The Quad plurilateral mechanism in the Indo-Pacific reached the landmark summit level in March, this year. With its second summit being held late this week in Washington DC, the prospects of cooperation appear promising. In this long essay, I try to briefly historicise the journey of the Quad so far, right from its very beginnings to the present, and share my frame of mind on what the grouping entails and what it ought to be.
US President Joe Biden will host the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia at the White House on Friday (September 24) for their first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit. The previous summit was held in virtual mode six months before, in March.
In February, this year, the third ministerial of the four-nation grouping in two years’ time also took place in the virtual mode. The Quad has been recalibrating itself to deal with the most pressing challenges of the times with several purpose-driven working-level groups set in action this year.
This covers a wide range of areas of cooperation, going beyond the traditional domain of maritime security and defence and includes issues such as the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, quality infrastructure, cyber-security, diversified supply chains, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Even though the Quad leaders’ came up with a joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ shortly after the virtual summit in March, the grouping’s very purpose or raison d’être still remains ambiguous, as there are a lot of issues it involves with and there is a lot on the table to speculate on.
While some perceives the Quad as an anti-China coalition of maritime democracies that would ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, some perceive it differently and see the possibilities for regional cooperation, rather than competition.
The Quad navies jointly participated in the annual Malabar naval exercise thrice – in 2007, 2020, and 2021. It was initially conceived and conducted as an India-US bilateral exercise until 2007, when the four Quad navies participated together for the first time since the drills began in 1992. Among the Quad partners, the United States, India, and Japan have been participating as permanent members of the annual war games since 2015.
Australia has been participating in Exercise Malabar for two consecutive years now – 2020 and 2021 – and has additionally participated in one more edition, in 2007, but it still lacks a permanent status in the exercise. If Australia is inducted as a permanent member soon enough, it completes the securitisation of the Quad, but without a formal treaty alliance.
Despite all the contemporary public excitement surrounding the Quad, it is still not fully institutionalised in terms of structural factors such as having a permanent secretariat or an active web presence, a gap that has to be filled in order to complete the process of formal institutionalisation.
There is little doubt that China’s enhanced power projection in the past two decades in the region and the geopolitical concerns it raise has been a key factor in bringing together the nations of grouping in the late 2000s. However, the Quad’s story had subtly begun even much before in an entirely different context.
A natural disaster brings the would-be Quad partners together
The four Quad countries have a history of mutual cooperation that goes 17 years back to December 2004, when a massive tsunami struck along the rim of the Indian Ocean, depriving tens of thousands of people of their lives, livelihoods, and property. It was presumably the deadliest natural disaster of the 21st century, resulting in the death of a whopping 230,000 people.
India, Japan and Australia joined hands with the United States to coordinate the relief efforts, two days after the disaster occurred. They formed a ‘Tsunami Core Group’ as first responders to the looming humanitarian crisis and their collective effort continued till mid-January 2005 before handing over the mission to the United Nations.
A thematic conundrum
The very first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (shortened as the QSD, or the Quad) of senior officials from the four Indo-Pacific democracies took place in May 2007 on the side-lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, only to get disbanded the very next year with Australia’s withdrawal and also due to differences on what the grouping’s aims and objectives ought to be in the years ahead.
However, after nearly a decade, the Quad took a new avatar in November 2017 with the launch of an official-level working group for ‘consultations on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region’, and since then until the March 2021 summit, the Quad meetings of senior officials were held seven times and the foreign ministers met thrice, one each in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively.
Having a large number of issues at hand would amount to losing focus on a key central theme, which ideally ought to be maritime security and the preservation of the right balance of power against any single power’s quest for hegemony in the region. While a shared concern on the rise of China and its new assertion in a way disrupting the regional and global balance of power was an issue that needed to be dealt with right from the very first QSD in 2007.
However, the ‘security’ element of QSD has broadened into newer arenas of cooperation lately, of which the most important issue has been the coordination of the Covid-19 pandemic relief efforts collectively, particularly through the vaccine initiative, announced earlier this year.
Under the initiative, Covid vaccines will be manufactured in India using American biotechnology, with Japanese financial support and Australian logistical support and distribution network, thereby making use of the respective capability-edge of each Quad countries in different areas, as a combined whole. This can also be seen as a response to increasing Chinese influence in regions such as Southeast Asia, where the Quad’s initiative can be introduced as an alternative to the ones offered by China.
The territorial worries of India and Japan
Of all the Quad partners, India is the only country that shares a land border with China in the high Himalayas, which is also disputed and undemarcated with overlapping claims and serious differences in perception of the border. Japan, on the other hand, is located in China’s immediate maritime neighbourhood.
From 2005 to 2007, the security dynamics of Asia and the Pacific witnessed several changes with the rise of China. On the other hand, India was getting closer to the United States, with notably the Indo-US civil nuclear deal negotiations being underway, and later finalised.
Around the same time, in November 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to India kindled an unnecessary controversy by claiming the whole of the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory, or rather as part of southern Tibet. This cast a shadow over the border negotiations that were going on between the two countries since the early 1990s.
Earlier in 2006, during a round of border negotiations, the Chinese side seemed to backtrack on a prior understanding that any final resolution would refrain from disturbing ‘settled populations’. This signalled that Beijing had no intention of respecting the ‘status quo’.
Tensions were also simmering in the East China Sea and not that far from Japanese territorial waters, when a Chinese submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier strike group without warning. This happened in October 2006, causing a major embarrassment for the US Navy. Until that point of time, China remained a quiet naval power.
The incident marked the first instance of China’s naval power projection in modern history, as it remained a land-based power for centuries, even though it had a long coastline along the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Bohai Sea. The Chinese just gave a political message to the world on their new coming as an Asian maritime power.
In fact, Japan started to view China as a potential threat even a couple of years before, when Chinese aircrafts intruded into Japanese airspace near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese referred to as the Diaoyu Islands. A Chinese submarine transited through Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa in 2006 and similar incidents repeated in the following years too.
With tensions heating up, Shinzo Abe, then member of the Japanese National Diet (parliament) published a book detailing his political philosophy and vision for Japan in July 2006, titled “Towards a Beautiful Country”, in which he proposed to strengthen Japan’s collaboration with Australia, the US, and India.
By the time, Indian and Japanese strategic interests in the region began to converge. In the same year, Shinzo Abe was elected as the Prime Minister of Japan, the youngest person to hold the office since the conclusion of the Second World War.
The birth of Quad coincides with the re-emergence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’
The Indian Ocean represented a key strategic vulnerability of China, being a crucial waterway through which Beijing’s energy lifelines transit, before reaching the southern and eastern ports of mainland China via the Strait of Malacca. This opened up the possibility of using naval might to moderate China’s aggressive behaviour, a discussion that attracted minds in the strategic circles of New Delhi and Tokyo, particularly since the mid-2000s.
Before 2006, the Indian Ocean was rarely seen as part of the Asia-Pacific in the context of regional politico-economic integration. The time has now come to imagine a region in which the Indian Ocean integrated with the Asia-Pacific.
Around the same time, in November 2006, then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso delivered a speech at a seminar organised by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in which he spoke of an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent’.
In January 2007, a strategic thinker and then Captain in the Indian Navy named Gurpreet S. Khurana subtly brought back an old idea of a maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the strategic discourse though his policy paper titled, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” – the Indo-Pacific. It was published in Strategic Analysis, the journal of Indian think-tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
However, the idea was originally attributed to a 20th century German geopolitician named Karl Haushofer, who used it in the 1920s in his multiple academic works. Fast forward to the 21st century, in August 2007, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in the Parliament of India, during his visit to the country, known as ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’, in which he endorsed the concept, thereby receiving political and diplomatic mileage for the first time.
The immediate trigger for this ideational revival was apparently the new military assertiveness of China in its neighbourhood. However, it was different from the idea of a four-nation grouping of the Quad, which later endorsed a much-evolved concept of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, respecting customary international law and a rules-based regional order.
Today, the Quad is one of the most important power centres in the Indo-Pacific, along with the ASEAN countries, France, and of course, China.
2007 – A historic year for the Quad
2007 was indeed a phenomenal year for the Quad as it witnessed the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) on the side-lines of that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. This was made possible after Japanese PM Shinzo Abe managed to successfully persuade the then US Vice-President Dick Cheney of the need for such a meeting. Abe also made similar proposals to India and Australia, which received positive responses.
The first Quad meeting was in fact a gathering of mid-level officials from the four countries, who explored possible ways of cooperation. The year also witnessed the participation of Japan and Australia in the annual US-India Malabar naval exercise, along with Singapore, the first in which all the Quad partners participated. These moves, as expected, invited strong reactions from China.
The disbandment of Quad 1.0
Unfortunately, what followed in the rest of 2007 were unfavourable regime changes in Japan and Australia, as PM Abe was forced to resign due to the loss of public confidence and the then Australian PM John Howard was replaced by a Mandarin-speaking and pro-China Kevin Rudd.
Less than a year since its formation, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was forced to disband itself prematurely in 2008 when Canberra made it clear that it would no longer wish to be part of the Quad, owing to pressure from Beijing, to which it was getting closer for exploring new prospects of expanding a promising economic ties, and also due to a lack of interest from the new Japanese leadership that succeeded Abe.
With a mounting economic might and promising industrial progress, China comfortably and gradually began to pursue an assertive foreign policy, which would soon be visible in areas such as the South China Sea and later reflective as Beijing’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy.
The return of Shinzo Abe and Japanese leadership at play
In 2012, the visionary Shinzo Abe made a heroic return as the Prime Minister of Japan, after winning that year’s parliamentary polls. He then vowed to invest Japan’s capabilities in the reinvigoration of the Quad by all means possible. He said, “Australia, India, Japan and the US State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons staring from the Indian Ocean Region to the Western Pacific …”
Three years later, in 2015, Japan was inducted as the third permanent partner in the US-India Malabar naval exercise. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan managed to revise its defence guidelines involving the United States, allowing maritime drills outside the vicinity of Japan’s territorial waters.
Soon after, Tokyo elevated its ties with Canberra to a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ and its ties with New Delhi to a ‘Special Strategic Global Partnership’. Around the same time, Australia, being home to one-third of the world’s known uranium reserves, overturned its uranium export ban to India by signing a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, an issue that had strained Canberra-New Delhi ties for long.
Even without a formal quadrilateral set-up in place, the Quad countries continued to enhance their mutual cooperation in the early 2010s by a series of trilateral networks initiated among themselves such as the Japan-America-India (JAI) and the Australia-India-Japan dialogues. Similarly, an Australia-Japan-US ministerial dialogue has already been in existence since 2006, falling short of including only India.
Quad 2.0 rises from the ashes
Finally, after a nine-year gap between the formal meetings of the disbanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Tokyo again took the lead in proposing a fresh meeting of the Quad to be held on the side-lines of the ASEAN and related summits in November 2017, again in Manila, the same city that hosted the very first Quad meeting almost a decade back.
The Japanese proposal was welcomed by Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, without much delay. This eventually led to the resurrection of the Quad from the ashes, almost a decade after it was disbanded. This time, in its new avatar, all the four countries had shared concerns on the geopolitical challenge posed by China and their strategic interests converged well.
In January 2018, the navy chiefs from the Quad countries participated and shared a common stage in the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual conference on geopolitics and geo-economics held in New Delhi, jointly organised by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Indian government and a think-tank named Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
2018 saw two working-level meetings of senior officials from the Quad countries in Singapore. The following year witnessed two such meetings in Bangkok and also the elevation of the Quad to the ministerial level in New York. The second Quad ministerial was hosted by Tokyo in 2020, and the same year saw all the Quad countries participating in Exercise Malabar after a gap of 13 years.
The US assumes the leadership of Quad 2.0
The United States has been a significant factor in the convening of the Quad summit recently. The Trump presidency (2017-2021) took an openly confrontational stance against China, giving an early impetus for the re-emergence of the Quad in 2017.
President Joe Biden, in fact, followed his predecessor’s footsteps and built on Trump’s legacy when it came to dealing with China, a global-level strategic rival of the United States, in arenas ranging from trade and technology to geopolitics.
With a virtual Quad ministerial and two summits being held this year under the US leadership, the balance of power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific has been recalibrated this year to the highest level of diplomatic engagement.
Australia’s trade woes with China brings it closer to the Quad
Australia and China have been engaged in a quasi-trade war since late 2019. Both countries do not share any territorial boundaries, as Southeast Asia and the China Seas lie in between these two large countries. However, China has been Australia’s biggest export market for many years.
In 2018, Australia became the first country in the world to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from its 5G trials and rollout, citing national security concerns. It was alleged that these companies had links with China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) and due to the fear of espionage. China reacted strongly to this by asking the Australian government to “abandon ideological prejudices and provide a fair competitive environment for Chinese companies”.
In 2020, Australia risked further worsening of its ties with China by demanding an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. China, on the other hand, imposed high tariffs on Australian imports, particularly wine that was taxed at over 200 per cent, with some lasting even up to five years, making its sale almost impossible in China.
Also, China has either halted or substantially reduced imports of many more items from Australia such as beef, coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber, as part of ‘anti-dumping measures’ and by alleging that the Australian government has been subsidising its wine producers for facilitating their exports against the rules of fair competition.
But, the real reason was apparently political, which China doesn’t wish to openly acknowledge and it also wanted to punish the struggling Australian economy. By March, this year, the value of Australian trade with China for almost all industries had plummeted by 40 per cent.
Since April 2020, Australia has been engaging in a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with fellow Quad partners India and Japan to diversify and mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities, without overly being dependent on a single country or a few. All these factors have, in fact, brought Australia closer to the Quad.
India’s participation as a sustainability factor in the Quad
The Quad opened up fresh new possibilities for India for cooperation with the US and its two key regional allies in the Quad. Thus, the grouping gained attraction in India’s strategic calculations for the Indo-Pacific lately, further intensified by the Chinese threat looming large across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is particularly intensified in the backdrop of the bloody Galwan clash of June 2020 that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers.
With its territorial border with China remaining tense, Indian strategic thinkers batted for an effective maritime strategy that would dissuade China from its misadventures in land, owing to its strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean. Today, the Quad remains as the lynchpin of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Some experts even pointed out that the secret to peace in India’s land border with China might actually lie in the oceans.
India has inaugurated ‘2+2’ dialogues of foreign and defence ministers with the United States, Japan and Australia in 2018, 2019 and 2021 respectively, to enhance cooperation in the realm of security, bypassing strategic constraints. If India ever leaves the Quad, the grouping simply ceases to exist with Japan and Australia continuing to remain as US allies in the region.
Historically, India has been a champion of a non-aligned foreign policy, which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’ by the dawn of this century. India still remains to be the only Quad partner not in a formal treaty alliance with the United States.
A trilateral ministerial dialogue between Australia, Japan, and the US is in existence since 2006. The leaders of Japan and Australia signed a historic Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, and a US-Japan-Australia triangle was already in place.
Thus, India was a loner in the Quad since its comeback in 2017 and has always been reluctant to the alliance system. In fact, India is an active participant of Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
A ‘Quad Plus’ in the offing
New mechanisms such as the ‘Quad-Plus’ are also taking shape recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials from the Quad countries along with their counterparts from South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand had met to discuss ways to tackle the challenges of the global health crisis, covering areas from vaccine development to mitigating the impact of the pandemic on world economy.
The Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, and France can also be potential ‘Quad-Plus’ partners in the future.
The need for a re-defined raison d’être for Quad 2.0
The world of diplomacy and multilateralism has a myriad of inter-governmental or non-governmental organisations, institutional mechanisms, legal regimes, and advocacy groups for various purposes such as global nuclear governance, trade, humanitarian assistance, environment, development assistance, health and so on. In that league, it is important to specifically determine where exactly do the Quad stand and what is its relevance in the current times?
An expanded mandate of Quad 2.0 would mean losing focus on the most important issue at hand – maritime security and defence, at the cost of entertaining other issues. The Quad deals with issues of common interest of all of its members that are systemically ‘democracies’ and this explains why China cannot be part of it.
With ‘security’ being ‘one of the many issues’ the Quad undertakes lately, the grouping still has to clear ambiguities surrounding its bottom-line raison d’être and there is still scope for redefining its purpose and central focus into a few limited themes by prioritising a sustainable and positive balance of power in the region above everything else, and I remain optimistic in this regard, particularly as the White House welcomes the prime ministers of India, Japan and Australia, this week.