The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Can Be a Turning Point for Indo-Pacific

Naval ships from India, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and the United States steam in formation in the Bay of Bengal during Exercise Malabar. Image credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

The first ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, also known as the Quad leaders’ Virtual Summit, is taking place on March 12. On Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in an official statement, “ Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be participating, along with Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison and Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga and President of USA Joseph R. Biden, in the first Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework, being held virtually on 12th March 2021.”

Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad was created in 2004 as an informal alliance in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami. In a massive display of military capability and democratic soft power, Washington marshaled a flotilla of US, Japanese, Indian and Australian vessels to bring prompt humanitarian relief, in the process highlighting not only the UN’s limitations but the potential for maritime cooperation between the four oceangoing democratic powers. Since then, it has grown into a focused group for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. A statement issued by the White House after the first Modi- Biden conversation stated, “The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.” 

The Quad comprises of India, US, Japan and Australia. China has geopolitical issues with all the four-participant countries of Quad. The dragon is in a border stand-off with India, trade war with US, a diplomatic war with Australia and Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Hence Beijing views Quad as tailored against it.

The initiative, meant to facilitate conversation and cooperation between the four maritime democracies lasted till early 2008, after which it fell apart when the Australia’s newly elected Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, withdrew his country from the arrangement in the hope that his gesture would facilitate a breakthrough in Australia-China relations. After his re-election, Japanese Prime Minister Abe – with a clear eye on the longer term and apparently undismayed by Australia’s wobbliness – returned to the fray late in 2012. With the active participation of India under Modi Government, a rejuvenated Quad -2.0 is born.

The quadrilateral is not a silver bullet. As a former Australian national security advisor has put it, the Quad has to be “driven by function rather than form.” But the Quad can develop into a significant alliance for the four countries who want to ensure that a rules-based order should prevail in the Indo-Pacific region rather than a coercion-based one. Apart from maritime security, the quadrilateral could be a useful platform to share assessments of Chinese capabilities, intentions and actions, and ways of dealing with them. The Quad and Quad plus (last year Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand participated in a Quad plus dialogue) could also become a useful platform for furthering the economic and trade interests of the participating countries, including creation of new global supply chains away from China. Cyber-security has become a hot topic with allegations of Chinese hackers’ groups like Hafnium, RedEcho and ShadowPad targeting global power grids, ports and Microsoft exchange severs. Cyber-security could benefit from a wider discussion in the Quad platform. Another issue is the political and economic vulnerability of open democratic systems, and how to increase their resilience, for example, through more effective investment screening processes.

One of the problems with the Quadrilateral structure is that it can be hard to maintain a sufficiently strong alignment of strategic perspectives and priorities to offset countervailing pressure from Beijing, particularly in light of each country’s substantial economic and other interests in China. The US and Japan are mainly concerned on the South and East China Sea, whereas Australia and India on the Indian Ocean. Japan and Australia already have a defence treaty with the US, while India hesitates to create a new military architecture with the US as it could result in India being drawn into conflicts which it may not desire and India is also unwilling to having its forces operate under US command.

After years of wariness and border face-offs, concerns about provoking Beijing just don’t hold the same weight in New Delhi as they once did. New Delhi has decided to invite Australia to become a participant in its annual Malabar naval exercise, alongside the United States and Japan (Australia was excluded after Canberra withdrew from the Quad). The Malabar 2020 naval exercise brought the four nations together for the annual drill for the first time in over a decade. This will generate a formal and practical security application for the Quad grouping. The four countries should develop a robust annual exercise program to build interoperability, capability and ultimately deterrence in the region. 

The diplomatic power, the military power and the economic clout carried by the four democracies are sufficient to deter an expansionist China, provided there is a true convergence of the strategic interests of all the four members.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.