On Monday night, the White House announced that US President Joe Biden will be hosting the first in-person meeting of the Quad countries on September 24. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga will be present at the meeting.
According to the White House statement, at the meeting, the Quad leaders will focus on issues related to the Covid-19 crisis, climate change, cyberspace and security in the Indo-Pacific.
Following the Indian Ocean tsunami, India, Japan, Australia, and the US created an informal alliance to collaborate on disaster relief efforts. In 2007, then PM of Japan, Shinzo Abe, formalised the alliance, as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad. The Quad was supposed to establish an Asian Arc of Democracy but was hampered by a lack of cohesion amongst its members and accusations that the group was nothing more than an anti-China bloc. The early iteration of the Quad, largely based around maritime security, eventually dissipated.
In 2017, faced again with the rising threat of China, the four countries revived the Quad, broadening its objectives and creating a mechanism that aimed to slowly establish a rules-based international order. However, despite its lofty ambitions, the Quad is not structured like a typical multilateral organisation and lacks a secretariat and any permanent decision-making body. Instead of creating policy along the lines of the European Union or United Nations, the Quad has focused on expanding existing agreements between member countries and highlighting their shared values. Additionally, unlike NATO, the Quad does not include provisions for collective defence, instead choosing to conduct joint military exercises as a show of unity and diplomatic cohesion.
In 2020, the trilateral India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercises expanded to include Australia, marking the first official grouping of the Quad since its resurgence in 2017 and the first joint military exercises among the four countries in over a decade. In March 2021, the Quad leaders met virtually and later released a joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’ which outlined the group’s approach and objectives.
According to the Spirit of the Quad, the group’s primary objectives include maritime security, combating the Covid-19 crisis, especially vis-à-vis vaccine diplomacy, addressing the risks of climate change, creating an ecosystem for investment in the region and boosting technological innovation. Quad members have also indicated a willingness to expand the partnership through a so-called Quad Plus that would include South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam amongst others.
In a March 2021 opinion piece in the Washington Post, the leaders of all four member nations described the need for the alliance and its intentions for the future. They wrote:
“Since the tsunami, climate change has grown more perilous, new technologies have revolutionized our daily lives, geopolitics have become ever more complex, and a pandemic has devastated the world. Against this backdrop, we are recommitting to a shared vision for an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, resilient and inclusive. We are striving to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, and that all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion. In recent years, that vision has increasingly been tested. Those trials have only strengthened our resolve to reckon with the most urgent of global challenges together.”
However, despite the Quad’s seeming commitment to a broad range of issues, its raison d’etre is still considered to be the threat of China. Each of the Quad’s member states have their own reasons to fear the rise of China and curbing Beijing’s regional advances is in all of their national interests.
China initially opposed the formation of the Quad and in the 13 years since, Beijing’s position has not changed. In 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister referred to the Quad as a “headline-grabbing idea” and after the joint statement was issued earlier this year, the Chinese foreign ministry accused the group of openly inciting discord among regional powers in Asia. Beijing sees the existence of the Quad as part of a larger strategy to encircle China and has pressured countries like Bangladesh to avoid cooperating with the group.
Each of the Quad members are threatened by China’s actions in the South China Sea and its attempts to extend its sphere of influence through initiatives such as the One Belt One Road Project. The US has long been concerned about the global competition with China and successive US presidents have maintained that China aims to subvert the international rules-based order. Japan and Australia are likewise both concerned about China’s expanding presence in the South and East China Seas. For Australia in particular, relations with Beijing are at a considerable low after Australia passed foreign interference laws in 2018 which China responded to by restricting trade to Canberra. As the only Quad country to share a land border with China, India is also suitably wary of Beijing but also reluctant to allow tensions to spill over.
However, although the Quad is perceived to be anti-China, there is no direct reference to China or military security in either the joint statement or the Washington Post op-ed. This in turn has led experts to speculate that the Quad will refrain from addressing the military threat posed by China and instead focus on its economic and technological influence. The Quad’s decision to establish working groups on vaccine development and critical technologies can then be viewed as an attempt to constrain China but more importantly, to create a democratic, inclusive blueprint that will encourage other states to work with the Quad.
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