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Bolstering the Quad beyond its military dimensions

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Yoshihide Suga, Japan's Prime Minister, speaks while a monitor displays US President Joe Biden, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during the virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday 12 March 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kiyoshi Ota/Pool).

In Brief

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia — has been reinvigorated in response to China’s growing assertiveness. Improved interoperability and collaboration over shared defence and security concerns may help deter China. But other measures are needed for the Quad to make a real difference, including prioritising trade, investment and the environment, and enhancing cyber and maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.


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China has been engaging provocatively in the Quad’s periphery, notably in the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. China has invoked trade sanctions and launched wide-ranging and intrusive cyberattacks while deftly avoiding open conflict. China strives to assert itself operating just below the kinetic tipping point while consolidating its position militarily across the maritime, land, air, space and cyber domains.

The Quad has responded with diplomatic signalling and soft balancing. Much more will be required for it to have a significant and enduring effect.

India has found common cause with Japan, the United States and Australia to deter further Chinese encroachment, but a military focus alone will not suffice. The recent deployment of the Quad’s naval forces for Exercise Malabar and the elevation of the Quad to the heads-of-government summit level has cleared the obscurity surrounding the Quad’s united front.

Additional collaboration can be expected in the cyber, space and maritime domains to enhance surveillance and deterrence. All four states have been the subject of extensive and persistent cyberattacks emanating from nation-state-supported institutions, notably from China.

The United States is investing in its Indo-Pacific strategy, bolstering its military capabilities particularly in the Western Pacific. President Joe Biden is placing renewed emphasis on environmental concerns but remains wary of regional trade arrangements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. India likewise has enthusiastically embraced enhanced regional security cooperation but has shied away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Australia has emphasised its ‘Pacific Step-Up’ but has dulled its impact through its reluctance to prioritise climate change concerns keenly felt in certain quarters in the Pacific.

While Biden has stressed the importance of mitigating climate change, other Quad partners must also prioritise climate concerns and the vulnerabilities of low-lying states. China has doubled down on its rhetoric espousing climate concerns, although it remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

The Quad’s security-focussed strategy is not going to be enough to significantly alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific or deter further abrasive assertiveness, especially while China strengthens its Belt Road Initiative (BRI). If the United States and India do not prioritise economics — notably their trade and investment opportunities — then the effect of military investment and environmental initiatives will be negated.

The Quad vaccine project is one example of a united front in this direction. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed in the United States and will be manufactured in India. The vaccine is being funded by the United States and Japan, and Australia has promised to use its logistics capabilities to distribute it to Southeast Asian and Pacific nations.

The member countries have also agreed to collaborate in reducing reliance on China for vital rare earth materials used in products ranging from mobile phones to wind turbines and solar panels. China has an effective monopoly over a range of these. Before the February 2021 Quad Summit, Biden issued an executive order to dismantle China’s dominance of the supply chain for rare earth materials. Australia has vast reserves of rare earth elements, presenting this initiative with significant new opportunities. These developments will transfer the Quad members’ strategic convergence over security matters into the economic arena.

The Quad’s vaccine diplomacy is a significant move to match China’s equivalent initiative. For the Quad to have enduring utility and greater effectiveness, its member states will need to develop a comprehensive program of economic activities. This will need to benefit not only the Quad members but also other countries in the region.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is developing on a number of levels, pointing to the need to include more like-minded nations as part of a multilateral response to China’s geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions are manifested militarily in China’s maritime advances and economically through the BRI. Any Quad-plus expansion will have to be handled sensitively and inclusively to avoid undue pushback from ASEAN and its members. An expanded Quad grouping at some future time could look to involve countries like South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam and other concerned ASEAN member states.

After some ups and downs, the Quad has emerged as a body which its members see as having considerable utility. If the Quad is to be successful in balancing and deterring an increasingly assertive China, it will need to extend its focus beyond security. It must venture into the realm of trade and investment with a focus on environmental issues to address the needs of states buffeted by growing great power competition.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

Ashok Sharma is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University, and at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

2 responses to “Bolstering the Quad beyond its military dimensions”

  1. There is a political dimension missing in this analysis. One of the implicit ideas behind the Biden Administration’s continuation of the stress placed by the previous (Trump) Administration on the Quad is would provide a kernel for Biden’s proposed Summit of (for?) democracy, based on the questionable assumption that India is the world’s largest democracy.
    The first signs of the Quad being a promoter of democracy are not at all encouraging. At the first virtual meeting with the four leaders, the Modi government had watered down a communique following the coup d’état in Myanmar, by eliminating a clear call for release of the civilian leaders imprisoned, let alone a reinstatement of a recently, and fairly, reelected government.

  2. Thanks for an informative analysis. Two points struck me as I was reading this.

    First, the current Covid crisis in India is an unfortunate opportunity for the USA in particular to make its vaccine technology available. The US government owns the patent for Moderna. It should share this with India so that the latter can begin to produce huge numbers of doses on its own.

    Second, I hope Australia in particular and the other 3 Quad members will pursue the extraction of rare earth metals in an environmentally sound way. It would defeat the purpose if these metals were extracted and develops with little concern for the environmental impacts. Australia may need some quiet, behind the scenes persuasion to realize this.

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