The debate about the Quad heated up in the United States in March/April for no less than four unmistakable reasons. First, Joe Biden has tasked his able foreign policy team both to pursue multilateralism and to design a strategy that prioritizes the Indo-Pacific region. Second, the first Quad summit took place, albeit virtually, with at least one big takeaway on vaccine production in India, distribution centered on Southeast Asia, support from the United States and Japan, and logistics from Australia. Third, the spotlight turned to US-Japan relations with the Biden-Suga summit, forging the core of the Quad. Fourth, the Sino-US competition accelerated with greater attention to countries on the frontlines and the growing pressure on them, as seen in their responses to appeals for a Quad Plus or warnings against becoming associated with it. As this new debate has begun to unfold, its wide-ranging importance is becoming apparent to observers.
The primary focus of the debate is India, and the three principal drivers of the debate are the US, Japan, and China. The issues covered range from security to values to economics, at present encapsulated in the theme of technology as a target for cooperation set at the Quad summit. In the three following articles, we start with thinking in Japan, the initiator of the ideas that led to the Quad, turn next to India, the target of the push-and-pull associated with the Quad, and last review the contrast in thinking in the United States and China regarding the Quad. Australia is, of course, a member of the Quad whose voice needs to be heard, but in the year 2021 debate centers on these four other actors, as the foundation of the new grouping is being established.
What factors will determine the prospects of the Quad in 2021? The first concern is Narendra Modi’s nationalist views of India’s identity and non-alignment. Battered by a tidal wave of cases of COVID-19, India will be in no position to focus on the Quad. The second concern is how Suga Yoshihide reaffirms the Japan-US alliance in a regional context after four years when, separate from Donald Trump, Abe Shinzo led the pursuit of Indo-Pacific multilateralism. Meeting with Biden in mid-April, Suga offered reassurances that Japan is ready to advance jointly. Third is what can be detected of Biden’s grand regional strategy still under formulation. It appears to be emerging in a deliberate manner on a bipartisan theme despite a divisive climate. Fourth is the policy of Xi Jinping to counter the Quad, visible in harsh rhetoric about “NATO of the East” and wedge moves toward all but the US. Thus, the state of China’s relations with the US as well as with the other members of the Quad will have decisive consequences for the Quad’s evolution.
Among the issues raised in the Quad debate are the following: What is the Quad? Is the US ready to develop a grand strategy and follow through to shape the Quad? How will the Quad transform Japan’s foreign policy and US-Japan relations? Is India serious about the Quad? How does China perceive the Quad and respond to it? Will China and Russia join in a group to counter the Quad? And what will be the impact on Southeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula? As suggested in these many questions, the quest for the Quad has the potential to be the most far-reaching restructuring of geopolitics since the end of the Cold War, but it also poses difficult challenges with uncertain results. US resolve may prove to be the easiest step in the process.
What is the Quad?
According to the joint statement on March 12, the Quad is a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific as a “free, open, inclusive, healthy region, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” The four members pledged to “strengthen their cooperation on the defining challenges of our time—to support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity.” They also affirmed “strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” Showcasing the “Spirit of the Quad” the statement referenced universal values and promised to “facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” The parties pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.” Plans were announced for experts and senior officials to meet regularly; for foreign ministers to converse often and meet at least once a year, and for leaders to hold an in-person summit by the end of 2021.1
Specifically, the seriousness of the Quad is evaluated along three dimensions. In security, it is assessed in two principal ways: Will India throw its weight behind moves to contain Chinese aggression, as in the South China Sea, and shift further from Russian to US armaments? And will Japan cast aside longstanding reservations to join with the US on maritime and missile displays of readiness? On ideology, will joint stands on rule of law and human rights advance from vague principles to concrete actions including sanctions? Finally, on technology, will supply chains be reconfigured substantially even at the cost of business interests and Chinese acts of retaliation? Noble principles are still lacking support in concrete cooperation and unambiguous consensus.
Does the US have a grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific, and, if so, what is it?
The experienced team assembled by Biden, many of whom had worked together and with him, has hit the ground running with strategic principles and deliberate steps indicative of a grand strategy: to restore US leadership, to solidify alliances with US-Japan relations in the forefront, to link export controls to security, to appeal to values, and to concentrate on the challenge from China, albeit not wantonly demonizing it and leaving room for cooperation if feasible. The makings of a grand strategy are visible, the Quad is the most dramatic initiative, and India is the indispensable partner for its realization, but first Japan must help to set the new strategy and Australia must agree. What is striking in 2021 is the month-by-month momentum achieved.
The Biden-Suga summit revealed elements of the strategy, winning a warm endorsement in Japan from security-minded people, if others faulted Suga for being too accommodating. Even more problematic are reservations in all three US partners about human rights advocacy with Myanmar a test case and economic security with fragile economies a source of concern. To the extent China puts the focus on Taiwan, support for the emerging US strategy is jeopardized. The South China Sea serves as an overlapping Quad interest, but more divergence exists elsewhere. The US strategy must be tempered by awareness of hesitation and indirection among partners.
How will the Quad transform Japan’s foreign policy and US-Japan relations?
Sheila Smith’s article addresses this question. The debate in Japan’s media over the Suga-Biden summit showcases the challenges. Yet the conservative mainstream, building on the legacy of Abe’s foreign and security policy, shifted Japan substantially closer to the US. As of late April, Suga appears to be succeeding in aligning Japan with the US in the first stages of establishing the Quad. This builds on Abe’s vision and bilateral initiatives, as the leadership shifts to the US. The alliance grows much closer, Japan plays a much larger security role, and it challenges China on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and human rights in ways hardly anticipated until quite recently.
There has been a meaningful shift on Taiwan and human rights, but pushback is seen as well with little debate yet on how to respond to a war scenario where China attacks US forces on Okinawa or on withdrawing from cooperation with Chinese entities on emergent technology. Overall, however, if the US proceeds cautiously, Japan is on board—ready to strengthen the alliance, to showcase the Quad, to build resilience in supply chains, and to take some risks with China even if parts of business are wary of economic disruptions. With the public obsessed with the pandemic and the Olympics, Suga needs to control expectations that Japan might stand on the front line between the US and China, further unsettling a public that is already on edge. So far, with help from the “spirit of the Quad,” the impact on Japan-US relations is transformative.
Is India serious about the Quad?
This is the biggest question facing the Quad. It is not clear that China’s border thrust in 2020 was a gamechanger, especially after China struck a deal with India to calm the battlefront. In light of Modi’s strident Hindu nationalism, India’s support for human rights and universal values is in doubt. Moreover, the tradition of strategic autonomy in India casts doubt on its readiness to enlist in a multilateral strategic grouping, and the urgency of economic development leaves China considerable leverage. The Quad could become a hollow shell with little substance apart from US alliances with Japan and Australia if India slow-walks its support for new initiatives.
Jagannath Panda describes Indian ambivalence in his article, earnest about forging the Quad but cautious about supporting anything that could be deemed US hegemony or undermining multilateral great power diplomacy. India’s enthusiasm in late 2020 and early 2021 may fade as China reduces pressure on their border and offers economic incentives. Meanwhile, a severe rise in COVID-19 cases leaves doubt that through 2021 Modi will be able to prioritize the Quad.
How does China perceive the Quad and respond to it?
Gilbert Rozman’s article describes the duality of Chinese thinking: doubting the Quad can gain momentum and warning that the Quad is a growing danger for China. Coverage of the Quad and US-Japan relations intensified as Sino-US relations deteriorated in 2020 and, even more, as Biden took office intent on making it a cornerstone of multilateralism. There is a disconnect between what Quad statements say about the aims of the group and what China charges are its objectives. Is the Quad targeting aggressive expansion or the peaceful rise of the next world power? Each member has been demonized for its support, as if its motives are entirely problematic, but China is also trying to drive wedges between the other three and the US.
Chinese leaders seek to capitalize on divisions within India, Australia, and Japan, but they have botched these efforts by abandoning soft power and resorting to heavy-handed methods that resonate poorly with public opinion. Wariness about China first rose sharply in Japan, then hit a spike in Australia, and in 2020 climbed abruptly in India, too. Territorial expansionism and sharp power undermining democratic traditions are no way to win influence. Calming tensions may offer some respite, but that does not suffice to draw a wedge. Demonizing the US and its true motives is not working under the Biden administration. The hyperbole of Chinese narratives about the Quad gives no sign that a strategy has been found apart from economic threats.
Will China and Russia join in a group to counter the Quad?
On the surface, China and Russia responded to the uptick in Quad momentum with a show of force. Both decried the new entity, attacked US motives, and proclaimed their opposition. For China, having Russia on board offered proof that a counterbalance was forming when Lavrov visited China on March 22. Chinese officials keep criticizing the Quad’s “Cold War mentality,” accusing it of “stirring up confrontation among different groups and blocs to stoke geopolitical competition.” In December, Sergey Lavrov singled out the West’s “persistent, aggressive, and devious policy” of engaging India in “anti-China games” before he and Wang Yi joined in making their attacks. Moscow views the Quad security arrangement the way it sees NATO—as an instrument of American hegemony, albeit, in this case, veiled as multilateralism.2
The fact that Russia prizes its special relationship with India complicates its criticism of the Quad. Some Chinese sources suggested that this serves positively as a restraining factor. It destabilizes the Quad.3 When Lavrov visited India, Global Times observed that India differs from the other three Quad members in seldom publicly mentioning China as a target of the Quad, in becoming a target of criticism by the West for its human rights, and in relying on Russia for arms, which continues since they are more compatible with its existing arms.4 No worry was registered about Russia, which is described as very unsatisfied with India’s deepening ties with the Quad and insistent on joining China in calling the region the Asia-Pacific, not Indo-Pacific.
What will be the impact on Southeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula?
The Quad Plus is a flexible concept with varying membership depending on the issue. On security, plans were afoot for a naval drill in the Bay of Bengal involving not only India with the other three Quad members but also France for the first time. “The four Quad nations joined hands for a maritime exercise after the November 2020 Malabar drill in the Indo-Pacific. With France, the four nations are expected to take this cooperation to a new high.”5 Vietnam and South Korea are mentioned as possible members of the Quad Plus, but they refuse to criticize China on values issues. While they do not concur with Beijing that it is more an opportunity than a threat, they fear its countermeasures for overtly siding with the Quad or other adverse behavior.
In response to talk that Seoul would cooperate with the Quad on an ad hoc basis,6 a Chinese Korea specialist, Cheng Xiaohe, said in a Global Times article South Korea should not give up its "strategic ambiguity," warning that joining the Quad would constitute a significant breach of trust between the two nations.7 Other warnings are more explicit: The economic price will be high for defying China on any of the three legs of the quad: security, values, and supply chains. We can expect states to try not to cross China’s red lines even if they are part of the Quad Plus. In this struggle, China will feign support for ASEAN centrality, as the Quad likewise endorses it.
Sheila Smith, “Japan, the Quad, and the Indo-Pacific”
Japan has had a singular role in shaping a new US administration’s regional diplomacy. The Biden administration continues to prioritize the Indo-Pacific, and the best positioned partner for achieving this “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion” is Japan. Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific vision today has far less emphasis on democracy and focuses instead on the rule of law and transparency. The levers that Japan brings to this regional concert are largely economic, and the region is far hungrier for alternatives to Chinese aid today than they were a decade or more ago. Nonetheless, there is no denying the growing role of Japan’s Self Defense Force in demonstrating Japan’s interests in coalition with other Quad members. By the time the Biden administration began, Japan had become a leading driver of Quad activities and was author to the notion of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Leadership transitions in Tokyo and Washington raised questions if this would survive the era of Abe and Trump. With Biden’s emphasis on working closely with US allies, the relationship with Japan was an obvious priority for an Indo-Pacific approach to deal with China.
Japan’s diplomacy towards the Quad countries is a new effort at strategic networking across the region. While much may be driven by concerns about unpopular Chinese influence in some states, the Quad agenda is also built around the growing demands of the Indo-Pacific countries themselves for greater investment and development. Suga demonstrated early on in his tenure continuity in Indo-Pacific diplomacy by making his first foreign trip to Vietnam and Indonesia. Never mentioning China, Suga nonetheless used the occasion to highlight the kinds of behaviors in the region that Japan wanted to work with ASEAN to avoid. As the first head of state to visit Biden in DC, Suga had the first opportunity to reveal Japan’s role in this new Quad agenda. Already, the US-Japan 2+2 meeting in Tokyo on March 16, 2021 outlined its primary motivating influence: the increasingly worrisome behavior of China. The Biden-Suga Joint Statement, with one additional reference to Taiwan, which drew considerable media attention. On security, values, and technology, it set a course for bilateral relations with potential impact for the Quad.
At the heart of Japan’s Quad ambitions is a desire to ensure that the United States remains an active and forward-leaning force for stability in maritime Asia. Tokyo’s diplomacy has gradually evolved to build the relationships among Japan, the US, Australia, and India into greater alignment on supporting the status quo in the face of a growing China challenge. This is no Asian NATO, however. Even Japan has little interest in a “containment” strategy, as Abe demonstrated in his effort to deploy his FOIP vision in discussions with Beijing. As China’s rise has challenged old conceptions of how power is distributed across the globe, Japan seeks to prevent that power from changing the premises that have underpinned its own postwar success story. The Quad is a coalition of like-minded countries that Tokyo increasingly looks to for help in stabilizing its security environment but also where there is common interest in protecting the “free and open” norms that have allowed all of Asia to rise.
Jagannath Panda, “India’s Quad Calculus and China”
India and its fellow Quad states maintain that the grouping is far from an exclusive China containment framework. Rather, India’s participation draws on efforts to better situate itself in a liberal regional and global order; and perhaps to defend and strengthen itself in the face of a revisionist China. Debate on its institutionalization or militarization (securitization) has seen a division in the “like-mindedness” of the Quad states, with the US pushing for a more aggressive stand. India’s approach is linked with its perception of strengthening Asian security, building comprehensive national power (CNP), and promoting an architecture of maritime resilience. Although India’s relations with China have severely deteriorated following the Galwan valley clash, continued engagement with China through bilateral confidence-building measures and within multilateral institutions demonstrates its intent to pursue a balancing strategy. It views Beijing both as a necessary multilateral partner and a competitive political power, pursuing a “power-partner” policy. A framework of a “developmental partnership” to keep the relationship moving ensures that territorial disputes stay largely separate from economic cooperation.
India’s outlook towards the Indo-Pacific draws strongly on the principle of “inclusivity.” Such an outlook comes from India’s long tradition of non-alignment policies; it allows New Delhi to strike a delicate balance in its ties with China and various partner countries like the US, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. Modi’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), announced in 2019 at the East Asia Summit, can find synergy with the Quad’s focus on soft security issues—including capacity building, maritime connectivity, blue economy, and maritime security. Focus on inclusivity evident in the IPOI has slowly but firmly seeped into the diplo-speak of the Quad. India sees the Quad as a strategy for enhancing its CNP, consistent with its focus on “inclusivity,” for three main reasons: 1) India does not want to offer an impression that China is not a part of the Indo-Pacific construct; 2) India wishes to tread a delicate balance between the plethora of stakeholders in the region such as the US, China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and ASEAN; and 3) at a time of increasing Chinese dominance upholding the Sea Lines of Communication and maritime boundaries is vital.
For India, the Quad has become a strategy to offset China’s growing clout and aggression in the Indo-Pacific while simultaneously rebuilding a relationship with Beijing after the Galwan Valley clash. Critical of China’s BRI, especially in strong opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India has embarked on a strategy to create what is called a “necklace of diamonds” in the region. In collaboration with the Quad states, it can expand its outreach and provide much-needed connectivity infrastructure, developmental, and maritime security to smaller states. China’s aggressive tactics pose a serious threat to a rules-based regional and global order based on liberal, democratic values of freedom, and inclusivity. They prompted India to reimagine its foreign policy approach. the Quad is India’s effort to promote inclusivity in the face of an intensifying US-China great power rivalry and to strike a balance between the two powers.
Gilbert Rozman, “The Quad: Contrasting Chinese and US Perceptions”
Biden raised the standing of the Quad (and the Indo-Pacific) to the point his foreign policy will be judged by its fate. In doing so, he prioritized the US-Japan relationship above all other bilateral ties. At stake is multi-layered, Indo-Pacific architecture: the closeness of the US-Japan bond, the role of Australia in a tight triangle, the aspiration to incorporate India into a substantive Quad, and the exploration of a Quad Plus with multiple additions, including in Southeast Asia and South Korea.
For Beijing, the Quad is no less than “NATO of the East.” It symbolizes Cold War containment. Some argue it is unrealizable, since India would not join and others recognize their Asian identities and economic interests would be endangered, while others claim its threat to China’s interests is serious and must be forestalled through vigorous action. The Quad can be differentiated into three dimensions: (1) a security framework targeted at China’s designs to change the status quo by force; (2) an ideological conception, much as the “free world” was during the Cold War; and (3) a buffer for the protection of military and dual-use technology being exported to China and for supply chain resiliency in order not to depend excessively on China and face vulnerability and then pressure. If the US accentuated the positive role of the Quad in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which reaffirms the liberal international order, Beijing attacked the negative process of containment, Cold War thinking, and blocking China’s rise. Rhetoric about the Quad has more sharply conflicted of late.
Prospects for the Quad are limited, China insists. Security interests are insufficient. Economic dependence on China differs to the point none of the four apart from the US is willing to see ties with China become too tense; they will try to avoid an official multilateral security agreement. Threat perceptions diverge, too; in India and Australia, the population is deeply split. In Chinese responses to meetings that strengthened the Quad were barbed without ruling out steps to drive a wedge between participants. Less assertive policies toward India and Australia could portend a wedge strategy. Anger directed at Japan for endorsing the US strategy for making this alliance the bilateral core of the Quad and inserting Japan into the Taiwan issue was heated, China is sharper in warning US allies and partners of dire consequences than the US. On security, values, and technology, Japan was seen as responsible for the breakdown of an atmosphere that a year earlier was deemed promising for Xi Jinping to make a state visit.
The US looked back on three months of the Biden administration pleased with the progress made toward institutionalizing the Quad, while China had grown increasingly disturbed by the emergence of this new entity as well as by Japan’s tilt toward the US. On security, the Quad signaled joint resolve in opposition to “wolf warrior” aggression, especially in the South China Sea. On values, it represented a sharp rebuke to the spread of authoritarianism and a call for the revitalization of democratization. And on technology, the Quad called for relocating sensitive supply chains to reduce vulnerability to China’s control over them. Each arena aroused concern in China, which faulted “Cold War” alliances and ideology as it claimed to represent globalization, openness, and free markets rather than protectionism. The March 12 virtual summit and the April 16 Suga-Biden summit were transformative events in the first months of the Biden administration leading toward the institutionalization of the Quad. They revealed a newly strategic approach in Washington and receptivity in Tokyo even as Beijing responded with warnings. US hopes for rapid institutionalization of the Quad are unlikely to be realized. Much depends on China’s choices; the Quad’s momentum is driven by responses to it.
1. The White House, “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’” March 13, 2021.
2. “The Return of the Quad: Will Russia and China Form Their Own Bloc?” CSIS, April 6, 2021.
3. Global Times, March 22, 2021.
4. Global Times, April 8, 2021.
5. Kiran Sharma and Mailys Pene-Lassus, “France to lead Quad naval drill in Indo-Pacific challenge to China Five-nation exercise in Bay of Bengal seeks to promote maritime cooperation,” April 2, 2021.
6. “S. Korea Willing to Cooperate with Quad Countries on Issue-by-Issue Basis: Official,” Yonhap News Agency, April 6, 2021.
7. Elizabeth Shim, “Chinese Analyst Warns South Korea Against Joining Quad, UPI, March 12, 2021.