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The Quad: Taking stock and looking forward

Five years ago, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, officials from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) met to discuss ways to maintain a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. This ‘Quad’ had convened a decade earlier but had quickly disbanded out of concern for regional sensibilities, especially (but not only) in Beijing. In Manila, however, the participants agreed that the forum was in their – and the Indo-Pacific’s – best interests.

The reconstituted Quad began with a broad ‘shared vision’ – a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific grounded in a rules-based order ensuring that navigation and overflight remained unhindered, connectivity was improved, terrorism was addressed, maritime security maintained, and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions curtailed. Since then, with the Quad elevated first to the foreign ministers’ meetings and then to leader-level summits, many more issues have found their way onto the agenda. Climate change, critical minerals, cyber-security, disinformation, emerging technologies, health security, humanitarian assistance, illegal and unregulated fishing, infrastructure development, maritime domain awareness, vaccines, and the space domain have all featured in recent discussions.

This broadening of the scope of the Quad reflects a desire to position the four partners, individually and collectively, as trustworthy and reliable suppliers of public goods across the Indo-Pacific, including – but far from exclusively – of security. All four want to be seen across the region as credible partners pledged to a set of rules and practices more transparent and less risky than those Beijing adheres to. But at the same time, none of them wish to be perceived, individually or collectively, as the architects of an alliance to ‘contain’ the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) power and ambition.

The four Quad partners seem to understand that delivering on promises made – and being seen to deliver – is crucial. None appear keen to give the Quad a harder edge by placing greater emphasis on defence and security cooperation.

It must be said that the Quad has been only partly successful in promoting these ideas. There is some evidence that the shift to public goods provision has reassured Southeast Asian citizens, who now hold more positive views of the forum than they did when it first reconvened. But in parallel, demands that the Quad provide evidence of efficacy – especially on the economic domain – have grown as its agenda has lengthened. Meanwhile, Beijing has used all the instruments of influence at its disposal to portray the Quad as a nefarious American-led device intending to maintain the US’ Indo-Pacific primacy and stoke Cold War-style tensions. 

It appears unlikely that these dynamics will change in the short- to medium-term. The four Quad partners seem to understand that delivering on promises made – and being seen to deliver – is crucial. None appear keen to give the Quad a harder edge by placing greater emphasis on defence and security cooperation. Instead, Australia, India, Japan, and the US are all working to upgrade interoperability and intelligence sharing bilaterally, between themselves and with others. The AUKUS arrangement, for example, has been put in place to enable defence technology sharing and enhance Australian capabilities, in particular, in the area of undersea warfare. And Exercise MALABAR, which now involves all four country’s navies, remains very much a separate endeavour in official terms.

This approach to managing Indo-Pacific security challenges might look disjointed, but there is an underlying logic. For a start, those challenges are not exclusively or even predominantly military. The biggest is sustaining the autonomy of regional states of varying scale and capacity – upholding their ability to make independent decisions in the interests of their citizens. Of course, Beijing does not seek to export its governance model, but clearly it has been trying for some time to capture local elites across the Indo-Pacific; curb online and offline public debate, especially about the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party; mobilise the Chinese diaspora to further the PRC’s interests; and extract resources and rents at minimal cost, while using economic leverage for diplomatic advantage. Moreover, the PRC is working hard to try to push the US and American interests out of the region.

Meeting these challenges requires a multi-faceted, cooperative approach that aims at giving regional states options across key domains. These include trade and investment, infrastructure financing and delivery, the construction and maintenance of critical services, including broadband and 5G networks, the management of immediate and looming climate change impacts, and many more. 

These challenges also impose on the Quad participants an obligation to bolster their own resilience and build new capabilities, either collaboratively or individually, to give them the platforms they need to act as dependable partners for other regional states. This is what the four are doing in various bilateral deals concerning matters like logistics, reciprocal access, or secure communications. The aim here is not to construct a regional collective security organisation out of the Quad or anything else. Instead, the objective is a multi-polar Indo-Pacific populated by robust and independent states, as Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, has put it very eloquently: ‘a region free from the domination of any single state, but with high levels of mutual understanding and trust between some of the major powers.’

Five years on from those initial conversations in Manila, then, the Quad has likely reached the highest stage of its evolution, barring some serious deterioration in the regional security environment. It is likely that it will not stray too far into defence and security cooperation or bring new members to the table. That is not to say, however, that the Quad partners will not look to others, including the United Kingdom and France, for greater cooperation or the bringing of key capabilities into play. AUKUS may be a template for such arrangements, as regional states like India, Japan, and South Korea seek advanced defence technologies with or without partners. Closer collaboration between Australia, India, and France in the Indian Ocean, in areas like maritime domain awareness, might offer another. 

Whether formal or informal, tightly knit or loosely bound, so long as these arrangements bolster the autonomy of regional states, they will be explored and employed.

Prof. Ian Hall is a Professor of International Relations at and the Acting Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.

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