The Quad: An ‘Asian NATO?’

Dominique Varier, Editor

Image: US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting on March 12, 2021. REUTERS | Tom Brenner [1]

“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States… would serve as the basis for the international order.” [2]

Expressed by Director Yang at the March 2021 US-China Alaska summit, it’s the latest verbal attack on the US-led world order and its liberal values. As China steamrolled into the 21st century, President Xi has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s ‘bide and hide’ strategy for a more assertive approach.

There are different views on what this rise in China means. Some view it as China seeking a ‘sphere of influence’ in East and Southeast Asia following its ‘century of humiliation.’ Few see it as Beijing seeking to deal with matters it considers internal, like Taiwan and the South China Sea. Others see it as China seeking to upend the US-led liberal world order for one more conducive to its authoritarian regime.

Nevertheless, China’s rhetoric and actions are a danger to the liberal world order. Actions in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and more by a great power like China are a litmus test for how sound the international liberal values and norms are. Should China succeed, the credibility of liberal values like freedom of navigation, protection of private property, and more will collapse.

Therefore, if Washington believes a US-led liberal world order friendly to democracies is vital for its national security, then the question naturally becomes, How can the US prevent China’s direct (or indirect) revisionist imprint on the current international order?

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra. With a 9.1 magnitude, it was one of the biggest earthquakes recorded in human history. [3] Within 15 minutes, 30-meter-tall waves hit the Indonesian archipelago; within 2 hours the waves reached Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand; and within 7 hours they reached East Africa. [4] In one of the deadliest recorded natural disasters, estimates put the death toll at more than 230,000 people. [5] The next day, the US Navy responded by sending the Seventh Fleet to assist affected countries. [6] Meanwhile, Australia, India, and Japan each pledged disaster relief in the form of troops, humanitarian aid, or funds. [7] As the need for logistical coordination grew, what followed was an organic convergence of the four powerful democracies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Eventually, the Tsunami Core Group disbanded in 2005 as the recovery effort improved. [8] But the coalition set the foundation for ad-hoc quadrilateral engagement between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. As bilateral engagement between each country grew, so came the realization that they shared many of the same democratic and liberal values. In a December 2006 visit to Japan, Indian Prime Minister Singh and his Japanese counterpart explicitly expressed “the usefulness of having dialogue among India, Japan and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific region on themes of mutual interest.” [9]

The first assembly of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as Quad 1.0, was a working-level meeting in May 2007. In a separate room in Manila during the ASEAN Regional Forum, officials from the four countries gathered to discuss “issues of common interest” and “share some values.” [10] Though exploratory, the meeting had a lot of potential. By September 2007, the four countries (and Singapore) jointly partook in the US-India MALABAR military exercise off the Bay of Bengal, a significant advancement for the Quad. [11]

After a brief suspension, the dialogue was rebooted in 2017 as Quad 2.0. Championed mainly by Prime Minister Abe, in November representatives of the four countries once again met in Manila. What followed was a series of working-level and ministerial meetings between the four over the next three years. Just this March, history was made as the four leaders met for the first time within the dialogue and issued the Quad’s first joint statement.

As with anything, the Quad has its complications. But as Beijing contests the liberal values and norms in our international system, the Quad is an opportunity for democracies to say otherwise. The Quad is a success story for democracies. It’s an organic convergence of large democracies in the Indo-Pacific that uphold the same liberal values. So as China spins a story of democracy in decline, the Quad shows the world that democracies and liberal values can still do great things.

That said, recent shifts in the Quad are potentially worrying. Feeling Beijing’s growing security and economic pressure, there have been attempts to frame and even institutionalize the Quad as anti-Chinese. Some have even called on the Quad to securitize against the Chinese, advocating for a NATO equivalent in the Indo-Pacific.

In my humble opinion, this is a mistake. By attempting to create an institutional anti-Chinese bloc with the Quad, we risk eroding the strong ad-hoc collaboration that already exists in the dialogue. The participants, most notably India, have reasons to avoid any institutional security agreement directed against China. As Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato insisted on US Secretary Pompeo’s failed attempts to rally the Quad against China: “This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind.” [12]

Should the Quad become an institutionalized anti-Chinese apparatus, we also risk alienating many Southeast Asian countries. Given their security proximity, history, and economic ties to the nearby Chinese powerhouse, many of the ASEAN nations require some maneuvering room with China. In the future, it’s likely many of these nations will not be able to continue sitting on the fence as the economic and security dimensions intertwine (ex: Huawei infrastructure as a threat to intelligence cooperation with the US). ASEAN, however, is nowhere there yet.

Unlike with the USSR, Chinese manufacturing and investment hinder the luxury of choice. Southeast Asia is not post-WWII Europe, and it shows in how they view the Quad. In a 2018 survey of ASEAN respondents, Dr. Huong Le Thu at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute asked, “Do you support the Quad?” [13] Although 51% of respondents expressed support, there are no two clear camps. [14] The results (below) show the wide gap in attitudes towards the Quad. If the Quad thus moves to become institutionally anti-Chinese, we risk either sidelining ASEAN or failing to appropriately engage the Southeast Asian governments.

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Survey results on Southeast Asian attitudes to the Quad by Dr. Huong Le Thu at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Reported in “Southeast Asian perceptions of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: Survey Findings” on October 1, 2018. [15]

More importantly, shifts to institutionalize and securitize the Quad as anti-Chinese dilute what exactly the Quad is about. The Quad is a successful, ad-hoc body of democracies. If we militarize, securitize, and institutionalize the Quad with the aim to deter Beijing, we lose sight of the bigger picture. The Quad is our opportunity to tell the world that, despite China’s revisionist preaching, market-based democracy and liberal values are not only still effective, but the best form of governance. As a US official noted on the Quad’s 2004 predecessor, the Tsunami Core Group, they “were the ones with the resources and the desire to act effectively and quickly.” [16]

Furthermore, we risk losing what early success we have. Remember, the Quad isn’t guaranteed; as Brookings Senior Fellow Dr. Tanvi Madan noted, “Quad 1.0 ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.” [17] Following the 2007 Quad MALABAR military exercise, participants grew wary of the dialogue’s implications due to concerns with China. The hesitance notably came from India and Australia: in February 2008, Australian Foreign Minister Smith noted to his Chinese counterpart that “Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature again.”

Of course, times have changed, and Quad 2.0 is built on a more robust foundation of pre-2017 diplomacy and engagement. Nevertheless, there’s evidence that attitudes have not significantly shifted.

In spring 2020, the CSIS Alliances and American Leadership Program performed an informal “temperature taking” survey of strategic elites in Tokyo, Washington, Delhi, and Canberra. [18] The survey sheds key insights on the important disparities within the Quad. Specifically, on the issue of creating a standing military task force under a joint command, below we see hesitation from across the board, notably from India and Japan:

Question 3: To what extent would you support the creation of a standing military task force comprised of the four members under the direction of a joint command?

Chart, bar chart

Description automatically generated

Survey results from an informal “temperature taking” of strategic elites by the CSIS Alliances and American Leadership Program. Reported in “Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” on March 16, 2020. [19]

But on the question of the Quad taking a coordinated approach to regional economic assistance, development, and promotion of shared values in the Indo-Pacific, the results were reversed:

Question 4: To what extent would you support the Quad undertaking a coordinating role in regional economic and developmental assistance, including loans, technical development, and human rights promotion throughout the Indo-Pacific?

Chart, bar chart

Description automatically generated

Survey results from an informal “temperature taking” of strategic elites by the CSIS Alliances and American Leadership Program. Reported in “Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” on March 16, 2020. [20]

Competition with Beijing is not just limited to security deterrence; at minimum, it also involves innovation in technology and economic competition. But even if it does involve a security component, the results above show the Quad currently isn’t ready for it. Attempts to thus create one prematurely might consequently break the Quad and damage what little we have of a successful front against China’s attack on the liberal world order.

Does this mean we should not institutionalize the Quad? No. If anything, this is exactly what we should be doing. Institutionalizing the Quad as more than just an ad-hoc dialogue, but a formal body of democracies with projected shared values, joint statements, and collaboration on economic development and transnational issues regarding the liberal world order (i.e., COVID-19, climate change, technology, etc.) is exactly what is needed. This includes multiple working-level and ministerial meetings, and joint statements on different issues in order to actively project liberal values. In fact, even joint military exercises like the 2020 Quad MALABAR exercise are positive developments; they show the world just how militarily powerful democracies can be. [21] The problem, however, is if we direct this to be specifically anti-Chinese, either with a joint military command force or through other means. Until attitudes or developments drastically shift, this anti-Chinese security agenda should only be pursued outside the Quad, namely through independent security dialogues that are created solely to develop a strategy against the Chinese.

So far, there’s not enough information to determine what the Biden administration will do about the Quad. But there are some positive developments. On March 12, 2021, the leaders of the four countries met for the first time within the dialogue, issuing the Quad’s first-ever joint statement. In a groundbreaking attempt to get all four on the same page, the joint statement makes no explicit mention of China while emphasizing shared liberal values and the need for cooperation on global challenges, namely COVID-19, climate change, and critical technologies. [22] From that, they created working groups and partnerships within the Quad to strengthen collaboration in climate change, critical and emerging technologies, and vaccine manufacturing. [23]

These are positive steps in formalizing the Quad as an institutional body of Indo-Pacific democracies with important shared values to promote. But President Biden and the other three leaders face a choice: should the Quad be a powerful advocate for the liberal world order, or a weapon to target the Chinese? Ironically, it was National Security Advisor Sullivan who put it perfectly: “President Biden hosted the Quad leaders’ summit that spoke to the can-do spirit of the world’s democracies… It is through partnerships like these that all of us can deliver progress and prosperity for our peoples.” [24]

[1] “Quad Countries Pledge Cooperation on COVID, Climate and Security.” Reuters. Reuters, March 12, 2021.

[2] “Secretary Antony J. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director Yang And State Councilor Wang At the Top of Their Meeting.” US Department of State. US Department of State, March 18, 2021. US Department of State.

[3] “Boxing Day Tsunami: How the Disaster Unfolded 10 Years Ago.” ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, December 23, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brewin, Bob. “U.S. Sends Military Ships to Help in Tsunami Aftermath.” Federal Computer Week. 1105 Media, Inc., December 27, 2004.

[7] Rai, Ashok. “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue 2 (Quad 2.0) – a Credible Strategic Construct or Mere ‘Foam in the Ocean’?” Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 14, no. 2 (December 2018): 138–48. doi:10.1080/09733159.2019.1572260.

[8] Mohammed, Arshad. “Tsunami ‘Core Group’ of Relief Nations Disbanded.” ReliefWeb. Reuters, January 6, 2005.

[9] “Joint Statement Towards India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership.” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, December 15, 2006.

[10] “Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.” Canberra: Parliament of Australia, May 28, 2007. 

[11] Madan, Tanvi. “What You Need to Know about the ‘Quad,’ in Charts.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, October 5, 2020. 

[12] Kuhn, Anthony. “Pompeo Rails Against China At ‘Quad’ Meeting With Foreign Ministers In Tokyo.” NPR. National Public Radio, October 6, 2020.

[13] Le Thu, Huong. Southeast Asian Perceptions of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: Survey Findings. Report. Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2018. 24-25. Accessed April 11, 2021.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Madan, Tanvi. “The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the ‘Quad’.” War on the Rocks. War on the Rocks, November 16, 2017.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Buchan, Patrick Gerard, and Benjamin Rimland. Rep. Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “India Hosts Japan, Australia, U.S. in Naval Exercise MALABAR 2020.” United States Navy. U.S. Navy Office of Information, November 2, 2020.

[22] “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad.’” The White House. The White House, March 12, 2021.

[23] “Fact Sheet: Quad Summit.” The White House. The White House, March 12, 2021. The White House.

[24] “Secretary Antony J. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director Yang And State Councilor Wang At the Top of Their Meeting.” US Department of State. US Department of State, March 18, 2021. US Department of State.