The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the “Quad”—became an official event on 25 May 2007 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. The interlocutors were a few rungs below the senior-most diplomats.1 But it had originated informally two and a half years before, when Australia, Japan, India, and the United States rallied to coordinate humanitarian assistance in the wake of the 26 December 2004 tsunami that affected the Indian Ocean littoral from western Australia to the Horn of Africa. This quartet was sometimes referred to as the Tsunami Core Group.
Apart from the several multinational and multiorganizational initiatives that followed that terrible disaster, there perhaps were three quieter outcomes and one sobering dampener. First was the germination of the idea that there could be a “concert” of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. Second, at least three of the four countries were becoming more conscious of some commonality in their longer term concerns about China, with Australia alone hesitant to voice them.2 Third, a maritime-naval leading edge to this group quickly became the most workable means of progress.
The dampener was China’s importance as a major trading partner for each government combined with the difficulties of political congruence within this “concert.” The difficulties of finding any satisfactory balance between prosperity and security seemed to increase over the ensuing decade.
By 2007, militaries, scholars, analysts, and occasionally even some senior government officials within the four countries were increasingly raising concerns about China. After the May 2007 meeting in Manila—the Quad’s debut, so to speak—two important developments took place. The first was the second edition of the bilateral Indo-U.S. exercise Malabar in the same year. It included Japan and Australia as well as Singapore. Three aircraft carriers and numerous other units participated. Malabar was not, of course, presented as an anti-China exercise or even a Quad event.3
Second, China’s response demonstrated the “change in behavior” it could employ to prevent a coalition from forming. With the formation of the Rudd government early in 2008, Canberra bowed to Beijing’s pressure and went silent about the Quad, as well as plans for further participation in Malabar. Australia’s backing off did not go down well with New Delhi, although India has also kowtowed sometimes in the face of Chinese strong-arming.4 As one scholar put it, because of Australian and Indian worries, “Quad 1.0 ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.”5 It would take almost a decade, in autumn 2017, before the Quad would begin to come out of its coma.
Concerns with Chinese Characteristics
Appeasement has not worked. It is a lesson history demonstrates periodically—part of Pericles’ “grand strategy” in 432 BCE warned against appeasing Sparta.6 China’s growth is only the latest example of failed appeasement. Indeed, over the years China’s influence, power, interests, and involvement in the larger Indo-Africa-Pacific region have grown in such ways as to create worries not only for the Quad but for several countries in the region. In a seaman’s terms, Beijing’s “PIM” (plan of intended movements) creates more anxiety than assurance. China’s adroit moves in the South China Sea, beginning with the annexation of the Paracels in 1974, mark the start of its attempts to enforce territorial claims on the basis of the so-called nine-dash line. Following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 rejection of the those claims, China now appears to be shifting toward the “Four-Sha” (the four “sands”) approach, pinning sovereignty claims for the South China Sea on its claims of ownership of the Pratas, Paracel, and Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank.7
While recognizing that a great power’s growing influence, economic strength, diplomatic heft, and military capabilities will not always be welcomed by other great or middle powers, even smaller nations now more clearly perceive China’s “unfriendliness of purpose”—words George Kennan used to describe the Soviet Union but equally applicable here. Each member of the Quad has significant, undoubted economic interdependence with China. Consequently, all four—but especially Australia, Japan, and the United States—have to handle more serious contradictions of security and prosperity (or “Flag and Trade”) than does India.
On the other hand, while India may not be as linked to Chinese energy, commodities demand, manufacturing, investments, and markets, it has serious continental and maritime concerns about security—not only China’s territorial claims, but also its maritime power, places, and bases in the Indian Ocean region. Significant increases in Chinese belligerence in May this year and subsequent violent clashes in mid-June in Ladakh, along the Himalayan border, resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and possibly more Chinese.
Japan has to contend with Chinese claims to the Senkaku islands. In recent years, it also has had to counter regular Chinese provocations in the seas and airspace around and over the islands. Japan would be most affected if China ends up annexing Taiwan—other than Taiwan itself, that is.
Australia has no direct rub with China but has been deeply worried about how much influence China is alleged to have acquired in its politics, academia, media, and economic life. Sino-American points of friction are principally akin to Australia’s misgivings about the degree of security traded for prosperity, but there are more. China is a clear challenger to the United States’ preeminence in the western Pacific and seeks to undermine the trust U.S. treaty partners might have. In the near term, China aims to be a peer military power with multi-continental sway. It may acquire more friends.
Other U.S. concerns revolve around trade deficits, intellectual property, and espionage. In fact, as Brookings Institution fellow Tanvi Madan has noted, “Economic ties with China that some expected would alleviate friction have actually added to it.”8 Thus, while there are some shared politico-economic concerns among Quad members, the deeper issues that concern India or Japan might not worry the United States or Australia to the extent Delhi or Tokyo might hope. Similarly, the positions that each has taken regarding the Belt and Road Initiative or on some Chinese investments differ and may continue to do so.
Yet, through all this, security concerns have begun to dominate, and their Chinese characteristics are now clearer than they have ever been, in no small measure because the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, as well as China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy and renewed belligerence with several neighbors. Not surprisingly, since 2017, “Quad 2.0” seems to be getting new life.
Chinese leaders have adopted the popular expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” China’s prosperity indeed has benefited several countries, including some that now have apprehensions over the way in which the Belt and Road Initiative investments might eventually pan out. Others—such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—are seeing their maritime-territorial tensions grow. The first two are adopting more vocal and robust national measures and also considering a more coalitional approach to countering Chinese moves.9
About China, Not Against It
What strategies might work? Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has recommended a clearer approach to goals of strategy, adding for good measure, “Life is complex; get used to it.” He asks if the response should be “to isolate China, to contain China, or to change Chinese behavior?” Should the goal be “moderating Chinese behavior . . . while accommodating its legitimate interests where we can”?10 The Quad could be a catalyst in a few ways that might moderate Beijing’s behavior. However, the current understanding and framework of the Quad would need to change in some ways. It is good, therefore, that Quad talks graduated to foreign ministers’ level on the periphery of the annual U.N. convention on 26 September 2019. But there was no joint communiqué, and even individual nations’ statements continued to tread lightly around mentioning China at all. If the Quad is to be more than a phrase, if it is to contribute to strategies for changing China’s behavior, then the talk has to reflect this objective.11
Quad to Squad
While it might seem provocative, the hard power of the Quad members could be the primary factor that moderates Chinese behavior. Military (not just naval) interoperability that includes land, air, space, and cyber domains would be not only helpful, but necessary. Maritime interoperability is increasing, thanks to bilateral and trilateral exercises and arrangements, but considering China’s growing multidomain capabilities and cohesion, old thinking on limited interoperability is suboptimal. The necessary degree of interoperability could be achieved without a formal alliance, but it will be challenging to achieve this without formal treaties and excessively intrusive enabling agreements.
Second, current conceptualizations of the Quad, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, and even the nature of the region itself skew thinking toward seeing the problems as primarily maritime ones with essentially naval solutions. In truth, the issues and conflicts are no more about the hyphenated oceans per se than the Cold War and NATO were about the North Atlantic. The Quad would amount to something if it were to be seen as a group that marches in a step that is neither lock-step nor shuffle. Over time, it could morph into an economic conglomeration that would provide the kind of mutual benefits, intermeshing, and efficiencies that China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers with its deep pockets—but with a different set of rules.12 This is another area where democracies have more appeal, especially if we define democracy broadly, even if it was the United States that decided, ironically, to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
A rethink is required. Just as China wants others to join the Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, the Quad would need to either accommodate itself within a parallel trading block or make its own initiatives work better to raise several boats together. The question is which would better ensure improvement in Chinese behavior.
Quad to Quad-Plus
There are some disadvantages in limiting the “concert” to the four founding players. First, quite a few democracies within the Indo-Afro-Asia-Pacific region are concerned about China even while having good relations with it. So, a wider interpretation of the Quad that is more inclusive—and not necessarily limited to the broadly representative form of democracy embraced by the original foursome—would help coalesce pressure on Beijing. Indonesia is a large, vibrant, and stable democracy that could be part of the group someday. So could Vietnam, which—while a one-party state—has a good relationship with Quad members, especially an old and deep friendship with India. Even if it might seem unlikely in Washington, Russia could one day gravitate toward a Quad (by whatever name) because the fundamentals of the Moscow-Beijing bonhomie are weak. This is something to think about even if, as Graham Allison puts it, “the quality of cooperation between China and Russia has surpassed that of the U.S. and India.”13 In fact, India’s old friendship with Russia and its growing linkages with ASEAN members add leverage for other Quad states. It would be shortsighted of Washington to see it in any other way, especially through the narrow, transactional lenses of arms purchases.14
Cooperation, Coherence, and Multidomain Competence
Diplomatic, informational, economic, and military lines of strategic cooperation and coherence would enable the Quad, therefore, to move like a squad. While it need not be against China, it should certainly be about China until things change for the better. The Quad’s objective should be, at root, to contribute to moderating Chinese behavior. That is both the challenge and the potential appeal of expansion to Quad-Plus by becoming more inclusive of others’ concerns. It could progress further on the maritime canvas through transformation of the trilateral Malabar exercise to a Quad-Plus activity while enhancing multidomain interoperability as well. The Quad has a maritime bias, but it cannot afford to remain content with a maritime focus. It needs to work on multidomain military competence.
A quad with a bashful, softer, and meandering road map could end up “as an empty gesture masquerading as policy.”15 Encouraging, resourcing, securing, and maintaining effective levels of cooperation in a Quad-plus grouping may not be easy but are very necessary. Mustering the full range of diplomatic, economic, and military resources may be something for the Quad to work on as it grows. The four nations have moved on from talk to walk; they must now transform from “Quad” to “Squad.” Thus far, China has been quite successful in getting nations to change their behavior. It is time to return the favor.
1. Brahma Chellaney, “‘Quad Initiative’: An Inharmonious Concert of Democracies,” The Japan Times, 19 July 2007.
2. RADM Sudarshan Shrikhande, IN (Ret.), “Has Combining Flag and Trade Served Canberra Well?” ASPI, The Strategist, 11 October 2019.
3. Vinay Garg, ”Exercise Malabar—2007: A Major Step Towards Finetuning Maritime Capabilities,” Sainik Samachar, 15 September 2007.
4. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “It’s Not China, It’s You, India Seems to Tell Spurned Aussies,” Foreign Policy, 5 June 2017.
5. Tanvi Madan, ”The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Quad,” War on the Rocks, 16 November 2017, warontherocks.com/2017/11/rise-fall-rebirth-quad/.
6. Robert B. Strassler ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 1.140, 81.
7. Julian Ku and Chris Mirasola, “The South China Sea and China’s ‘Four-Sha’ Claim: New Legal Theory, Same Bad Arguments,” Lawfare, 25 September 2017.
8. Madan, “The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Quad.”
9. Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “High Level Dialogue: Indonesia Joins Ranks with India for an Inclusive Indo-Pacific Region,” Economic Times, 20 March 2019.
10. Shivshankar Menon, “The Case for Allies: Coordinating a Response to China,” in Leah Bitounis and Jonathon Price, eds., The Struggle for Power: U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute, 2020), 61–63.
11. “Quad’s 1st Ministerial Meeting Significant Elevation of Level,” Economic Times, 27 September 2019.
12. Kurt Campbell, “How Asia Navigates the U.S.-China Rivalry,” in Bitounis and Price, The Struggle for Power, 70.
13. Graham Allison, “U.S.-China Strategic Competition: Clues from History,” in Bitounis and Price, The Struggle for Power, 87.
14. Menon, “The Case for Allies,” 64–65.
15. Hugh White quoted in H. D. P. Envall, “The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: Towards an Indo-Pacific Order,” RSIS Policy Report, September 2019, 8.