In November 2017, senior officials of the United States, Japan, India and Australia met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit meeting in Manila. This was different from many diplomatic meetings of its kind – not so much in substance, but in symbolism. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – colloquially known as “The Quad” – was reborn after a ten-year hiatus.
This renewal of interest in cooperation between the Quad members is largely the result of shifting geopolitical tides in East Asia, particularly the resurgence of China. China’s sustained economic growth has benefitted the region, but has also changed its strategic landscape. Regional concerns over Beijing’s geopolitical motivations, and its maritime activities in the South China Sea, have stoked tensions with some of China’s neighbours. There are also other concerns over the region’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), including maritime piracy, organized crime and natural disasters.
It is important to historically contextualize the revitalization of the Quad. Indeed, it is not a new idea. Its first iteration took form in 2007, when the four parties – at the rank of assistant secretary of states – gathered on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in the Philippines to conduct exploratory discussions on the idea of a quadrilateral security dialogue. The four sides also cooperated in Bay of Bengal later that year to conduct a joint naval exercise – under the rubric of the Malabar Exercises – as a more concrete indication of their cooperation in the maritime security space.
The Quad’s re-emergence in 2017 is again centred on maritime security. India and Japan’s strategic relationship has grown under Abe, who returned to office for the second time in late 2012, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both sides agreed, in their most recent joint statement, to align their two regional strategies: Japan’s Open and Free Indo-Pacific Strategy and India’s Act East Policy. There has also been convergence with the United States and Australia. Australia’s most recent White Paper stresses the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic domain, while most recent US National Security Strategy adopts Japan’s language on the call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The return of the Quad has seen mixed receptions. Some view it as an essential mechanism to promote regional rules and the freedom of navigation. Others have expressed concerned that it is aimed at curtailing China’s role in the region, and wish to balancing these goals alongside the desire to productively engage with China. In order for this iteration of the Quad to be successful, it will need to balance these concerns delicately. In this light, the Quad states should not look to directly combat China’s regional presence, but rather should stand for shared values, norm and laws: such as the freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes through legal means.
In order to achieve tangible results, the Quad should prioritize the cooperation between bureaucracies rather than focus too much on high-level diplomatic engagement. One concrete example of this would be to establish a mid-senior level interagency working group that could focus on maritime capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. This group, which could be a mix of officials from foreign, defense and coast guard ministries, should establish an evergreen database to be shared in real time between the four countries. This database could outline where previous capacity building efforts (for example those related to maritime domain awareness and coast guards) have focused, and – more importantly – look at current efforts alongside future priorities.
This process would streamline maritime security capacity building efforts, and avoid any potential duplication or redundancies. Moreover, each of the four members of the Quad have unique capabilities in helping regional coast guards of littoral states and building maritime domain awareness in the region and also have strong pre-exiting bilateral relationships with states in the region (e.g. Japan with the Philippines; and India with Myanmar). These relationships can be leveraged so that efforts can be more targeted and effective for the respective bureaucracies.
Other potential areas of tangible cooperation included the building and maintenance of infrastructure in the maritime domain, such as ports and harbours; and elevating cooperation between the navies of Australia, India, the United States and Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces. In this respect, India should extend a formal invitation for Australia to join this year’s Malabar naval exercises (where Japan and the US are already permanent fixtures). Australia’s inclusion in Malabar would signal an important elevation of the defense relationship and importance of shared goals in the maritime domain.
The Quad is not a silver bullet for all the security concerns of its members; and should be seen as a mini-lateral complement to other bilateral, mini-lateral and multilateral mechanisms. All sides should look at nurturing this moment and finding the right balance where the quad can be focused and effective, but also not overly adversarial – especially in light of deep concerns and mistrust from China. In order to combat this, its proponents should avoid using the Quad purely in high-level diplomatic terms (through, for example, pushing for frequent Ministerial-level meetings) and rather first place emphasis on tangible achievements that can be done at the working and senior official level.
This blog is part of the Indo-Pacific Insight Series, the Centre's landmark research publication series. To read J. Berkshire Miller's full report titled 'The Quad: Security Cooperation Between the US, Japan, India and Australia', click here.