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The leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia have vowed to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific region at their first in-person summit of the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), amid shared concerns about China. It has been fuelled by consecutive US administration’s policies towards China and aided in no small part by individual tensions between Japan, India and Australia with China. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami, India, Japan, Australia, and the US created an informal alliance to collaborate on disaster relief efforts. Meanwhile, just days before the Quad summit, the US, Australia and the United Kingdom announced a new Indo-Pacific security pact, AUKUS, that included a deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. China has condemned AUKUS, calling it extremely irresponsible and accused the countries of intensifying an arms race in the region. The Quad grouping is also considered as the Asian NATO leading to a new Cold War, with the narrative of military cooperation aimed at China.
In 2007, then PM of Japan, Shinzo Abe, formalised the alliance, as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad. The Quad was supposed to establish an Asian Arc of Democracy but was hampered by a lack of cohesion amongst its members and accusations that the group was nothing more than an anti-China bloc. The early iteration of the Quad, largely based around maritime security, eventually dissipated. In 2017, faced again with the rising threat of China, the four countries revived the Quad, broadening its objectives and creating a mechanism that aimed to slowly establish a rules-based international order. However, despite its lofty ambitions, the Quad is not structured like a typical multilateral organisation and lacks a secretariat and any permanent decision-making body. Instead of creating policy along the lines of the European Union or United Nations, the Quad has focused on expanding existing agreements between member countries and highlighting their shared values.
Although, unlike NATO, the Quad does not include provisions for collective defence, but is eager to conduct joint military exercises as a show of unity and diplomatic cohesion. In 2020, the trilateral India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercises expanded to include Australia, marking the first official grouping of the Quad since its resurgence in 2017 and the first joint military exercises among the four countries in over a decade.
In March 2021, the Quad leaders met virtually and later released a joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’ which outlined the group’s approach and objectives. According to the Spirit of the Quad, the group’s primary objectives include maritime security, combating the Covid-19 crisis, especially vis-à-vis vaccine diplomacy, addressing the risks of climate change, creating an ecosystem for investment in the region and boosting technological innovation. Quad members have also indicated a willingness to expand the partnership through a Quad Plus that would include South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam amongst others. According to Quad countries, they are striving to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes and that all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion. However, despite the Quad’s seeming commitment to a broad range of issues, its raison d’etre is still considered to be a threat to China.
China sees the existence of the Quad as part of a larger strategy to encircle China. Each of the Quad’s member states has its own reasons to fear the rise of China and curbing Beijing’s regional advances is in all of their national interests by China’s actions in the South China Sea and its attempts to extend its sphere of influence through initiatives such as the One Belt One Road Project. The US has long been concerned about the global competition with China and successive US presidents have maintained that China aims to subvert the international rules-based order. Japan and Australia are likewise both concerned about China’s expanding presence in the South and East China Seas. For Australia in particular, relations with Beijing are at a considerable low after Australia passed foreign interference laws in 2018 which China responded to by restricting trade to Australia. As the only Quad country to share a land border with China, India is also suitably wary of Beijing but also reluctant to allow tensions to spill over.
However, although the Quad is perceived to be anti-China, there is the possibility of direct reference to China or military security, and it is expected that the Quad will be a military alliance in future, instead focus on its economic and technological influence. The Quad’s decision to establish working groups on vaccine development and critical technologies can then be viewed as an attempt to constrain China but more importantly, to create a democratic, inclusive blueprint that will encourage other states to work with the Quad. Meanwhile, Japan and Australia have shown more willingness to take an explicit stand against China in the region, even with Beijing representing Tokyo’s second-largest trading partner and Canberra’s largest. The statement did not mention China or its rising influence in the region, as the country grows more assertive in the much-contested South China Sea and East China Sea, and regularly patrols the waters there. China has an ambitious Belt and Road initiative designed to expand on China’s global influence by building out rail and maritime trade routes connecting the country with central Asia, Europe and Africa.
The island of Taiwan was also not mentioned in the Joint Statement from Quad Leaders, due to the four Quad countries’ dispute over whether the bloc should be used as a tool to deal with the Taiwan question. The dispute appears deep despite Washington’s wishes to make the Taiwan question a topic of the Quad, which reflects the reality that the four countries have their own calculations. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authority in Taiwan is trying to make the US and its minions a backstop to seek secession. But to the US, the island ruled by DPP serves only as a tool for the US to confront China.
It’s very clear that the four countries’ actions are different, coordination in diplomacy and security spheres will be included for Quad members to support each other in major international occasions over vital topics. They may enhance the Quad mechanism through joint military exercises, they will not stop hyping up the China threat theory. From this perspective, the Quad is a mechanism born for the sake of finding faults, especially with China. It mainly serves the US’ approach to reshape the Indo-Pacific order and consolidate America First in the region. Therefore, all Quad moves will echo the US’ strategic needs. So, if the four countries bluntly suggest the bloc as a mechanism for creating regional division and confrontation, all other regional countries will reject it. As the four countries still don’t have a consensus on defining the Quad, the bloc has a problem in sustaining itself. In any way, Washington wants to use the Quad as a core mechanism to deal with China. But here comes a dilemma: When economic needs and strategic needs conflict, some countries often sacrifice economic needs for strategic needs. But in today’s world, economic and strategic needs overlap. This means relevant choices are difficult for many to make.
The US is losing its dignity as a major power and is becoming prettier in terms of diplomacy. The US wishes to use the bloc to gain more support in the name of multilateralism against China, but the story won’t go as the US wishes. The more US upholds the Quad, the more countries will see through the essence of the bloc – which is a pure creator of crisis, confrontation, chaos, and antagonism. Thus, the US goal to legitimise its campaign will be resisted by more and more countries.