The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the ‘Quad’

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Ten years ago, an American, an Australian, an Indian, and a Japanese walked into a room in Manila. This was no joke. They were representing their governments at a quadrilateral meeting also known as “the Quad.” The initiative, meant to facilitate conversation and cooperation between the four maritime democracies in the context of the rise of China and India, lasted from mid-2006 to early 2008. Since it fell apart, analysts have perhaps spent more time discussing it than the officials did in implementing it.

Now, the Quad has been revived. A decade after that first exploratory meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum summit in the Philippines in May 2007, officials from the four countries met there once again ahead of the East Asia Summit earlier this month. This revival will only be sustainable if it is not just a signal, but has substance. That will entail exchanging views on the strategic and economic landscape in the region, and practical cooperation. Moreover, the reunion will only last if the countries learn some lessons from its past failure. These include establishing suitable membership, tempo and agenda, explaining to internal and external audiences what the quadrilateral is and is not, and preparing for pushback from China.

Quad 1.0: The Origins

The Quad has taken on mythic proportions since it ended, considered an “appealing” or taboo element of any Asia strategy, depending on one’s perspective. Sen. John Kerry once asked, given all the other forms of cooperation before the four countries, why the Quad “stood out” and was such a “thorn” to Beijing. A Defense Department official wondered last year about the “obsession with [re-]launching a big capital Q quad.” It’s come up in congressional hearings, official speeches and think tank events, and even political scorecards. It has variously been described as a U.S.-led project, an alliance, an axis of democracies, a security diamond, or a way to contain China. In fact, those labels, by giving the Quad a more expansive character than ever existed or was ever intended, helped kill the initiative and prevent a revival.

Thus, it’s important to put in perspective what it was and what it wasn’t. There were two elements that are sometimes conflated: a diplomatic one and a maritime one. The former involved the quadrilateral discussion in spring 2007; the latter was a naval exercise in fall of that year, which didn’t just include the Quad but also Singapore (which, to use Ian Hall’s term, actually made it the Squad).

The quadrilateral dialogue had an antecedent — the Tsunami Core Group in 2004-05, through which officials from the four countries coordinated the response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. They came together, as the U.S. lead said, because they “were the ones with the resources and the desire to act effectively and quickly.” The group was seen as a model for ad hoc collaboration by multiple countries, but quadrilateral engagement itself paused after it was disbanded. The concept of a concert of democracies did subsequently make the rounds in Washington, but it was more expansive in how it envisioned both purpose and membership. Then, in 2006, Japanese prime ministerial candidate Shinzo Abe made a more limited but focused case for a values-based foreign policy and closer ties with Australia and India. Once Abe won the election, his foreign minister Taro Aso reiterated this call in a speech laying out the new government’s foreign policy.

The next few months saw a flurry of activity. In December 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan. In a joint statement, he and Abe noted “the usefulness of having dialogue among India, Japan and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific region on themes of mutual interest.” Then, reports emerged that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, despite hesitation in some quarters in the Bush administration, endorsed the idea of a quadrilateral involving Australia, Japan, the United States, and India — in addition to the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue that the first three had started in 2002. He discussed it with Prime Minister John Howard on a visit to Australia in February 2007. When Howard visited Tokyo the next month, he and Abe highlighted the four countries’ shared democratic values. A few days later, the Indian foreign minister visited Japan, and then, in April, Aso traveled to India and Abe to Washington.

Then, in May, the first — and only — exploratory quadrilateral meeting took place. The Australian participant later described it as an “informal meeting … to look at issues of common interest” (like disaster relief) involving countries that “share some values and growing cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.” There was no formal agenda and no decision about a subsequent meeting. However, there was an expectation that the countries would meet again.

The meeting might have been exploratory, but observers thought it was or could be much more. Australian members of parliament asked if this was a security arrangement, an alliance, or an expansion of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. Indian lawmakers wanted more details on this “four-cornered dialogue.” Advocates and critics suggested it was an “Asian NATO” to constrain China.

Beijing’s extremely negative reaction reflected the idea’s significance, and in fact enhanced the attention the Quad received. Even ahead of the meeting, China officially protested, asking each of the participants about its objective. When Chinese President Hu Jintao brought it up with Singh in June, according to The Hindustan Times, the Indian prime minister told him the group wasn’t “ganging up” on China but simply meeting to “exchange views on development from our experiences as democracies.” The Indian foreign minister and other officials reiterated that the Quad was not about containment or forming an alliance, but rather exchanging views and it was reflecting “a balancing approach to foreign policy.”

There was still momentum behind the Quad. When Abe visited India in August, he didn’t explicitly mention it, but told the Indian parliament, “the Confluence of the Two Seas is coming into being.” He spoke of a “broader Asia” that would also incorporate Australia and the United States. The quadrilateral found more explicit mention in the United States that fall, when presidential candidate Sen. John McCain wrote that he would “institutionalize” the Quad if elected.

More significantly, that September, the maritime quad (plus Singapore) exercise took place. It was an expanded version of the annual U.S.-India Malabar exercise. In 2007, two editions of Malabar were held: a bilateral one in April off the coast of Okinawa, which brought Japan in for the first time (Trilateralex), and the multilateral one in the Bay of Bengal in September. Malabar 07-01 was the first held in the Pacific and Malabar 07-02 was the first held off India’s eastern coast. The expanded exercise was the last visible sign of the Quad.

Quad 1.0 ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Signs of hesitation were publicly evident as early as July when Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson visited China. Nelson claimed that he had “reassured China that so-called quadrilateral dialogue with India is not something that we are pursuing.” Subsequently, in India, he reiterated that Australia “doesn’t want to do anything unnecessarily that upsets any other country.” Nelson clarified that Australia might be interested in quadrilateral engagement, but only on peacekeeping and economic issues. Moreover, Canberra did not want to distracte from or duplicate existing trilateral or multilateral arrangements.

In addition to concerns about China, the democratic process also helped put an end to this grouping of democracies. Its key driver — Abe — resigned in September 2007. In India, Singh had to grapple with protests against the maritime exercise, particularly from the communist parties that were providing his government with outside support. These parties were also objecting to the U.S.-India nuclear deal, a much higher priority for both countries. Furthermore, India was particularly sensitive to China’s reaction at the time given its desire for a Nuclear Suppliers’ Group waiver. Then, in November, quadrilateral critic Kevin Rudd became prime minister of Australia. American officials, for their part, had never been as keen about the initiative because of China-related concerns and the potential effect on the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. In December, a senior U.S. official’s response to a question about the quadrilateral reflected the lack of enthusiasm: “Our priority emphasis has been on this trilateral dialogue among the three allies.”

In January 2008, ahead of a visit to China, Singh noted that the initiative “never got going.” The concept was already on life support when Australia officially killed it, without substantial internal review and reportedly unilaterally. At a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart in February, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith asserted that the May meeting had been a “one off” and “Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature” in the future.

To Quad or Not to Quad

In the last few months, the idea of the Quad has returned in official circles and in opinion pages. In the spring, reports emerged that the Australian Defence Force had asked to participate as an observer in the Malabar exercise scheduled for July. The Australian Defence Minister expressed great interest in quadrilateral engagement. India, however, was not ready.

Delhi has been hesitant about reviving the quadrilateral — diplomatic or maritime — for a number of reasons. Concerns about China’s response has been one reason. A second — and significant — factor has been doubts about the other partners’ approach to China, particularly that of Australia. Given the close Sino-Australian relationship, Indian officials have expressed uncertainty about Canberra’s “strategic clarity” with regard to Beijing.

Third, there have been doubts about the utility of a quadrilateral since India already has trilaterals with Japan and the U.S., and Australia and Japan. Delhi had rejected an Australia-India-U.S. trilateral in 2011 — ironically proposed by then-Foreign Minister Rudd. Fourth, there has been a sense that Indian relations with Japan and the U.S. are more advanced and the Australia-India bilateral relationship needed more work.

Delhi’s receptiveness to the Quad has been seen as a litmus test of its seriousness in dealing with Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington — and Beijing. But while the idea has been on ice, in the shadow of China’s rise, India’s relations with all three countries have deepened. There are other cooperative mechanisms in place, including the India-U.S. dialogue on Asia (2010), the India-Japan-U.S. trilateral (2011) now at the ministerial level (2015), the Australia-India-Japan trilateral (2015), and the regular inclusion of Japan in Malabar (2017). In fact, lost in the lamentation about India excluding Australia from Malabar was how much Australia-India defense cooperation has actually progressed over the last few years. An Ausindex naval exercise took place in 2015 and a special forces exercise in 2016. During Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to India in April, the two countries announced a second Ausindex, another special forces exercise, and the start of an army exercise. Significantly, the two countries agreed to start a 2+2 dialogue at the defence and foreign secretaries’ level. India has only had such dialogues with Japan (at the same level) and now with the United States. (to be held at the ministerial level).

While India is usually portrayed as the holdout — and recently it has been the most prominent one — objections have come from other quarters as well. The potential impact on Sino-Australian relations continues to make some in Australia nervous. Beijing’s reaction has factored into some American caution as well, as has the preference for a trilateral format.

Getting the Band Back Together

Nonetheless, the governments have recently been thinking about, as an Australian official put it, getting “the band back together.” In a speech on Oct. 18, Tillerson remarked that there was “room to invite others, including Australia” to join U.S.-India-Japan engagement. A senior State Department official envisioned a quadrilateral “anchoring” the Indo-Pacific. On Oct. 25, Kano confirmed that Japan would officially propose a revival, which he’d previously discussed with his American and Australian counterparts. The Indian foreign ministry subsequently confirmed its openness to working with “likeminded countries,” as did Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Over the last two weeks, reports emerged that officials from the four countries would meet in Manila in a session chaired by Japan. The governments emphasized the exploratory nature of this meeting, with an Indian official noting, “[l]et’s see how this plays out.” And, on Nov. 12, they confirmed officials had met for quadrilateral consultations on ensuring greater security and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The readouts differed in emphasis — India, for example, mentioning the inclusive nature of the region, the United States the democratic nature of the partners — but all highlighted shared or converging values.

So, what changed? First, the answer to the question Bob Zoellick asked in 2005: “How will China use its influence?” There are few takers today for former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 2007 response that China would be a “considerate” power. Beijing’s behavior since 2008, whether with regard to territorial and maritime disputes, the South China Sea, the terms and strategic impact of the One Belt, One Road initiative, the lack of reciprocity in economic relations, or the use of economic leverage, has increased concerns. There’s a sense that while Beijing has expected reassurance and wants others to respect its sensitivities and aspirations, it hasn’t returned the favor. And economic ties with China that some expected would alleviate friction have actually added to it.

Second, and relatedly, specific issues in each Quad country have heightened doubts about their relationships with China, as well as its commitment to the rules-based order. To outline a few: In Australia, there’s the subject of Chinese influence in politics and universities. For India, there are face-offs at the border, the effect of One Belt, One Road and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on its strategic landscape, and China blocking its Nuclear Suppliers’ Group membership. For Japan, there is the dispute over the Senkakus and the targeting of Japanese companies. In the United States, there is economic espionage, allegedly sponsored by Chinese government. If Beijing is wondering why the countries feel a quad might be necessary, it might want to look in the mirror.

Third, leaders and officials in the four countries have more advanced habits of cooperation than they did in 2007. There has been more working-level engagement in the foreign and security policy and military spheres. Fourth, India is more active in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, and Japan in the Indian Ocean region. Consequently, they are more embedded in American and Australian strategic thinking about these areas. Finally, the latest discussions about a quadrilateral are framed differently. In 2007, Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington were inviting Delhi to join their discussions. Now, the narrative is of Australia joining the other three. The 2007 iteration was a more awkward fit with a non-ally joining a dialogue between the United States and its allies; the current one might prove to be more feasible.

It is also crucial, however, to keep in mind what has not changed, which could help determine whether the reunion will succeed or fail. The ties with China that engendered caution remain, and have indeed grown. Moreover, each country has a unique relationship with China, in terms of levels of integration or direct involvement in territorial disputes. These differences between the would-be Quad partners contribute to concerns about one another’s reliability, as does uncertainty about their approach to the region and China. In the case of Australia, there are concerns about the continued calls for accommodation with China. Caution about India’s reliability stems from its emphasis on strategic autonomy and lingering hesitation about cooperating with the United States and its allies. Worries about Japan stepping up can be traced to the question of whether its leadership can overcome public preference for a pacifist policy. And with regard to the United States, the others are uncertain about the Trump administration’s approach to the region, and remain concerned about a potential China-U.S. G-2. Finally, there continue to be differences within governments about the value of the quadrilateral.

Hitting the Right Notes

Given these competing currents, there is no guarantee that Quad 2.0 will succeed. But it is more likely to bear fruit if its history is kept in mind.

First, while, to some extent the revival of the Quad is about sending a signal, visibility is not the main objective; working together is. A quadrilateral will be more sustainable if officials and observers don’t make a big deal about it. There is little doubt that China is shaping the environment that is leading the four governments to revisit the Quad, but advocates will do it a disservice by talking about it as a bloc or alliance, particularly an anti-China one. In the past, such framing helped fuel the backlash that led to the Quad’s demise.

Second, governments will have to find a way to balance the imperative for transparency with the possible negative consequences of visibility. Shaping internal and external views of the quadrilateral will be crucial. The lack of information last time, stemming from the initiative’s sensitivity, created a vacuum that others filled. Creating a better understanding of the nature of the Quad can help address sensitivities, manage expectations and give officials time to develop and act on an agenda. It would also be helpful for each government to create domestic support for the initiative that is not partisan in nature.

Third, while there are benefits to the process of engagement itself, a quadrilateral will only succeed if it serves a more substantive purpose. As a former Australian national security advisor put it, the Quad has to be “driven by function rather than form.” Unlike the last time, when it was driven mainly by one country (Japan), the grouping needs to be a collective enterprise with added value for each country involved. There are a number of possible agenda items. For one, the quadrilateral could be a useful platform to share assessments of Chinese capabilities, intentions and actions, and ways of dealing with them. Another is maritime security, given existing cooperation between the countries and the need to ensure freedom of navigation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, energy security, and regional capacity-building. Regional connectivity is another subject of shared interest, including developing more transparent, economically sustainable options than One Belt One Road provides. Cyber-security has been a subject of bilateral discussions between the countries and could benefit from a wider discussion. Counter-terrorism is a possibility too. The four governments could discuss regional issues and cooperate in places where the countries have interests and are active, such as Afghanistan or Southeast Asia. It might be a sensitive subject, but another is the political and economic vulnerability of open democratic systems, and how to increase their resilience, for example, through more effective investment screening processes.

Fourth, to ensure sustained interest amid competing priorities, the Quad participants should emerge from each meeting with action items and a process for following up on them, or at least — unlike last time — an agreement on when to meet next.

Finally, this time the countries will need to anticipate and prepare for Chinese pushback. As the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson alluded to recently, Beijing too participates in groupings that exclude some in the Quad but affect their interests. And each country will need to resist the urge to use the possibility of withdrawing as leverage with China — with whom they all will, and should, continue to engage.

The quadrilateral is not a silver bullet. It is also not an indispensable platform that should exist just for its own sake. But it can develop into a significant one for four countries who want to ensure that a rules-based order will prevail in the Indo-Pacific region rather than a coercion-based one. The grouping can also help alleviate reliability concerns among participants by building trust and further habits of cooperation. This does not — and should not — mean jettisoning other cooperative mechanisms or engagement with other countries, but it can become an important way to share burdens in an Asia that is increasingly in flux.


Tanvi Madan is director of The India Project and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs