The Quad: All About China, or a Bit of Something Else?

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Diplomacy | East Asia | South Asia

The Quad: All About China, or a Bit of Something Else?

Will expanding Quad’s agenda strengthen the position of the grouping, or weaken its cohesion?

The Quad: All About China, or a Bit of Something Else?
Credit: Japanese Prime Minister’s Office

As the famous line about the Avengers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes: “There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if we could become something more.” With regards to the Quad, the quote could be: “There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable countries. Now let us see if they should become something more than a group set against China.”

Despite its growing activity in the last few years, the reincarnated Quad is still a very ambiguous creation. It is not an alliance, so what exactly is it? It is not only about China, so what else is it about? While Quad members – a group including India, Australia, the U.S. and Japan – keep stressing that their agenda is not focused solely on China, it is pretty clear that the challenge of the PRC is the glue that holds them together. In other words: deterring Beijing is their common interest. And yet, with the growth of Quad’s activity, one can notice various aspects being added to its statements. These range from tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change to calling for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and voicing concerns about the military coup in Myanmar. 

Will expanding the Quad’s agenda strengthen the position of the grouping or weaken its cohesion?

Using the PRC factor as a yardstick, Quad statements from March 2021, September 2021, and the latest, May 2022, can be divided into three categories: indirect references to China as a challenge which needs to be deterred (as the Quad does not refer to this threat directly); references to other challenges, which may be assumed to be China-related in the context of Quad; and references to issues unrelated to China.

The first category are statements on issues such as UNCLOS or general talk on the rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific, are all well-known enough to not need extended discussion here. We can assume that “China” is written on those pages with hidden letters. The same goes to declarations such as  “engagement with the Blue Dot Network” (September 2021) or promising to “extend more than 50 billion USD of infrastructure assistance and investment in the Indo-Pacific” (May 2022) – these are clear attempts to compete with Chinese economic influence.

My choice of issues included in the second category may be debatable and in some cases considered a stretch. For instance, declarations of jointly fighting the COVID-19 pandemic may be interpreted as an attempt by the Quad to compete with China’s vaccine diplomacy. Similarly, the focus on “critical and emerging technologies” can be read as a joint attempt to reduce technological dependence on China, especially given that one of its specific elements is to be “deployment of secure, open, and transparent 5G and beyond-5G networks” (September 2021). Even the recurrent “strong support for ASEAN’s unity” (present in all three statements referenced above) may be seen as having the PRC as its context (after all, a strong and united ASEAN would make it more difficult for Beijing to spread its influence).

The third category are declarations about “tackling […] climate crisis” (September 2021), support for the Pacific Islands Forum (May 2022), space exploration (May 2022), “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific” (May 2022), “coordinating […] human-rights policies towards Afghanistan” (September 2021) and others in that vein. These cannot be linked in any direct way to the goal of deterring China. Such agenda points may surely deepen cooperation between Quad members and perhaps even elevate the image of the grouping as a whole; they are also politically rather neutral. But, to be honest, tackling climate change is something many more countries can cooperate on with each other. Thus, such ideas make Quad’s goal less specific: they do not explain why only these four countries would need to form such a group to address this particular challenge.

However, in the last few years one could also notice the appearance of Quad statements which relate to concrete, political divides, and which reveal the Quad as taking sides. Three countries have been specifically mentioned here: Afghanistan, Myanmar and North Korea. Quad statements on these included a “call on the Taliban to provide safe passage to any person wishing to leave Afghanistan” (September 2021) and for “the release of all political detainees, including foreigners, engagement in constructive dialogue, and for the early restoration of democracy” in Myanmar (September 2021; May 2022; and words on “restoring democracy” also appeared in March 2021).

There is a whole list of points relating to North Korea: urging “North Korea to abide by its UN obligations, refrain from provocations” (September 2021), pointing to the “necessity of immediate resolution of the issue of Japanese abductees” (May 2022, March 2021) and condemning “North Korea’s destabilizing ballistic missile development” (May 2022). Quad members also first spoke in support of “complete denuclearization of North Korea” (March 2021), and then “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (May 2022).

Every such statement may make the Quad appear more specific, more political and more bold – and yes, each such statement represents a key agenda item for of at least one Quad member. But the challenge with these is that each such statement may turn out to be a difference in national interests between the four countries or may put off another country from becoming a Quad member, or a partner of the Quad. Opposing the Taliban is something all four Quad members can agree on, but the road may get more bumpy from there as specifics are dialed in. 

Take talk of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” rather than of North Korea, as Quad initially did. This is clearly a Japanese agenda item, and South Korea certainly does not agree with such wording (this has been brought to my attention by a Polish expert on Koreas, Oskar Pietrewicz, and I am grateful to him for pointing this out). At the same time, South Korea is a partner to all of the Quad members (and perhaps even a candidate for the Quad as well), so one can imagine how Seoul may think of such a shift of accents in Quad statements. 

The coup in Myanmar? This is something on which Japan, the U.S. and Australia likely agree. India may silently agree as well, but New Delhi wants to retain its positive relations with the government in Myanmar, and thus it is interesting to note that India still signed under this line.

One of the biggest issues in keeping the Quad’s enhanced agenda coherent is a discrepancy between the foreign policy goals of India and the remaining members. As Japan and Australia are firmly in the Western bloc, their attitude toward many countries is very similar. But India is not part of this bloc, and has overall good relations with a few countries that the governments of the other Quad members usually oppose: such as Russia, Iran or Myanmar. Similarly, for New Delhi it is not only China, but also Pakistan which is a threat – but the other three Quad members do not view relations with Islamabad the same way.

It is noticeable that the last Quad joint statement – issued in May 2022, few months into Russia’s blatant invasion of Ukraine – did not include a single word on that conflict. Obviously this is an issue on which India is not on the same page with the other three members. Similarly, the condemnation of the Taliban by the Quad in September 2021 (after they took over power in Afghanistan in August that year) did not go hand in hand with a condemnation of Pakistan – something India would be willing to do, but not the United States.

And so China remains the Quad’s common denominator – the only country which all four members perceive as a challenge which needs to be addressed. Adding other geopolitical aspects may make the Quad appear bolder, but will also cause more incoherence. An evolution to focus on general global problems such as climate change would not help the group to stand out from the myriad other global formats addressing such issues, or trying to. On the other hand, focusing solely on the issues of the first category (the clear competition with China) may be read as the Quad becoming more belligerent toward Beijing, and this is something the group has tried avoiding so far (though this may change in the future). Thus, unless relations with the PRC become much more tense (which is also a possibility), the Quad will likely go the middle way, by focusing on the issues from the second category: cooperation in areas where China is seen as challenge, but where the Quad’s projects do not have to be seen as belligerent moves against Beijing, such as joint development of new technologies.