Deciphering Quad’s expanding agenda in the Indo-Pacific

Here, I try to throw light on Quad’s expanding regional agenda and where it is headed to.

The third in-person Quad summit took place in Japan’s Hiroshima, the rendezvous of this year’s G7 summit. Following each annual summit, regional observers eagerly look forward to big announcements from the four-nation grouping, via its joint statements. The Hiroshima statement mentions, “Harnessing our collective strengths and resources, we are supporting the region’s development, stability, and prosperity through the Quad’s positive, practical agenda. Our work is guided by regional countries’ priorities and responds to the region’s needs.”

Every Quad summit since 2021 had seen new initiatives or collaborative ventures being announced that are further carried ahead in the subsequent years. At the same time, Quad has also supported the leadership role of regional institutions of the broader Indo-Pacific region such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The grouping also welcomed the Indo-Pacific vision statements of these organisations and also of extra-regional countries and organisations like the European Union (EU).

An oft-repeated sentence in all Quad joint statements is “the promotion of free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific with respect for a rules-based order and international law”, which hints that the grouping has a “balancing character” against coercive behaviour by any regional power. However, the tangible areas of cooperation of the grouping had kept hard security at bay, until recently.

Even though the Quad is not a collective security alliance, the meeting of military chiefs of the four Quad nations in California, United States, earlier this month, in a clear indication of enhanced security cooperation with apparently China in mind. Moreover, they have participated in the Malabar naval exercise four times – in 2007, 2020, 2021 and 2022. Later this year, Australia will host the 2023 edition of Malabar naval exercise. Meanwhile, Quad’s Maritime Security Working Group held its first meeting in Washington earlier this year.

Hiroshima 2023

The Hiroshima joint statement further goes on to mention, “We seek a region where no country dominates and no country is dominated – one where all countries are free from coercion, and can exercise their agency to determine their futures. Our four countries are united by this shared vision.” However, this vision has its limitations as long as Quad exists short of an alliance. At the same time, the grouping has charted for itself a wide-ranging area of mutual cooperation.

A new ‘Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience’ was launched in Hiroshima, recognising the urgent need to support quality undersea cable networks in the Indo-Pacific. The leaders, via the joint statement, also announced a ‘Clean Energy Supply Chains’ initiative and its allied set of principles for accelerating the region’s clean energy transition along with a fellowship scheme to boost infrastructure expertise across the region.

The Quad has agreed on a set of principles to augment cybersecurity in the Indo-Pacific along with a new Space Working Group to explore avenues to deliver Earth Observation data and other space-related applications to assist nations across the region to strengthen climate early warning systems and better manage the impacts of extreme weather events. The existing Vaccine Partnership has been elevated to a broader Health Security Partnership.

In a first in the Pacific, the Quad has agreed to join hands with the island nation of Palau to establish Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN), with the aim of expanding and modernising telecommunications networks in the crucial subregion. A private sector-led Quad Investors Network (QUIN) is also launched to facilitate investments in strategic technologies such as clean energy, semiconductors, critical minerals, and quantum computing.

The first Quad summit

Two years ago, the White House became the venue for the first in-person Quad leaders’ summit. In fact, there was one more summit-level meeting that year, in March, but in virtual mode. The joint statement following the March 2021 virtual summit was titled “Spirit of the Quad”. It saw the initiation of three key working groups – on vaccine distribution, on climate change, and on critical & emerging technologies – the earliest areas of cooperation since the grouping was elevated to the apex level.

Other than the initiation of the aforementioned working groups, the leaders also pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of Covid-19 and address shared challenges in the cyber space, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment and HADR…” Moreover, the March 2021 summit specifically took cognizance of issues such as the role of international law in the maritime domain, challenges to rules-based order in the East and South China Seas, de-nuclearization of North Korea and the need for restoring democracy in junta-ruling Myanmar.

In September 2021, in their first in-person deliberations, Quad leaders extensively looked into how vaccine distribution progressed since their first virtual meeting six months ago and what more can be done in this regard by making use of each other’s comparative advantages and strengths. The leaders also launched the ‘Quad Principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use’ to guide responsible innovation, a fellowship scheme for science and technology students from Quad nations, and has enhanced partnership in the fields of infrastructure, cybersecurity, outer space and humanitarian support to Afghanistan.

Tokyo 2022

March 2022 saw an emergency virtual meeting by Quad leaders in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Two months later, in May, they met in person in Tokyo and called for demonstrating that Quad is “a force for good, committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region”. In this regard, they launched a new partnership for maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific (IPMDA) to work with regional partners in combating illegal fishing and responding to disasters by making use of information fusion centres in the Indo-Pacific sub-regions of the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands and by providing near-real-time, integrated and cost-effective data to maritime agencies in these sub-regions.

Tokyo also saw the announcement of a new HADR partnership to further strengthen collaboration in effectively responding to disasters in the region. A new working group on counterterrorism was announced during the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in March 2023 in New Delhi, India. The next summit was scheduled to be held in Sydney, Australia. But the U.S. President’s inability to attend the summit led to its cancellation and instead the four leaders met in Hiroshima on the sidelines of the G7 summit. Japan, thus, got to host two Quad summits in a row. In 2024, it will be India’s turn to host the leaders’ summit.

All Quad countries, along with several other regional countries, chose to participate in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) launched in Tokyo, just ahead of the 2022 Quad summit. This gives Washington an expanded economic footprint in the region at a time when Chinese economic engagement with regional actors is increasing steadily and progressively. 2022 also saw the launch of the ‘Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package’ (Q-CHAMP) and the ‘Quad Clean Hydrogen Partnership’.

A partnership that predates its name itself

In fact, cooperation among the United States, India, Australia and Japan predates the idea of the Quad itself. Nearly two decades ago, when the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean, the four nations came together to coordinate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations by forming a ‘Tsunami Core Group’ and acted 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.

So, even before the idea of Quad as such took shape, the four-nation grouping had its first item in its agenda – HADR. The phrase “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QSD), predecessor of the present-day Quad, and the maritime construct of “Indo-Pacific” made its entry into the politico-diplomatic lexicon only three years later, led by the persuasive leadership of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. The first QSD was held in May 2007 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, only to get disbanded the following year due to Australia’s withdrawal and differences on what the grouping’s aims and objectives should be in the years ahead.

Australia backed off primarily due to the diplomatic pressure and the prospect of a promising economic relationship with a rising China. Together with unfavourable regime changes in Canberra and Tokyo in the end of 2007, the Quad remained in a dormant state for about a decade from 2008 to 2017. The fact that China successfully managed to persuade Australia to come out of the Quad just a year after its formation says a lot about Beijing’s negative perceptions of the grouping, or to be precise the perception of it as a U.S.-led attempt to build an “Asian NATO” to contain its rise.

The grouping was given a new life in 2017 when the Donald Trump Administration in the United States (January 2017 to January 2021) took a special interest in reviving it by initiating a working group for ‘consultations on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region’. From November 2017 to March 2021, senior officials from the four Quad nations met seven times and the foreign ministers met thrice, one each in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively.

The grouping was finally upgraded to the summit-level in 2021 and then it was followed by in-person summits in 2021, 2022 and 2023, while the foreign ministers continue to meet annually as a precursor to the summits. Today, there is a greater convergence of interests between the Quad partners, which is unlikely to shrink any time soon. The disruptive nature of China’s rise has been a constant factor that has influenced, and is influencing, agenda-setting within the grouping, particularly as a “balance of power” mechanism.

Today, the broad range of areas where the Quad countries cooperate on, as mentioned earlier, happen to be arenas of wider strategic competition with Beijing, even though they don’t wish to acknowledge it explicitly. Taking into account the current trajectory of conflictual nature of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific, these areas of cooperation and arenas of competition are poised to expand further and further with time. However, what needs to be seen in the years to come is the extent to which Quad dares to tread when it comes to the realm of hard security outside of a formal alliance.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.