The Quad is gearing up for its second-ever ministerial meeting early next month. The foreign ministers of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States will meet in Tokyo for a meeting to follow up on an initial ministerial meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last year in New York City. Clearly, the Quad continues to chug along, maintaining the momentum that’s been in place since its November 2017 reconvening after a decade-long hiatus.
For the Japanese government, hosting the Quad’s second ministerial likely was not a difficult decision. What’s nonetheless noteworthy is Japan’s ability to play host so soon after a nominal prime ministerial transition. After Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, resigned, Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary, was sworn in, after quickly amassing the support needed within the Liberal Democratic Party.
No doubt, Japan’s bureaucracy has hardened itself against regular political changes at the highest levels of national politics; the “revolving door” era of Japanese politics no doubt let some habits stick. But for Suga, who has signaled a desire to maintain continuity with Abe, the upcoming Quad ministerial serves as a powerful signal that Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific focus is here to stay—as is Japan’s leadership in convening and enabling the Quad in the first place.
Back in early 2017, even before the Quad senior officials’ meeting took place on the sidelines of that year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summitry in Manila, it was Tokyo that was pushing ahead with its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. The Indo-Pacific idea found natural takers in New Delhi, Canberra, and in Washington.
This year’s ministerial may take on oversized importance for the future of the Quad. Not only will it be the first under Suga (who will have Abe’s final foreign minister, Motegi Toshimitsu, lead), but it’ll be the last Quad ministerial before the U.S. presidential election on November 3.
The scope for the ministerial is somewhat more limited in scope than last year’s ministerial—or at least it appears so. Motegi, who confirmed the meeting, implied, unsurprisingly, that the pandemic will be at the top of the agenda. “The Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision is increasingly important in the post Covid-19 world so we would like to confirm the importance of further deepening the collaboration among us and many other countries to realize the vision,” Motegi said.
We’ll have more to chew on from the ministerial in a matter of days. I wouldn’t expect any eye-popping outcomes, personally. What I’ll be most curious to see is whether, beyond the pandemic, the ministerial meeting acknowledges the robust intra-Quad bilateral and trilateral constellation of activities.
There’s no shortage of prominent developments in this area, including an India-Japan Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, an India-Japan-Australia supply chain resiliency meeting, and U.S.-Japan/U.S.-Australia military exercises. Much of the practical relevance of the Quad remains at the bilateral/trilateral level within and among its participants (with occasional outside participation). Where the ministerial can have use is by encouraging the activities currently taking place at this level to bubble up to the full-scale quadrilateral.