When Mike Pompeo traveled to Tokyo to meet his counterparts from Japan, Australia, and India for talks this week, some observers speculated about the creation of an “Asian NATO” to counter China’s malign activity in the region.
That’s been one constant refrain about this four-country “Quad” in the lead up to the Tokyo meetings, but for now, this is all the Quad has been: a series of diplomatic encounters, not an organization with a headquarters or staff. Still, in the face of increased Chinese belligerence, this alignment of the region’s largest democracies, however loose it may seem, has gotten Beijing concerned about encirclement.
This loose grouping actually began in the early 2000s, not as a purely strategic endeavor, but as the core of the international response to the devastating 2004 tsunami that ripped through the Indian Ocean. The top officials of the four countries then convened for the first “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” three years later, at then-prime minister Shinzo Abe’s behest.
Japan at the time was far more concerned about China’s activities than were the other participants — which is why the first grouping of the Quad fell apart so easily. After India cooled on the idea, Australia’s leader at the time, Kevin Rudd, announced his country’s withdrawal as he stood next to the Chinese foreign minister during a press conference. Rudd, though, has recently defended his legacy, claiming that he only pulled out after it was clear to him that the White House wasn’t interested. Whatever the case, there just was not enough interest to maintain the Quad.
There’s little need to explain the impetus for the 2017 revival to anyone who’s been following Beijing’s recent actions in the region — once again, Japan, then well into Abe’s second stint as prime minister, led the way as Xi Jinping’s leadership has raised international concern about China’s ambitions. Over the ensuing three years, government officials of the four countries have met several times to coordinate on a range of issues that sit at the core of the region’s security and prosperity. In September 2019, on the sidelines of that year’s U.N. General Assembly debate, the top diplomatic officials of these countries met for the first cabinet-level gathering of the group.
Anyone expecting the emergence of a NATO-like organization from this week’s talks has missed the bigger picture: If the Quad is to be a fixture of the free world’s defense against Chinese authoritarianism, it must take the form of a network that suits the nature of this contest, not of the last century’s Cold War.
This begins with acknowledging the apparent paradox at the heart of the Quad group. Each of these countries is immensely concerned with the Chinese Communist Party’s global conduct, each has taken its own steps to push back against CCP influence across several domains, but there are different levels of comfort within the group about how explicitly to broadcast the Quad’s work vis à vis the People’s Republic.
Pompeo, unsurprisingly, was blunt during the talks in Tokyo. During a speech in which he assailed the Chinese regime’s cover up of the coronavirus and its authoritarianism, he said, “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.” But the secretary of state’s counterparts declined to join him in explicitly naming the chief threat to the values that they share.
But while the others preferred to focus on their commitments to the freedom and inclusivity of the Indo-Pacific, that did not obscure the actions that their governments have taken of late to push back against CCP misconduct: India, which has seen a flare up in its Himalayan border dispute with China, recently banned dozens of Chinese apps that it claimed were vectors of influence for the Chinese party-state. Australia has in recent years rooted out foreign interference on its soil — and it provoked Beijing’s ire when it called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. And Japan’s Abe, of course, championed the very concept of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” before it became a staple of American policy planning documents.
Although these U.S. partners remain reluctant to make the Quad primarily and exclusively about combating Chinese influence, the four countries nonetheless seem poised to push forward on these talks with more regularity.
But if the Quad is unwilling to cement this partnership in a more institutionalized way, and if the group champions shared principles but not an explicitly anti-CCP message, what good can it actually do? Quite a bit, actually.
An alignment of four of the region’s major democracies, acting with the tacit understanding that they must push back against Beijing, will indubitably be a very powerful force. Whereas the first iteration of the Quad envisioned cooperation on military exercises, that’s merely one aspect of the post-2017 grouping’s intended cooperation going forward. There are a number of classic security issues that it will tackle — think military cooperation and counterterrorism.
However, the truly interesting possibilities lie with some of the new strategic issues that have emerged in the contest with the CCP. Going forward, there’s a solid possibility that the Quad could be a platform for action to bolster the integrity of technology and telecommunications networks, in addition to working on infrastructure development to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
And however nebulous the Quad’s nature might seem, its lack of a highly-institutionalized structure actually grants its efforts the necessary flexibility to cooperate across a range of areas. So much so that a CCP mouthpiece, the Global Times, ran an article expressing some concern about the coalition: “the Quad grouping is an ideological camp similar to the one during the Cold War. It seeks to contain China.”
That view parrots the widely held misconception that the Quad is a Cold War–style alliance. But Beijing is still correct to worry.