What Is the ‘Quad’ and Should China Fear It?


A term in increasingly frequent use in global politics these days is “the Quad.” The informal grouping brings together the U.S., Japan, India and Australia in an alliance of democracies with shared economic and security interests that span the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The point is to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” but the unstated priority is countering China’s growing power, which rankles the leadership in Beijing. The Quad has its critics, who point out that enthusiasm varies with the political winds in each capital, question the group’s sometimes-ambiguous goals and ask just how effective it will be, given some members are wary of provoking China too directly.

1. Why are we talking about it now?

After years lying dormant, the Quad was revived in 2017 by the U.S. under President Donald Trump, whose government was intent on challenging China from every angle. Yet Trump’s sometimes erratic diplomacy -- including lashing out at friendly nations such as India, Japan and South Korea -- left them hesitant to line up behind the U.S. on China. When Joe Biden took over as president in January, he pledged to repair America’s relationships and work closer with allies while also continuing his predecessor’s tough stance on China. Biden organized the first-ever gathering of the Quad leaders, meeting March 12 with India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and Australia’s Scott Morrison in a virtual conference, which resulted in a pledge to fund India to accelerate production of Covid-19 vaccines and distribute them across Asia. Although the official joint statement doesn’t mention China, the talks came amid a flurry of U.S. diplomacy in Asia designed to shore up relationships and build a common approach to dealing with Beijing.

What Is the ‘Quad’ and Should China Fear It?

2. What are the group’s origins?

After the four nations formed a “core group” that helped coordinate relief operations following the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, Shinzo Abe, who was then Japan’s prime minister, called for a more formal, so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialog in 2007. That year, the group met on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific forum convened by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The same year, the Quad nations plus Singapore participated in an expanded version of the Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, which normally engage U.S. and Indian forces. But after a promising start, the Quad effectively fell apart the next year.

3. Why did it falter?

It depends who you talk to, but interest waned amid concerns about alienating China. Australian’s Morrison has blamed a predecessor, the Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, for a “policy to disconnect from the Quad.” But Rudd, writing in 2019, argued it wasn’t that simple. The Quad lost favor with power brokers in Japan, Rudd said, after Abe resigned the same year he proposed the grouping and especially after his party lost power in 2009. Rudd wrote that U.S. officials didn’t even bring up the Quad when he visited as prime minister in 2008 and that his India counterpart, Manmohan Singh, pledged not to be part of any initiative to contain China. Yet by 2017, with nationalist governments in power in Japan and India, circumstances had changed again. Before Biden came to power, China had engaged in a bloody spat with India on their disputed Himalayan border and launched punishing trade measures against Australia for proposing an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

4. What does China say about the Quad?

China has lambasted the Quad as a mechanism to contain its global rise. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the group of being dedicated to undermining China’s interests. After the Quad’s virtual summit, the defense ministry said the group “hangs on to Cold War mentality, pursues group confrontation, is keen on geopolitical games, uses the so-called China challenge as an excuse to form cliques, and openly incites discord between regional countries.”

5. What do other critics say?

They note the Quad has struggled with its members’ divergent interests, capabilities and interconnectedness with the Chinese economy, the world’s second largest. Some have accused the Quad of being a talking shop that nevertheless cannot speak with one voice and that lacks any real institutional structure. Others fear it could morph into an Asian NATO that would provoke a Chinese response. Indian officials have been both wary of poking China and skeptical of Australia’s heretofore close ties with Beijing, writes Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. In a symbolic move in 2020, however, India appeared to overcome its hesitation and invited Australia to again join the Malabar exercises.

6. What is the Quad’s agenda?

At their virtual summit, the leaders pledged to establish a vaccine expert working group to expand access to Covid inoculations across Asia. But their statement promising a “free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific” also signals an intent to act on an array of pressing global challenges. That includes big issues like climate change and counter-terrorism as well as specific domains such as “quality infrastructure investment” -- a likely riposte to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. That campaign has helped build roads and power stations across Asia but has been the subject of heavy criticism, including accusations that China is luring poor countries into debt traps.

The Reference Shelf

  • An analysis by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on the Quad’s past, present and future.
  • A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on the Quad.
  • Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s essay on the group’s history.
  • A Bloomberg Businessweek article on the unity challenges facing the Quad.

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