Quad Forum Under Pressure to Evolve

7 October 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Foreign Ministers from Australia, India, Japan and the United States met on 6 October as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Prior to the meeting, US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told media that they were expecting to make some significant announcements in the days or weeks following Quad.

Comment

Concerns about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appear to have taken the spotlight in the meeting. A media release from the Australian Foreign Minister put heavy emphasis on concerns about China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific:

At the same time, the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific is becoming more complex. Pressure on the rules, norms and institutions that underpin stability has the potential to undermine recovery. We emphasised that, especially during a pandemic, it was vital that states work to ease tensions and avoid exacerbating long-standing disputes, work to counter disinformation, and refrain from malicious cyberspace activity. Ministers reiterated that states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While the Chinese Government was not mentioned in the media release, it is clear that the CCP is the centre of those concerns, given the continued aggressive posturing by the CCP in the South China Sea. The Australian Government also called out state-based cyber attacks earlier this year, which government sources confirmed to be coming from China.

What makes this recent Quad meeting significant, is that the countries involved have converging interests and shared concerns over the actions of the CCP in the region. While the Indian Foreign Ministry was much less direct in its press release about the dialogue, growing tensions and recent clashes between Indian and Chinese forces likely mean that the Indian government has similar interests in constraining the CCP’s influence. This new iteration of Quad is different than its previous iteration, which disbanded in 2008 less than a year after its inception in favour of domestic governments attempting to focus on developing relations with China. That sentiment was shared by US officials in a briefing on the Quad meeting who noted that ‘there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the Quad actually matter and function this time around’.

While all four members of Quad seem to be on a similar page regarding CCP, it remains to be seen whether that will translate into action. Pompeo’s comments alluding to significant announcements in the short-term future raise questions as to whether the Quad could evolve into a strategic alliance along the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Such an arrangement would have significant ramifications for the region and could be expanded to include other regional countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia. As it stands, however, “Quad 2.0” is still in its early stages and faces many obstacles before it would become a structured alliance such as NATO. One such obstacle is the ambiguity over what the goals of Quad actually are which makes it difficult for its members to come to agreement about practical measures.

It appears that the future of Quad depends heavily on how the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific will play out. While concerns about CCP are a binding agent for the group, its members have also frequently stressed that the purpose is not a simple containment strategy targeted against China. That said, continued aggression from the CCP and its pursuit of “wolf-warrior diplomacy” will continue to provide a reason for the group to exist and perhaps motivation to evolve.

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