On May 24, the Quad minilateral arrangement between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was scheduled to hold a fourth leaders’ summit in Sydney, but the debt limit crisis in Washington forced a cancellation. Yet in a signal that the Quad may have finally found its footing, the leaders rapidly reorganized and met on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 20. Although there are clear challenges to the Quad – not least domestic politics – the grouping held together and adapted to the circumstances.
Despite another statement articulating the group’s shared principles and vision for the region, deciphering the Quad’s exact role in the Indo-Pacific prompts significant debate.
On one side, the Quad is viewed as a security-focused grouping, structured to deter Chinese aggression. Others argue that it’s a vehicle for promoting and bolstering prosperity through the provision of public goods. Still others struggle to define the Quad’s purpose as separate or distinct from other regional groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association. The most recent statement might even suggest the Quad leaders are self-conscious about the group’s potential to step on the toes of existing regional structures.
What is the Quad? What does it do and what does it do differently from other groupings?
As think tank experts from all four Quad countries, over the past several months, we have engaged, debated, and heard from policymakers, analysts, and each other, reaching our own consensus about defining the Quad and its role in the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad serves more than a strategic or economic purpose. It can be the core stabilizing pivot around which an inclusive rules-based order can evolve and thrive in the Indo-Pacific. To do so, the Quad must provide clarity on its contributions to regional prosperity through the delivery of public goods, and embrace ambiguity on security issues.
Throughout its history, and reiterated in this most recent statement, the Quad’s goal revolves around the “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” with stability being the necessary core element.
The 2004 tsunami and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that long-term stability requires the Quad to tackle both security and public goods. However, as one expert recently quipped, the challenge of doing “everything everywhere all at once,” in the interest of providing the region with stability, has so far seemed to paralyze decisive action and made the group a lightning rod for criticism.
Despite its shortcomings, the Quad offers one of the best mechanisms for regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. It comprises four countries that broadly agree on a cohesive vision of the region. These countries have substantive capacity to assist, complement, and encourage growth, peace, and stability. Due to longstanding bilateral relationships, these countries have the necessary bureaucratic muscle memory to circumvent areas of disagreement that may not be of immediate concern in pursuit of a larger objective.
The mutually complementary aspects in their visions and capacities are an answer to the shortcomings of existing regional mechanisms. Rather than replace them, the Quad seeks to augment other multi- or minilaterals or regional organizations and provide an inclusive vision for cooperation.
Key to this complementarity, and why the Quad is more than just a security arrangement, is the functional cooperation undergirding the group’s provision of public goods. The Quad has emerged as a crucial node in boosting the capacity and resilience of regional states.
Following its reconstitution, the Quad formed working groups in 2021 focused on issues of vital importance, including vaccines, infrastructure, climate change, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This year, climate-resilient infrastructure and digital connectivity have received new attention through two new programs, the Quad Infrastructure Fellowships Program and the Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience initiative, both announced as steps toward the delivery of critical public goods. This signals the Quad’s commitment to delivering real results to regional partners beyond security concerns.
The Quad’s security focused initiatives, including the Malabar naval exercises and the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, establish and enhance interoperability between capable naval forces, and align operating procedures for maritime contingencies for cohesive multilateral responses.
None of these are directed at one particular threat or actor. These initiatives are focused on developing a regional framework to address local security challenges. These modest aims in the security sector have meant that the greatest potential for growth, cooperation, and impact is in the non-security domain: Quad efforts that promote state capacity, provide opportunities for prosperity, and importantly, offer a sustainable alternative to what China has to offer developing countries.
To effectively provide these public goods and maintain its security elements, the Quad must balance clarity and ambiguity. A common critique of the Quad has been its inability to effectively promote its efforts. A case-in-point is the narrative in Southeast Asia that the grouping failed to deliver the much-promised “800 million COVID-19 vaccine doses” touted in the most recent statement. While it has over-promised and under-delivered, the Quad is increasingly well-positioned to emerge as a leading platform and provider of public goods.
The grouping has to be more proactive while taking a long-term perspective on engaging with regional partners, private and public sectors, and populations to demonstrate what the four countries can deliver on essential needs, such as public health. Beyond effectively highlighting success stories, the Quad must also signal consistency and predictability to the private sector in order to incentivize investments in joint programs, as well as encourage partnership with regional countries via Quad Plus initiatives. With the advantage of having organizational flexibility, members and interested partners can plug in to initiatives that align with their interests.
At the same time, ambiguity and informality allow the group to align and move ahead in areas where there are conflicting interests. By de-prioritizing the need for clarity around traditional security concerns – for example, a possible Chinese military incursion against Taiwan or aggression in the South China Sea – the group can continue to act on shared interests while remaining ambiguous toward any security hypotheticals.
The reality is that the Quad can be a quiet and implicit deterrent to Chinese aggression. By harnessing ambiguity, the Quad can endure and grow as a reliable source of public goods contributing to regional prosperity and keeping great power tensions at a manageable level.
The Quad can flourish if it can add clarity on its successful delivery of public goods and remain flexible on more controversial issues where the Quad members’ interests sometimes diverge. Most importantly, the Quad binds Australia, India, Japan, and the United States together to take on the responsibility of ensuring stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
In the end, our four countries are stronger together.
The views expressed are the authors’ alone, and do not represent the views of their respective governments or institutions.