The Quad: Whistling By Its Grave – Analysis


The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) is an informal strategic dialogue between the US, JapanAustralia and India. It was initiated in 2007 by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe  during his first term. Since 2014, these discussions have been bolstered by the annual trilateral Malabar (US-Japan –India), other trilateral exercises and at least one quadrilateral naval exercise. It was widely perceived as part of a China containment strategy.  After China issued formal diplomatic protests to its members asking their intention, Australia withdrew from the Quad and the meetings ceased.

In 2018 the administration of US President Donald J. Trump re –raised the concept as part of its ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. But some members are balking. In 2018, India—in deference to China– objected to Australia’s inclusion in Malabar even though the exercise took place in US waters. Admiral Phil Davidson, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has suggested that the Quad be shelved for now.

Davidson said Indian navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba “made it quite clear that there wasn’t an immediate potential for a quad.”   As Davidson says, ‘there is limited appetite for operationalizing the Quad’ presumably meaning the militarization of the arrangement. .  Indeed the concept –at least as a military alliance—is more likely to go the way of the dodo than rise from its ashes like a phoenix.  

Yet the US military and some die-hard analysts refuse to accept this reality. A Pentagon spokesperson explained that Davidson “was referring to a formal, regular meeting of military leaders from the four countries” and not other regular diplomatic consultations. The spokesperson said such diplomatic meetings have been held three times since November 2017 and [will] continue.” But the failure of Quad meetings to produce a joint statement indicates a deep diversity of views on critical issues including the need for and form of security cooperation. Given the context, this ‘clarification’ seemed to be damage control as well as an attempt to breathe life into a dying concept.

Another example is Washington-based leading analyst Patrick Cronin’s article “US Asia Strategy: Beyond the Quad”  Although Cronin maintains ‘all is well’  the article seems to be an attempt to whistle by the graveyard of a comatose concept.  He claims that there is no “hidden meaning” in Davidson’s statement such as “signs of U.S. retrenchment, growing discord with Delhi, or a pre-emptive move before a possible new Australian Labor government moves once again to put the quadrilateral community on ice (as it did in 2008)”.  He adds that it would be advisable “to take Davidson at face-value that there is limited appetite for operationalizing the Quad.”   

US retrenchment or anticipation of a change in government in Australia are straw men and not serious reasons for abandoning the concept—at least not yet.  But there is certainly discord with Delhi – as well as with some Southeast Asian countries on this particular issue ;

Cronin and other would-be Quad supporters, fail to appreciate the depth of the dilemma for prospective Quad members.  As then Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously quipped “Australia’s China policy is driven by fear and greed”. These deep emotions and their manifestations in domestic politics and the media complicate the decision for each prospective Asian member of the Quad.    

China’s economic dynamism, influence and largesse are obvious phenomena of our age.  China is the most important trading partner for both Australia and India—particularly as an export market for their raw materials. Australia is also the second most recipient of Chinese direct investment. Japan’s exports to China now exceed those to the U.S. and account for nearly 20 percent of its total exports. These economic links clearly influence perspectives of prospective Asian Quad members.

 But fear of China also plays a major role.  Indeed, in Australia, the national debate pits realists who foresee or accept the inevitability of China’s dominance and influence in Asia and on its society and values against idealists who are “willing to risk the economic benefits to preserve Western values and existing international order.”

Japan is in a different place – geopolitically.  In Japan, fear dominates avarice when it comes to China. Its worst nightmare is subjugation by a vindictive China exacting revenge for its military’s behavior in China prior to and during World War II. It fears that if the boot is on China’s foot, it will act the same way it did.

 Non-aligned India faces a somewhat different and more nuanced trade-off. Greed plays a role. But China can also apply pressure on India to demur and delay joining military by withdrawing desperately needed assistance in infrastructure development, making military mischief along their disputed border, beefing up its presence in the Indian Ocean and providing increased military aid to India’s arch enemy Pakistan. As a sign of the sensitivity of such a decision for India, when senior representatives of the Quad countries met on the sidelines of the 2017 ASEAN-hosted meetings, the Indian government downplayed the meeting and did not join the other three in acknowledging the need for “coordination on maritime security”. Moreover, the impending trade war between India and the U.S. will not help boost India’s interest in the Quad.

But Cronin is unimpressed with this reality.  He asserts that because the Quad itself was never seen as a short-term operational instrument of policy, ‘concern about the Quad’s possible re-retirement, should be minimal.’  He rationalizes that the Quad’s strength resides not in the four countries acting together but in the bilateral and trilateral building blocks on which it rests. He considers it “a natural trend” that the four deepen bilateral and trilateral military operations.  But this is more a hope than a realistic appraisal of the situation and it does not amount to the Quad—at least in its initial conception.

He then asserts that “the Quad makes a better reserve force than an actual capability, at least for the time being.”  He says “alliances are latent military communities, and for now, the Quad can be most useful as a latent maritime security community.”   Of course it is so.  But it is an implicit acknowledgement that the Quad is moribund – – at least as an alliance.  It is just or even more likely to be ‘dead and buried’, given that China’s economic and political persuasion will continue to prevent it from coming to fruition.

As Australian analyst Hugh White aptly puts it: “Does anyone imagine that India is really willing to sacrifice its relationship with China to support Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or that Japan would endanger its interests with the Chinese to support India in its interminable border disputes with China? Or that Australia would jeopardize trade with China for either of them, or even to support America?”

To quote Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Quad concept is like “sea foam in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean: [it] may get some attention, but soon will dissipate.”  He appears to be right.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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