused arrangement centered exclusively around four democracies and directed at China (though it was clearly a focus, and remains so), the initial impetus for it in fact emerged following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami back in 2004 as the so-called Tsunami Core Group which came together to fashion a response to it, which, though a seemingly minor point, is significant because it is leads to a narrative that is indicative of more ad hoc, needs-based, inclusive, and comprehensive origin story as well as future vision.

The experience with the Quad during its first iteration also reinforced the fact that the latter conception was more enduring and less problematic than the former one whatever one’s preferences may be, with divergences in outlooks including on China and leadership changes giving way to its demise. There were also rather artificially polarizing debates about whether the Quad was or was not about China – when it was clearly evident to all that aspects of China’s rise were an issue for these countries to different degrees but that, much like other alignments, there were also other purposes that could be advanced by these four capable countries as well that would also be helpful to the region and conducive to how the arrangement would evolve in a more sustainable fashion.

Given how short-lived the first iteration of the Quad was, this so-called perception gap was never quite addressed, and this has proven problematic because it persisted even amid speculation of his reemergence and its rebirthing, dating back to the first diplomatic consultations of Quad 2.0 seen in November 2017 in Manila. This is even more true today even as policymakers are adopting an approach that is more cognizant of the limitations of portraying it as a more security-focused, standalone arrangement directed against China alone, with more attention to shaping Quad 2.0 as one minilateral amidst many in a slower, more inclusive, and comprehensive fashion while still leaving the door open to more ambitious advances as well in the military sphere.

To be sure, this so-called perceptions gap may vary by country and region and stems from various factors that extend beyond the evolution of the Quad itself – some of them more systemic and context-specific such as the tendency for greater interest in kinetic activities such as military exercises relative to the grinding but important work in diplomatic consultations; the fear among some Southeast Asian states that new arrangements could undermine ASEAN centrality; and the current administration’s China approach which, whatever its merits, increases the likelihood of whatever measures it takes being viewed through that single prism irrespective of reality. But the point here is simply that it is important to acknowledge that it exists and persists, and that it has important policy implications related to how the Quad is perceived as well as its future prospects as one among several significant minilateral arrangements that contribute to the region.

The Persistence of the Challenge

The persistence of this perceptions gap is clearly seen in the contrast between what officials have said and done with respect to the Quad in the past year or two, relative to regional accounts of it portrayed by the media or conversations with some interlocutors in the region. With respect to how policymakers are thinking about and messaging the Quad, the evolution and adjustment we have seen to date is clear enough, even though the manifestations may be more subtle. It was notable, for instance, that rather than hype up the Quad in his prepared remarks at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, which would have dominated the headlines, then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis omitted it even as he highlighted a whole list of relationships within the U.S. alliance and partnership network in the Indo-Pacific, leaving the meeting we saw of the Quad alongside an ASEAN senior officials meeting days following to speak for itself.

It was also notable that the November 2018 U.S. statement on the Quad meeting – a more fleshed out version of the November 2017 statement – deliberately reflected a more incremental, inclusive, and comprehensive feel, along with attempts to begin to address previous concerns voiced among some. Most notably, there is an explicit inclusion of non-security issues with aspects such as sustainable development, connectivity, and governance which contrasts with the military-focused nature of the Quad; there is an acknowledgement of ASEAN-led regional architecture and a mention of other subregional groupings such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Pacific Islands Forum to counter suggestions that this is a U.S. dominated forum that does not give due regard for existing regional mechanisms and ASEAN centrality; and there is a mention of regional developments in Maldives and Sri Lanka which is reflective of a grouping that meets regularly to discuss a series of ongoing issues, rather than a more secretive, narrowly-focused grouping planning to contain China.

But to the extent that evolution and adjustment is at play in reality with respect to the Quad’s evolution, perceptions with respect to it remain rooted in old understandings. This manifests itself in different forms, whether in terms of conflations (between the general advancement of the initiative which is taking place and the more specific metric of holding joint exercises which has not); simplifications (attributing lack of advances to a single laggard, rather than acknowledging that each of the parties at various points have had issues with how it is advanced); or confusions (such as viewing Quad as a major manifestation of the much broader Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, as opposed to just one of a series of minilaterals within it, including the bilaterals and trilaterals that make up the Quad). We have also seen periodic controversies that end up prematurely concluding sensationally that the Quad is dead or that it has been given new life, when movement has in fact been more incremental and limited.

The controversy we saw earlier this month with respect to the comments offered by Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson is just the latest where we have seen this occur. By any measure, Davidson’s prepared remarks to the Fullerton Forum in Singapore – a precursor to the Shangri-La Dialogue – actually reflected the tendencies we have seen with respect to evolution and adjustment in U.S. policy, including a nod to ASEAN centrality and a focus on minilateral arrangements more broadly in a whole-of-government fashion. More specific to the Quad, similar to Mattis, he did not reference the Quad at all, and focused instead on trilateral collaboration where progress has been more visible and less controversial, including what he called the “landmark” first G20 trilateral summit meeting between U.S., Indian, and Japanese leaders in Buenos Aires last year, as well as – in an indicator of the importance of non-security developments – the formation of a trilateral agreement between the United States, Australia, and Japan announced by OPIC chief David Bohegian on aspects such as infrastructure, connectivity, and economic growth.

Indeed, it was only when asked about the Quad that he delved into it, noting that the matter of naval cooperation was difficult given reservations on the part of India, even though this would not prevent the grouping’s ability to “cooperate in crisis and conflict” – which, it should be recalled, was where the impulse from it first originated in the post-2004 tsunami context. But unsurprisingly though unhelpfully, Davidson’s actual remarks were equated in media accounts that followed with him indicating that the Quad arrangement as a whole was going to be shelved due to India being a holdout.

The fallout was promptly managed by the Pentagon – with its spokesperson pointedly noting the distinction between ongoing diplomatic consultations and formal, regularized meetings that were more security-centric. But that is beside the point. The damage had already been done in terms of regional perceptions, and this risks being added to the list of high-profile cases in U.S. Asia policy where initial, inaccurate headlines will be remembered and cited more without due regard for the corrections issued thereafter. More fundamentally, beyond the blame game that followed Davidson’s remarks on the Quad, the case more broadly indicates the persistence of the perceptions gap as well the challenges inherent in managing it. Dismissing it entirely not only ignores a clear problem, but also misses an opportunity to better align perceptions with reality where possible.

Addressing the Problem

U.S. policymakers, by any measure, are now more aware of the limits of the Quad and the challenges it faces in getting underway than they have ever been, and some adjustments have been made to how it is being messaged and advanced. But given the enduring nature of the perceptions gap with respect to the Quad, much work still remains to be done. The importance of this ought not to be understated: if the Quad continues to take shape in this newer and more inclusive, comprehensive version, it has the potential to benefit the region and represent a version of U.S. foreign policy at its best – one that is firmly rooted in inclusive arrangements with allies, partners, and friends and is designed to address the challenges the region actually faces.

Addressing the problem, as is often is, is easier said than done. The starting point for addressing this perceptions challenge is candidly acknowledging its various sources as well as the extent to which it can actually be addressed. Seen from that perspective, to suggest that this perceptions challenge can be fully solved would be disingenuous: even in a world where everyone is fully equipped with the information necessary about how the Quad is operating in reality and that messaging flowed perfectly, there would still be those who distrust that information or seek to promote their own contrasting narratives. In most debates of this kind, not all minds are up for changing and not all of those opposed to or ambivalent about a particular initiative are persuadable.

Furthermore, as was suggested earlier, concerns and misperceptions about the Quad, though often framed as being in response to the initiative and how it evolves, in fact rest in part on more systemic and contextual factors. The logical corollary to that observation is that concerns and misperceptions are likely to persist irrespective of what direction the Quad actually takes, which, though a sobering reality, is one that needs to be openly acknowledged to set realistic expectations for what can be accomplished.

In terms of actions that U.S. officials, other allies and partners, and supporters of the Quad can take to help better manage this perception gap, one should begin by acknowledging that there is already a lot that is being done behind the scenes that often goes underappreciated, especially in terms of messaging. At the same time, it is clear that some of this will need refinement along the way to both address ongoing concerns but also ensure that individual developments do not overshadow the broader narrative that consistently messages the origin, development, and future evolution of the Quad.

To take just one example, based on what we have seen up to date, it is clear that the story of the Quad that is both the most comprehensive and accurate as well as the most likely to gain the widest traction is one that traces its origin to the post-2004 tsunami context. That story frames the arrangement as being a response to real regional needs rather than an attempt at advancing geopolitical designs; focuses it on broader Southeast Asian and South Asian region rather than on just China; and messages it as an inclusive, ad-hoc, and comprehensive arrangement that may wax and wane with time but will continue to remain irrespective of what issues it addresses and which leaders are present.

Telling that story more frequently and consistently, in addition to being consistent with how the Quad came from and is headed in reality, could go some ways in helping at least mitigate an issue that the arrangement has in terms of perceptions. That, paired with careful attention to other policy areas including properly sequencing discrete developments that occur within the Quad and the trilaterals and bilaterals that form its core—as well as balancing various economic, diplomatic, people-to-people, and security aspects that could bring on additional members on an ad hoc basis—would help ensure that the Quad’s prospects remain bright irrespective of the challenges and uncertainties it is likely to continue to face.