Balancing Act Image Credit: MANAN VATSYAYANA / Contributor / Getty

Balancing Act

Making sense of the Quad

Friends, Allies and Enemies

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

In May 2007, officials from the United States, India, Japan and Australia met to discuss the lessons learned from their humanitarian cooperation following the Boxing Day tsunami. Maybe they also shared a few words about the changing regional balance of power. But they can’t have said much: the Quad talks consisted of four mid-level officials meeting briefly on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum conference in Manila. It should have been no big deal. Instead, Beijing saw a phantom menace, and soon went into diplomatic hyperdrive. 

One reason was the timing of the Manila dialogue, just a few months before a multi-nation naval exercise. India and America had long held modest annual naval drills, called Malabar. These expanded in ambition as US–India ties strengthened, so that in 2007 Malabar was held twice and with special guests. First, Indian, American and Japanese forces combined in the Pacific. Then a second round brought in warships from Australia and Singapore, the five navies converging in the Bay of Bengal. 

China reacted with public outrage and diplomatic protests. Its officials and media portrayed a plot to forge an “Asian NATO”. The reality was very different. The exercise had been a one-off. Commitment to the dialogue was fragile. 

Enter Australia’s new Labor government in late 2007 under Kevin Rudd. Diplomatic folklore blames him, not quite fairly, for the demise of Quad 1.0. It is true that Rudd’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith, indicated in response to a journalist’s question that their government was not planning a second round of talks – while standing beside his visiting Chinese counterpart. This was an awkward look. But it also gave Japan and India a scapegoat for their own growing reluctance. Japan’s attachment had weakened after Prime Minister Abe suddenly left office in ill health. Indian ambivalence grew as its coalition government was disrupted by leftist parties rejecting truck with America. For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, preserving the US–India civil nuclear deal was the priority. The Quad was expendable.

The main criticism of the Quad back then was that it would needlessly provoke China down a perilous path of military modernisation and destabilising behaviour. Yet Beijing chose such a road anyway. The perils the Quad’s critics thought it would invoke ended up arising in its absence. The next decade brought such geopolitical instability that the four governments became convinced their disbanded dialogue had been an idea ahead of its time.

Not even the Quad’s most ardent advocates pretend it is the sole solution to Australia’s strategic problem of navigating a contested Indo-Pacific. Rather, it is considered one part of a layered diplomacy model that includes elements of bilateralism, multilateralism and practical minilateralism. No nation is putting all its hope in the four-sided basket.

The regional security dynamic is now largely about balancing against China’s power, and this has both domestic and foreign policy consequences. Almost every significant nation is looking to its defences, even if the economic damage of COVID-19 demands doing more with less. For instance, Australia has undertaken to increase its military capability investments by 40 per cent, to $270 billion, over the next decade, with plans to acquire longer-range maritime strike weapons and a sovereign constellation of satellites to aid communications and targeting. This will make it more self-reliant in some areas of combat, but Australia will still be dependent on the United States for the levels of technology and intelligence required for sustained and intensive warfare. 

In external balancing, the Quad has firmed up further since 2017. Ministers meet to coordinate policy from the top. Experts share sensitive assessments on the new horizon of risk, linking technology, economics, disinformation, disease and military security. Another fully fledged quadrilateral naval exercise has not yet eventuated. But two simultaneous manoeuvres in mid-2020 had the same effect, with one US aircraft carrier practising with Australian and Japanese forces in the Philippine Sea and another joining the Indian fleet in the Bay of Bengal. 

This is also a reminder that the Quad is not the only emerging alignment that counts. There is also an imperative to reach beyond the obvious four, and canvass concerns broader than how to manage China. An Australia–India–Indonesia dialogue has been established, and could usefully tackle a large agenda, from irregular migration and illegal fishing to counterterrorism and social cohesion. Australia, France and India have collaborated successfully in search-and-rescue operations in the Indian Ocean, where between them they have a comprehensive picture of maritime traffic and environmental risk. These nations now make another useful trilateral group, whose foreign secretaries convened virtually in September 2020 to discuss everything from geostrategic concerns to the pandemic and protection of the ocean commons. France and Australia are already part of a less famous quadrilateral for diplomatic coordination in the South Pacific, with America and New Zealand – a group that could become more active in helping smaller states prevent China from translating aid and investment into unchallenged political influence.

There is a new global dimension too, which may overshadow the Quad and much else besides. Pandemic travel restrictions are eroding the importance of geography in choosing friends – after all, when every diplomatic dialogue is just a video conference away, friendships can form across the world.

This year’s ferment of diplomacy includes such ideas as a G7 expansion, to include Australia, India and South Korea; a “D10” of leading global democracies; and a strengthening of the Anglosphere Five Eyes alliance from intelligence-sharing into a full geoeconomic coalition.

And, despite some accusations to the contrary, Australia and the other middle powers have not abandoned dialogue or cooperation with Beijing. As I conclude in my recent book Contest for the Indo-Pacific, the Quad and all the other threads of the new security web are not meant as substitutes for talking to China, but rather to provide more confidence when doing so: ensuring that the terms of engagement are mutual and fair.

Still, plenty of questions remain about the Quad. As the full impact of COVID-19 emerges, will Australia’s new partners really be able to sustain or build the strategic and economic weight we need them to? How durable is their political will? How should the Quad engage other partners, from Asia and beyond? Will its real legacy be as a transition arrangement, creating tolerance for other minilaterals,  some yet to emerge? In the end, how do any of these blocs engage with Beijing and its own efforts to shape and invent institutions? 

The Quad is almost certainly here to stay, having outgrown any particular configuration of political champions. It now commands broad political support in all four countries. Abe’s departure may slow progress, but his successor will almost certainly stay the course. Joe Biden has promised a united front of allies and partners to balance China, in a core pillar of his foreign policy, if he wins this November – and the Trump administration, for all its other mistakes, has got the Quad right. In India, long-term public anger over this year’s border bloodshed means a new openness to any foreign partnership that resists China. In Australia, the Morrison government looks likely to stick around for another term, but in any case there is clear bilateral support for the Quad and the overall priority of balancing Chinese power. 

Several futures are plausible. The Quad could lead to more inclusive arrangements, with the seven-nation coalition on pandemic response a sign of things to come. Or, if America stumbles grievously after the election, we could see more investment in middle-power coalitions without America. Or, in the unlikely event that Beijing rediscovers the art of diplomatic adaptation and pulls back on its assertiveness sooner rather than later, the Quad could matter less.

Friends, Allies and Enemies