Quad: The emergence of a genuine counterweight to China
As the Donald Trump administration was preparing to demit office, United States (US) secretary of state Mike Pompeo was congratulated by a staffer for reviving Quad. He reportedly laughed and said, “And 80% of that was thanks to China.” Xi Jinping should be declared the founder of Quad. Quad’s evolution from an acronym without purpose to what it is today, a genuine multilateral formation, is almost solely thanks to Beijing’s blunderbuss ways.
Quad has completed a remarkable gestation in the past nine months. At the start of the year, its participatory governments declined to use the word “Quad,” avoided joint statements, and held no summits. Now, Quad is a full-fledged summit-level mechanism with pomp, ceremony, a problem-solving agenda, and an expanding universe of expert teams and working groups.
The latest summit makes diplomacy almost geeky in the amount of tech involved. Artificial Intelligence, space, cybersecurity, resilient infrastructure, STEM education, the Internet of Things, semiconductors, biotechnology, clean hydrogen and more have been placed on the table.
More important is that it reflects an establishment consensus among its four members. This was what hobbled it in the past and one of the main reasons India had been wary of Quad investment. When it first arose from the froth of the 2007 tsunami, changes of government saw Australia leave and the US and Japan lose interest. New Delhi found itself out on a limb, alone.
The past few years have seen a sea-change in Quad sentiment. When liberal parties came to power in Japan and the US, they tried the panda-hug, but were, in return, set upon by wolf warriors. The last country to turn was Australia, which faced economic sanctions, direct political interference and open threats from Beijing over the past few years. It helped that the much-feared Chinese trade sanctions proved more bark than bite. In the Indian assessment, Australia, the only Quad member to have pulled out of it once, is today the most committed member.
One can almost mark the turning points when each government gave up the ghost of Sinophilia. The US turned when China used the G-20 honeymoon to take over the South China Sea. Galwan Valley led India, which always had a more realistic view of what Beijing was all about than the others, to conclude being even outwardly nice to China was a waste of time.
What had to be decided, particularly by the US, was the nature of the tactical response. The Trump administration took Quad seriously, but the president was obsessed with yesteryear responses such as tariffs and barriers. The Biden administration responded to the Chinese belief that conquering the commanding heights of technology would define the 21st century. As a Joe Biden administration official noted, in Chinese lore, the greatest generals are those who defeat their enemy before meeting them in the battlefield.
The US response to China today is a mix of shrapnel and silicon. On the military side, it has anchored the western Pacific with two hardened triangles. It has crafted a joint US-Japan commitment to defend Taiwan at one end, and a nuclear naval agreement Down Under at the other end. In between, it has renewed its visiting forces agreement, stabilising its relations with the Philippines.
Quad is much more about the long game. It brings together most of the biggest (ex-China) powers of Asia, covers the breadth of the Indo-Pacific, and seeks to show that whatever autocracies can do, multiparty governments can do better. Beijing’s plans for global influence are largely built around its economic accomplishments — mastery of infrastructure-building and targeted finance and control of digital technology. Its military remains a construction site with major design flaws. Quad’s priority will be about showing that “rules-based democracies” are more than capable of doing the same. As a senior adviser to former Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, explained, Quad is deliberately designed to be flexible. “It does not require a consensus among its members to act.”
Indo-Pacific is not designed for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-type system. The geographical spread is too vast, there are too many historical rivalries, and China is playing a different game from the one the erstwhile Soviet Union did. This was one reason the US, during the Cold War, built its security structure around a hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances. Just getting South Korea and Japan to join hands proved impossible. And it still is — Washington considered inviting South Korea to Quad and got an equally loud “No” from Seoul and Tokyo.
By agreement, security arrangements are kept at arm’s length. Security is done at a bilateral level and even the Malabar naval exercises are kept separate. The recent Australia-centred nuclear submarine deal was a perfect fit — it enhanced security but outside Quad. It is not about fooling China, this is more about reassuring skittish governments in places such as Southeast Asia. “China is the only anti-Quad Asian country. But there are a lot of Quad-skeptical countries and we need to reassure them,” say Indian officials. The latest Quad statement was almost flowery when it underscored “our dedication towards working with ASEAN and its member states — the heart of the Indo-Pacific.”
Quad needs to work with lots of other countries because of its core interest in being an alternative to China in technology and resolving what Foggy Bottom called “the challenges of the 21st century”. A semiconductor network must include the likes of Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. Vaccines will be rejected if the doses are contaminated with toxic geopolitics.
India has special reason to be pleased with all these developments. A genuine Chinese counterweight is developing rapidly. India currently lacks the diplomatic and economic capability to balance against China across Asia. Quad accepts that accelerating the rise of India is part of the implicit geopolitical agenda of the organisation.
The creation of supply chains and innovation cycles independent of China offer an opportunity for India to make a quantum leap in manufacturing. New Delhi is allergic to trade deals, but what matters in the 21st century will be cross-border data flows. And that’s up India’s alley. The Quad Principles on Technology, Design, Development, Governance and Use have the potential to be more world-defining than the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
The Asian geopolitical landscape is changing on a quarterly basis. The tendency is to look at what is breaking down. The US has withdrawn from Central Asia. As things fall apart, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s centrality is not holding. But what we are now seeing is the construction part of the story. Four of the Five Eyes now share a nuclear and technology muscle. And Quad has now left the runway and is reaching cruising altitude.
The views expressed are personal