The leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States met together at the White House for a historic summit meeting of the Quad on September 24. The quadrilateral grouping, unofficially called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, had already held a virtual summit in March this year, but the in-person summit meeting demonstrated the quartet’s vigorous dynamism. That Japan’s outgoing prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, attended the meeting further underscored the significance of the gathering.
At the Quad Leaders Summit, U.S. President Joe Biden remarked that “[t]his event demonstrates the strong solidarity between [the] four nations and [their] unwavering commitment to the common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” As the gathering suggested, the Quad has functioned as a critical initiative, one that defines what is fundamentally at stake in determining the future course of the world.
There is no doubt that the rise of China and commensurate shift in the distribution of global power directly resulted in the proliferation of concepts and policies related to the Indo-Pacific. As policymakers and scholars increasingly made reference to this concept during the 2010s, the term “Indo-Pacific” rapidly became associated with the qualifier “free and open.” In 2016, the Japanese government, then under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, advanced the notion of a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The FOIP, in turn, came to inspire U.S. foreign policy under both the Trump and Biden administrations. The combination of policies, joint projects, military exercises, and meetings, of which the Quad is but one, means that the Indo-Pacific has become what we term a “geography of strategies.” It is the lodestar guiding like-minded states in confronting an assertive China.
Over the course of the past decade, the Indo-Pacific concept, far from being ephemeral “sea foam,” has come to provide the quartet with a solid geostrategic perspective, a hook on which to hang geopolitically inspired policies and strategies that address the globe’s foremost challenges. Beyond mapping the strategic competition and spelling out strategic thoughts, the Indo-Pacific organically fosters the free and open virtues underpinning the rules-based order. The idea, however, is hollow without its implementing architecture.
This is where the Quad comes in. It acts as a mutually constitutive force driving the Indo-Pacific concept and concretizing them through policies and actions such as the summit in Washington, D.C. Initiated by Japan’s Abe in 2007, the Quad took on new urgency on account of Chinese brinksmanship and was revived in 2017. The current “Quad 2.0” is the specific outcome of strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific (and China) in and among the concerned capitals. Since 2017, for instance, the four governments have held regular consultations with each other within the quartet and held meetings at ever-higher levels, from senior administrative levels to ministerial ones. The first leader-level summit, held virtually in March 2021, was accompanied by a first-ever joint leaders’ statement. The September 2021 in-person meeting was therefore the culmination of a gradual process.
The Quad has various policy objectives, with the silent intention to counter China most often cited as a leitmotif. Its ultimate objective, nonetheless, may be to create a principled regionalism across the Indo-Pacific, a regionalism that is free from coercion and predation. The March 2021 summit’s statement, titled “The Spirit of the Quad,” says that it strives for “a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” Despite a host of detractors, the Quad already plays a collective role in safeguarding the rules-based international order while the FOIP exerts an inspirational power.
In contrast to the FOIP, Chinese President Xi Jinping has implemented flagship policies and military expansionism in line with a grandiose national dream. His “Chinese Dream,” epitomized by the Belt and Road Initiative, has certainly increased Chinese influence on a global scale. Simultaneously, it has accelerated Beijing’s assertive and often bellicose “wolf warrior” posturing.
Beijing has undoubtedly gathered its supporters, but the emerging China-led order presents significant flaws. More seriously, it recklessly undermines peace in China’s immediate neighborhood and beyond. While the Chinese leadership is increasingly cagey, perceiving a multitude of enemies within and without the country, the Indo-Pacific, when compared to the parochialism inherent in Xi’s national dream, is truly multinational in inspiration, conceptualization and operationalization. Advocated by Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Washington, the Indo-Pacific as an idea, and the Quad as the vehicle, have the potential to counter the China-led hegemonism in the making. The vision of the Quad, informed by the ideas that underpin the Indo-Pacific, is forward-looking and encouraging. The connectivity-related cooperation projects or maritime security initiatives, while not directly linked to the Quad, clearly favored a rules-based Indo-Pacific region.
Now that the Quad has held its first in-person leaders’ summit meeting, what can realistically be expected for the Indo-Pacific and its emerging geography of strategies? Perhaps it is best to think in terms of “vertical” and “horizontal” developments. By vertical we mean a deeper intra-Quad cooperation. Vertically, the Quad needs to keep the momentum up and deepen its ongoing activities, including regularizing the Quad summit and other ministerial meetings.
Horizontal developments, on the other hand, would entail wider cooperation with partners outside the Quad. Coalition building with like-minded states, either in Southeast Asia, inner Eurasia, Europe, Africa, or the Americas, is essential in enlarging the support base. Yet extra-Quad cooperation must be skillfully sought given the conditional regionalism inherent in the Indo-Pacific concept. Conditional regionalism, we argue, holds that any attempt to further develop the Quad framework must not undermine it. The Quad is solid because of its four-member structure. Diluting that by packing the halls, despite a commonality of concerns about China, may undermine not only its free and open values but also the Quad’s loosely cohesive response.
In this sense, it is perhaps best for the quartet to pursue parallel paths to the existing Quad framework such as the recently created AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S.) framework or the Biden administration’s proposed Leaders’ Summit for Democracy. These initiatives will further promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, urging more concerted action in areas such as underwater defense cooperation or supply chain resilience, without compromising the Quad’s integrity.
For many, the Quad continues to be ambiguous and contradictory. At the same time, it increasingly provokes visceral reactions. Perhaps the latter response is engendered by a tacit understanding of the group’s hidden strengths. These emanate from the trilaterals and bilaterals linking Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Much quiet work is being done on these levels, where the bonds of trust, in many cases, are stronger and older. Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) and its ever-closer link-up with U.S. forces in terms of tactics, training, and assets is one such example. Australia, the United States and Japan’s actions to re-route submarine cables through Taiwan – and away from Chinese-controlled Hong Kong – is another. Indeed, the cables demonstrate how each state plays to its own strength, with Japan conducting quiet diplomacy with Taiwan and the United States working with Google to head a consortium of telecoms companies. In another example, announced at the March 2021 Quad Summit, U.S. vaccines are being manufactured in India and partially funded by Japan, with the logistics and delivery across the Indo-Pacific spearheaded by Australia and Japan.
It is in the interest of Washington to contribute to such principled Indo-Pacific regionalism. As the old and familiar Pax Americana is undoubtedly dwindling, the rules-based Indo-Pacific order, or Pax Indo-Pacifica, will be a credible alternative, one in which the U.S. plays a fundamental role in concert with its three lynchpin partners. Despite, or because of the Afghan debacle of August 2021, the Quad holds perhaps an even greater strategic place in terms of a reactivation of U.S. foreign policy. The United States may need the Quad much in the same way as the other Quad members need the U.S.
A Pax Indo-Pacifica could, with time, surpass even the strength of Pax Americana as it brings together four distinct states spread evenly across the Indo-Pacific. Although divergent in history, culture, and geography, these four states are all democratic and share fundamental values. The fact that they are all sitting under the same roof working on commonalities gives the Quad its purpose and what may turn into its enduring strength. Where other grouping brings together a leading global power that has long sustained the rules-based international order, a non-Western G-7 member with an advanced and highly mature economy, a mega state from the Global South that is on the path to becoming a great power, and a middle power that is geopolitically strategic and culturally Western but firmly Asian and Antipodean?
One thing is clear. The Quad is not purely an American foreign policy tool. It is a common asset that is beginning to truly sustain a rules-based order, one that goes far beyond the bounds of the Belt and Road. The Indo-Pacific needs the strong leadership of the U.S. coupled to the interests and assets of the Quad. The Quad summit in Washington demonstrated once again the framework is relevant and resilient.
Cannon and Hakata are the editors of the forthcoming book “Indo-Pacific Strategies: Navigating Geopolitics at the Dawn of a New Age” (Routledge).