The protean pact: Reading the tea leaves of the 2022 Quad Summit

The meeting of the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US) in Tokyo this week left the essential mystery about the Quad[↗] unsolved: what exactly is ‘the Quad’? 

It may be easier to say what the Quad is not. As time passes since its original 2007 billing as the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, it becomes progressively less a dialogue about classical security questions, preferring to present itself as ‘a force for good, committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region[↗]’. 

The programme of the 2022 Quad leaders meeting – with its talk of commitment to an ‘inclusive and resilient’ Indo-Pacific – more closely resembles that of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum[↗] (coincidentally happening at the same time in the Swiss village of Davos), than an ideologically driven bloc bent on regional hegemony. The agenda is about provision of health, infrastructure and fishery protection, not planning joint military operations. It has working groups[↗], but no permanent secretariat, much less a headquarters. Whatever officials and state media[↗] from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might suggest[↗], the Quad is no ‘Asian NATO’. 

And yet, the Quad is not nothing;

  • It distils the perspectives of some of the Indo-Pacific region’s richest, most technologically advanced and geopolitically significant powers into a joint leaders’ statement[↗]. In one sense it is a bit like Davos, but instead of the pure air of the Swiss alps, it bottles the Indo-Pacific zeitgeist (at least from a certain point of view). On this occasion, the statement[↗] reflects the degree of consensus (albeit not always in very precise terms) on topics ranging from the invasion of Ukraine, to the behaviour of North Korea, Myanmar, terrorism, and challenges to order in the East and South China seas. 
  • It sponsors programs like the ‘Quad Fellowship[↗]’ –a kind of multilateral techno-Fulbright program for breeding a generation of like-minded technological elites, bringing hundreds of students from Quad countries to the US ‘to pursue graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields’. 
  • It alternates among the capitals (the 2023 summit will be in Australia), providing a caravan-like platform for leadership bilaterals[↗] but also consultations among senior officials in Quad ministries of defence and development. Rather than replacing older institutions like the United Nations (UN), its stated[↗] aim is to ‘deepen our cooperation in multilateral institutions … where reinforcing our shared priorities to reform and enhance the resilience of the multilateral system itself (sic)’, which sounds somewhat conspiratorial. 
  • It spawns new multilateral institutions. This time it launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), ‘designed to work with regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters, and combat illegal fishing. The IPMDA will draw new lines of connection across the region, between Indo-Pacific nations and the regional information fusion centres that exist in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands’. Provision of technology and training will ‘support enhanced, shared maritime domain awareness to promote stability and prosperity in our seas and oceans’. 

Protecting fish, sponsoring STEM students, prepping for showdowns over reform at the UN. Who could object to that? But therein lies the art of the Quad. By not being a treaty alliance or a fixed, bureaucratic organisation, this protean pact is unsettled and unsettling by design. 

From an American point of view, it contributes a semblance of substance to the Indo-Pacific Pivot, which has been under attack almost since it launched a decade ago for its failures to deliver in terms of both trade (having cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and even defence (Biden’s global posture review of 2021 having changed almost nothing[↗] in terms of where US military power is distributed across the globe). This summit provided President Biden the opportunity to declare a commitment to intervene militarily in the event of an attack on Taiwan. Followed by the illegal fish tracking project, this was the most talked-about result from the event. The extra impact of making such a statement in Tokyo, in the context of a multilateral gathering of ‘like minded’ partners, should not be discounted. 

From a Japanese point of view, the Quad diversifies[↗] strategic partnerships beyond a historic dependence on a unipolar alliance, and extends its connections into a hinterland of vast technological and demographic promise, as well as precious food and mineral resources. 

Broadening the base of strategic partners is also attractive for Australia. Already isolated by huge distances and cultural differences in the southern hemisphere, Anthony Albanese, the new Australian Prime Minister, faces new challenges from a PRC that seems less distant by the month. Following on from a fresh security agreement with the Solomon Islands[↗], it was also announced[↗] on 24th May that Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, will make a ten day tour to deepen bilateral relations with eight Pacific Island nations in the coming days. 

From an Indian point of view, the Quad could be seen as the embodiment of a warning. Its existence signals to Beijing that while India remains formally non-aligned, it has options[↗]. Each successive Quad summit laminates an additional layer of solidarity bonding together countries Beijing would prefer not to see develop the habit of consulting, speaking and acting in concert. 
Perhaps such a warning is warranted. Davos[↗] was not the only event to coincide with the Quad summit.

As the meetings wrapped up, Japan’s Ministry of Defence issued an alert[↗] that a group of six Chinese and Russian bombers had jointly overflown areas around Japan in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan while the Quad leaders met. The definition and form of the Quad will be formed, in part, by the actions of its opponents. 

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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