The March 12 summit meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, has not been fully grasped by most analysts. The Quad’s recent resurgence – after an abortive start in 2007 – has been driven by uneasiness about the rise of China and the security threat it poses to the international order. Yet there is no direct reference to China, or even military security, in the Quad’s first-ever joint statement or the Washington Post op-ed penned by its four leaders. On the contrary, the most significant outcomes of the summit are related to COVID-19 vaccine production, facilitating cooperation over emerging technologies, and mitigating climate change.
This apparent disconnect speaks to the true nature of the Quad. Commentators often cast it as an “alliance” in the making, perhaps an “Asian NATO.” It is not. Rather, the Quad is designed as a loose-knit network of like-minded partners aiming at a broader purpose.
Post-summit statements, which stressed the humanitarian origins of their collaboration in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, set out the group’s uniting principles – democracy, a rules-based order, and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific – and emphasized its role as a “force for global good.” These provide the broad framework within which the Quad will operate with the aim of shaping global order in an age of transition from the U.S. “unipolar” world to one in which China is seeking a decisive role.
The threat posed by China is at one level military, as evidenced by its proactive pursuit of territorial claims in South Asia, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. At another, it is economic and technological. China is a pivotal player in global supply chains, most visible today in its major role as a vaccine supplier, a major investor of surplus capital globally through the Belt and Road Initiative, and a rapidly rising technological power. It is this broader aspect of global order that the Quad aims to address, as is clear from two of the joint statement’s specifics, which focus on the establishment of working groups on vaccine development and critical technologies. Both these efforts seek to constrain China’s central position in the global system, but also to develop a world order that is broad-based and inclusive. The third working group being set up is on climate change, an area in which China is a cooperative player and not a competitor, and thus downplays the notion that the Quad is simply an instrument of containment. Together, the three initiatives are designed to create an environment that encourages China to be a positive player and persuades other states to shed their hesitancy toward the Quad.
Though the summit focused on non-military initiatives, the Quad by no means downplays the military dimension. Its members have established the basis for regular defense cooperation through naval exercises, and the sharing of intelligence and military logistics. Adding further heft to previous bilateral efforts, the trilateral India-U.S.-Japan Malabar naval exercises expanded to include Australia last year. The four states have consolidated their military responses by building a set of nested strategic partnerships: linking their bilateral relationships with the India-Japan-U.S., India-Australia-Japan, and U.S.-Japan-Australia trilaterals. The Quad is a logical extension of this network and has the potential to build a “Quad Plus” arrangement involving Canada, France (scheduled to join in a five-nation military exercise in April), and perhaps New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
With these arrangements doing the heavy lifting on the security front, the Quad has the bandwidth to focus on countering the challenging non-security frontiers of Beijing’s influence. Addressing the latter, the group has promoted Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure – rechristened the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure – and introduced the multi-stakeholder Blue Dot Network process, both intended to create a globally recognized evaluation and certification system for investments in sustainable developmental projects in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Quad has also prioritized restructuring supply chains to wean them away from Chinese interference. With China leveraging vaccine diplomacy to a large number of recipient states, the four members have decided to test the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (conceived by the India-Australia-Japan trilateral) through vaccine production with India as their production hub. If the vaccine initiative is to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy and influence, their cooperation over critical technologies is a second non-military action aimed to undercut the potential of China to achieve a dominant role in telecom and biotech (both mentioned in the joint statement) and other strategically significant areas. Attention to climate change as a third area of mobilization underlines the interdependence and “global common interest” aspect of our world and demonstrates that this is ultimately an open-ended effort to alleviate a serious universal problem.
Therein lies the Quad’s unique selling point: offering value to all states and banking on the network effect that underpins an emerging world order. The Quad is not so much a tight alliance as a core group that seeks to enlist the support and cooperation of other states in both military and non-military actions. The notion of a “Quad Plus” captures this well without focusing on membership. The elasticity of this framework incentivizes other states who may want to link to and unlink themselves from specific Quad initiatives as and when useful. Importantly, the open-ended nature of the Quad belies China’s criticism of “enclosed small cliques” that will “destroy the international order.”
What does India stand to gain from the Quad? First, the security dividend will be significant, though not immense since India can take care of the more severe threats to its security, as is evident from the Ladakh crisis, and is already benefiting from bilateral U.S. arms transfers. The Quad will bring additional gains from sharing of intelligence and logistics and from the skills obtained through military exercises. Second, greater gains can be expected from the steady restructuring of regional and global trade and investment relationships, which will reduce India’s dependence on China and bring in increased investment and manufacturing activity. Third, India’s status as a major power will be further enhanced through its expanded role in the making of a redesigned world order less susceptible to Chinese power and associated with more widely accepted values. Above all, India stands to gain from the creation of a more stable, cooperative world which it has the capacity to shape in unprecedented ways.