Author: Sourabh Gupta, ICAS
In the 14 months since its first leader-level summit, the Quad has gone from being a shiny object of tantalising potential to a used spare tire of questionable worth.
The Quad’s anti-China maritime deterrence function was usurped by the AUKUS trilateral partnership in September 2021. New Delhi’s pro-Moscow tilt in the Ukraine conflict has soiled the grouping’s democracy versus autocracy framing. And the Quad’s geoeconomics and ‘China-minus’ supply chain functions are about to be cannibalised by the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — due to be unveiled a day prior to the forthcoming Tokyo Quad summit.
Since 2017, the Quad has aspired to a more structured identity that retains its original purpose as an ad hoc coordinating mechanism, composed of democracies, built around a functional agenda of four-way mutual interest that confers significant public goods to the wider region. It also seeks to be defined as much by what it is — a ‘partnership of like-minded democracies’ that promotes an ‘Indo-Pacific free of coercion, intimidation and economic retaliation’ — as much as by what it is not — ‘a security alliance, an Asian NATO or a formal institution’.
Doubling down on an activity based model where the ‘four democracies form the core of a rotating set of problem solving coalitions in the Indo-Pacific’ appears to be the chosen path. Presumably, China is to be excluded from these coalitions despite being willing and able to effectively problem solve, as was the case in December 2004 when it sought but was denied entry to the core group.
The Quad faces a number of headwinds going forward. It lacks a ‘serious economic component, relies conceptually on an ambivalent India, and looks like China containment to many Asian leaders’.
At a time when Beijing is doubling its commitment and centrality within the Indo-Pacific’s economic networks, Washington and New Delhi are exiting rather than embracing conventional regional trade arrangements. A four-cornered subscription to a ‘gold standard’ agreement featuring Australian resource flows, Japanese design inputs, Indian manufacturing and US consumption would create quadrilateral co-dependencies that no amount of ‘ad hoc bodies’ to implement ‘managed decoupling’ can replicate. The Quad’s floundering vaccine partnership is also a cautionary harbinger.
India is the Quad’s indispensable but weakest link. New Delhi makes for an awkward fit with the grouping’s philosophy and purpose. It is marginally attached to Asian regional economic networks, has never deemed Wilsonianism to be an organising principle of strategic stability in Asia and is swayed by the currents of its relationship with China. It also obtains little comfort from its Quad partners on its most pressing security challenge — the Himalayan frontier.
Most importantly, the Quad is premised on a design framework that erroneously posits the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic ‘system’. The region is a compendium of two systems — an Asia Pacific system and an Indian Ocean system — that have historically operated in isolation, blending at their point of intersection in Southeast Asia. These two systems feature localised equilibriums with highly differentiated security interests among their bookend states, Japan and India. The Senkaku Islands dispute or Australia’s strategic interests in the Pacific islands are as remote to New Delhi as the shifting Ladakh Himalayan control line is to Tokyo or Canberra.
The United States, Japan, Australia and India would be better off operationally deepening the ‘three plus two’ foundation — United States, Australia and Japan in the western Pacific plus United States and India in the Indian Ocean region — on which their four-cornered aspirations are hinged.
Washington has already institutionalised the trilateral networked structure of its Pacific alliances with Tokyo and Canberra over the past decade, anchored by the US–Japan alliance. Washington’s bilateral defence partnership with India has also witnessed unmistakable deepening. Three foundational defence framework agreements have been signed, dedicated hotlines established, eligibility for transfers of high-end technologies regularised, and increasingly sophisticated navy-to-navy exercises and command-to-command exchanges institutionalised.
This ‘three plus two’ configuration is in tune with the strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific, given that the island chain contour in the western Pacific is as conducive to joint contingency planning as the open ocean and lack of fixed target acquisition in the Indian Ocean is not. Washington, Tokyo and Canberra have growing reasons to maintain federated war fighting capabilities to countervail Beijing in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Washington and New Delhi face the more limited requirement of developing ingrained habits of interoperable C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) cooperation to dissuade Beijing from mounting a naval challenge in the Indian Ocean.
This configuration also avoids the overtones of encirclement and is less likely to invite Beijing’s retributive pressure on its constituent members.
The Quad is not about to dissipate as its critics claim. It provides a useful forum for their leaders to arrive at, admittedly lowest common denominator, collective approaches towards China and fosters habits of strategic interoperability among its ‘three plus two’ building blocks. But the Quad’s aspiration to cobble together a broader Asian coalition that could swing the collective balance of power against China will remain an exercise in futility. And its economic foundation is more-or-less crumbling into dust.
Sourabh Gupta is a resident senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, Washington