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Without a doubt, the meeting was indeed historic. Prior to this recent summit, representatives from the Quad countries met only during an unpublicized meeting in 2007. Then, following a 2017 meeting among representatives on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit in Manila, ministerial-level meetings were held in 2019 and 2020 and a third ministerial was held this February. The recent meeting at the leader level was therefore a first, which is what garnered so much attention.
But is this attention warranted? Probably — but a heavy dose of “manage your expectations” may also be required.
The history of the Quad is short. It is rooted in the response these four countries mustered to quickly help in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed for a diplomatic dialogue among these nations in 2007, he stepped down shortly afterwards. Coupled with differing views among members about what the Quad would be meant the idea collectively died in 2008.
Conceptually, it was revived in 2012 when Japanese Prime Minister Abe — back in office at that point — wrote an article describing a “strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” Although the idea failed to gain traction, the combination of Chinese provocations against India and Australia and a US President more willing to push back against China served to resuscitate Abe’s idea in 2017.
What tangibly, however, can or will the Quad do? In their Washington Post op-ed, the Quad leaders described the group as a flexible cluster of like-minded partners dedicated to advancing a common vision and to ensuring peace and prosperity. And in their joint statement, they committed themselves to promoting a free and open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both.
Statements such as these may sound impressive, but they fail to provide details on what the Quad is — and is not — capable of doing. In other words, what does the Quad look like in practice?
Consider first the military domain. It is not an alliance, nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. That makes arguments of the Quad becoming an Asian NATO not only premature, but downright foolish. However, it does have an explicit security component. What then will these four countries do to “ensure” peace if another country disrupts it?
It depends. Joint naval drills will not stop China, nor will they lead these four militaries to gain any operational interoperability that would be needed to fight effectively. And we should admit that none of these countries are ready to go to war for each other over China, with some exceptions of US treaty obligations. Would India, for example, come to Japan’s aid if China invaded the Senkaku Islands? What about if China attacks India again at Galwan Valley, would Japan and Australia help? Would the United States help?
Rather than wartime support, the importance of the Quad in the security domain rests in what these members can do to shape the region in peacetime. The more Quad countries can cooperate in capacity building assistance to regional coast guards and navies or reinforce freedom of navigation through maritime patrols — either individually or jointly — the more these countries can tangibly support a free and open region. Importantly, and reflecting its origins, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through their militaries to regional countries could help ensure that states are not vulnerable for long periods of time in the wake of disasters.
These efforts will be supported by diplomatic activities. As a 2019 RAND Corporation report showed, US allies and partners are forming a set of important new links and security commitments across the region. If each Quad member is able to build upon existing relationships — Japan with Southeast Asia; Australia with Pacific Islands; India with fellow South Asian nations; and the United States with select countries throughout the region — toward shared ends, this could help reinforce the existing regional order, the diplomatic equivalent of “force multipliers.” How they choose to engage and on what issues could matter considerably.
Take for example the Quad Vaccine Partnership pledge to cooperate on the manufacturing and distribution of up to 1 billion doses of safe, accessible, and effective vaccines to help end Covid-19 in the region. This not only delivers a public good, but it is also an activity that subtly takes aim at China’s influence — an effective counter to Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy.” Mike Green, an expert in Asian policy, argues the move is likely to permanently reverse the vaccine diplomacy wars.
The same is true of partnering to address challenges presented by new technologies. China has set a goal for itself to be a leader in a number of emerging technologies by mid-century so that it can fight and win informatized warfare. The more that like-minded countries can cooperate, the better the chances that they may be able to achieve a technological edge against China and provide alternatives that prevent reliance on Chinese technology.
And yet, if public statements are to be believed, the Quad is supposed to be devoid of geopolitics and not about China. But the Quad is about China, at least in subtext. This is where the potential for friction arises. As former Defense Secretary James Mattis (and two other individuals) argued, the Quad will need a specific agenda that builds on shared goals. This sounds easy, but arguably could be the hardest part for the Quad.
What can Quad members do to check Chinese ambitions? What will the four countries do to ensure prosperity if the regional economies falter, and China employs economic coercion? How far are Quad members willing to go to push back against China?
One must remember what doomed the Quad in 2008 and later left the concept stagnant from 2012 until 2017: the fluidity of states’ interests. Each state has its own complex relationship with China. Even though India and Australia saw a dramatic deterioration of ties with China in the past few years that helped align their countries with Japan and the United States, there is nothing to guarantee this trend will continue. And given India’s history of non-alignment, its willingness to forge deeper ties with the United States likely will always be a source of uncertainty. The United States may even be susceptible to change if one considers the fluctuating policy approaches to China over the course of the past decade.
For the time being, the Quad has proven it can move beyond dialogue to tangible cooperation.
The real work begins now as the four countries work to develop a substantive agenda beyond Covid-19 vaccines. Discipline will also be required to deliver and maintain a coherent and unified message across the region as well.
If successful, their joint efforts could enhance their shaping activities and diplomatic outreach in ways none of the Quad members could do by themselves.
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