The right angle of the Quadrilateral

Author: Mason Richey, HUFS

The leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and India met virtually on 12 March in their strategic mini-lateral grouping known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. This was an inaugural leader-level summit for the grouping, following its upgrade to a stand-alone ministerial-level meeting in 2020.

Contrary to expectations that the Quad might continue as an Indo-Pacific ‘talk shop’, the Joint Statement after the summit envisions deliverables over the short- to medium-term. Two initiatives are notable. First, the Quad has devised a division of labour for developing, financing, manufacturing and distributing one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses for Southeast Asia. Second, the Quad is establishing resilient rare-earth metal supply chains. Less concretely, it envisions working groups on climate and emerging technology. Presumably the Quad will also continue Malabar combined naval exercises, which Australia joined in 2020 for the first time in 13 years.

Sensible though these collaborations are, the Quad is nevertheless weakened by two problems. The first is conceptual and strategic incoherence vis-a-vis China. The second is a lack of deep security cooperation among the Quad’s non-US members. Interestingly, improving the latter could help mitigate the former.

The obvious problem is that the Quad’s grand design — strengthening the ‘rules-based order’ of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) — is underdetermined with respect to matching means to ends. The crux of the difficulty is that the Quad’s nebulous, gauzy strategic mission obscures what general consensus believes is the actual objective of the grouping for the United States — countering China. Whether Japanese, Australian, and Indian leaders share that assessment is irrelevant to this perception of the role of the Quad. The perception matters and is baked into the Quad cake. The ostensible ambition to counter or contain China in the Indo-Pacific is outstripped by the Quad’s inability to do so, a state of affairs rooted in both China’s regional economic weight and its growing military capabilities. The Quad also does not acknowledge anti-China strategic objectives despite consensus belief to the contrary. More pointedly, China itself views the Quad as a direct challenge to its regional ambitions.

The Joint Statement’s headline initiatives — COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution, and rare-earth metal supply chain diversification — both signal pushback against elements of Chinese global and regional power (such as Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy and geo-economic use of raw materials). The Quad’s reference to ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ values and maritime security, with four-party Malabar naval exercises lurking in the background, confronts maritime revisionism and underlines the point that the Quad is seemingly directed toward China, despite the rhetoric of the Joint Statement and official denial.

China has never hidden distrust of the Quad. The dialogue’s first iteration sputtered out in 2007 after China pressured the four parties prior to meetings and naval exercises, convincing Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to withdraw. Quad 2.0 was revived in 2017 under the Trump administration as a clear demarcation in a great power competition between Washington and Beijing. China views the Biden administration as continuing this Trumpian anti-China spirit.

Doubtless there is bad faith in Beijing. There is likely no reasonable step the Quad could take to allay Beijing’s professed anxiety about encirclement. But that is, nonetheless, the crux of the problem of the Quad’s incoherence. Either the Quad is directed against China but lacks the means to accomplish its objectives, or the Biden administration has convinced itself that the Quad really is not about China, yet will not get credit for it.

Beijing is convinced of the former, but the Quad’s origins were far from anti-China. It originally sprung out of the Tsunami Core Group formed by the United States, Japan, Australia and India to coordinate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This origin story leads to two observations relevant for the present.

First, the Quad is most likely to succeed as a mini-lateral group addressing functional security domains — human, cyber, environmental, counterterrorism — rather than diffuse strategic concerns, which are better served by regional alliances. The Quad’s COVID-19 vaccine initiative is a model in this regard. Focusing…

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