What Is the ‘Quad’ and Should China Fear It?

As the White House tries to demonstrate that the war in Ukraine hasn’t distracted America from pressing priorities in Asia, the Biden administration is once again looking to “the Quad.” The informal grouping brings together the US, Japan, India and Australia in an alliance of democracies with shared economic and security interests that span the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The point is to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” but the unstated priority is countering China’s growing power, which rankles the leadership in Beijing. The Quad has its critics, who question the group’s sometimes-ambiguous goals and ask how effective it can be given that some members are wary of provoking China. Still, it’s set to become more relevant as US-China tensions persist and Russia’s invasion of its neighbor sharpens Western security alliances.

1. Why are we talking about it now?

Under the current US administration, the Quad has seen new momentum. Quad leaders plan to gather in Tokyo May 24 when U.S. President Joe Biden takes a high-level delegation to Asia. The group wasn’t always this active. It lay dormant for years before being revived in 2017 by the US under President Donald Trump, whose government was intent on confronting China. Yet Trump’s erratic diplomacy left some hesitant to line up behind the US on China. When Biden replaced Trump, he pledged to work closer with allies while continuing a tough stance on China. Biden organized the first-ever gathering of the Quad leaders, meeting in early 2021 with India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and Australia’s Scott Morrison in a virtual conference, which resulted in a pledge to fund India to accelerate production of Covid-19 vaccines and distribute them across Asia. Although the joint statement didn’t mention China, the talks came amid a flurry of U.S. diplomacy in Asia designed to build a common approach to dealing with Beijing.

2. What are the group’s origins?

After the four nations formed a “core group” that helped coordinate relief operations following the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, Shinzo Abe, who was then Japan’s prime minister, called for a more formal, so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialog in 2007. That year, the group met on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific forum convened by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The same year, the Quad nations plus Singapore participated in an expanded version of the Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, which normally engage U.S. and Indian forces. But after a promising start, the Quad effectively fell apart the next year.

3. Why did it falter?

It depends who you talk to, but interest waned amid concerns about alienating China. Australian’s Morrison has blamed a predecessor, the Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, for a “policy to disconnect from the Quad.” But Rudd, writing in 2019, argued it wasn’t that simple. The Quad lost favor with power brokers in Japan, Rudd said, after Abe resigned the same year he proposed the grouping and especially after his party lost power in 2009. Rudd wrote that U.S. officials didn’t even bring up the Quad when he visited as prime minister in 2008 and that his India counterpart, Manmohan Singh, pledged not to be part of any initiative to contain China. Yet by 2017, with nationalist governments in power in Japan and India, circumstances had changed again. Before Biden came to power, China had engaged in a bloody spat with India on their disputed Himalayan border and launched punishing trade measures against Australia for proposing an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

4. What does China say about the Quad?

China has lambasted the Quad as a mechanism to contain its global rise. China’s Foreign Ministry has accused the group of being dedicated to undermining China’s interests. In April, ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the group “is steeped in the obsolete Cold War and zero sum mentality and reeks of military confrontation,” adding that it “runs counter to the trend of the times and is doomed to be rejected.”

5. What do other critics say?

They note that the Quad has struggled with its members’ divergent interests, capabilities and interconnectedness with the Chinese economy, the world’s second largest. Some have accused the Quad of being a talking shop that nevertheless cannot speak with one voice and that lacks any real institutional structure. Others fear it could eventually morph into an Asian NATO that would provoke a Chinese response. Indian officials have been both wary of poking China and skeptical of Australia’s heretofore close ties with Beijing, writes Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. In a symbolic move in 2020, however, India appeared to overcome its hesitation and invited Australia to again join the Malabar exercises.

6. What is the Quad’s agenda?

At their virtual summit in 2021, the leaders issued a statement promising a “free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific,” signaling an intent to act on an array of pressing global challenges. That includes big issues like climate change, counter-terrorism and cyber security as well as specific domains such as “quality infrastructure investment” — a likely riposte to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. That campaign has helped build roads and power stations across Asia but has been the subject of heavy criticism, including accusations that China is luring poor countries into debt traps. Even as the Quad remains cautious of triggering Beijing, it’s just part of a still-emerging approach to Asia: Last year, the UK and US struck a separate defense accord with Australia — known as AUKUS — to equip that country with nuclear submarines, a development that came after China’s pressure campaign against it.

Author: Iain Marlow, Bloomberg

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