Analysis: Will the Quad Become Asia’s NATO?

The leaders of the four Quad countries at their September meeting in Washington, pictured here from left to right: Yoshihide Suga of Japan, Narendra Modi of India, Joe Biden of the United States, and Scott Morrison of Australia. (Wikimedia Commons)

This past year was filled with pivotal events that shook the realm of global affairs. The deepening civil war in Ethiopia. The withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent Fall of Kabul. And, to end the year, a massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and the possibility of a war in Eastern Europe. But one more hopeful moment, and one that could help shape the future of the international order, occurred during a little-reported meeting in Washington, D.C. on September 24.

On that day, President Joe Biden met with the leaders of three major democracies to reaffirm what may become one of the most important alliances of the 21st century. In the White House, Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his administration’s first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad.

The Quad has a history dating back fourteen years, but it is a turbulent one, with the bloc having collapsed soon after its creation only to be reformed four years ago as a stronger, more committed “Quad 2.0.” Though the Quad countries have highlighted numerous issues they wish to tackle in their press releases, including climate change, COIVD-19 vaccine distribution, and emerging technologies, it is clear to all observers that there is one overriding reason for the re-emergence of the Quad: the rise and increasing military and economic power of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

From naval disputes in the South China Sea to trade battles across the Pacific and actual battles in the Himalayas, all four of the Quad countries have experienced turbulent relations with China, and they have realized that now is the time to counterbalance a China allegedly seeking to become the world’s next hegemon. Since the grouping’s reformation under former President Donald Trump, many have been quick to label the Quad as the foundation of an “Asian NATO” to contain China, just as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sought to contain the Soviet Union’s aggression during the Cold War.

But is this framing valid? Can the Quad become a formal military alliance? And is such a thing even desirable? Now, heading into 2022, it’s a good time to take a broader look at the grouping and ask the most pressing question on the minds of foreign policy observers: what is the future of the Quad?

RE-BEGINNINGS

Considering how quickly the original Quad fizzled out the first time around, it’s a miracle that the grouping now finds itself revived and stronger than ever.

The foundations of the Quad can be found in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people and led to the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India forming an ad-hoc “Tsunami Core Group” to coordinate humanitarian response to the disaster. Upon taking office in 2006, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw the potential to build upon the success of the Core Group and establish an “Asian Arc of Democracy” to contest a China that observers could already tell was quickly becoming an economic and political giant.

At the urging of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the Quad leaders first met in Manila in May 2007, leading to an impressive joint naval exercise involving all four countries. But things quickly turned sour. The formation of the Quad immediately outraged China, who sent diplomatic protests to all four countries and put forth allegations of “encirclement.”

For Japan, a country that has had hostile and icy relations with China for decades, the move to directly contest China may have seemed logical. But for India and Australia, the idea of antagonizing the economic giant was troublesome. China was and remains Australia’s largest trading partner, and upon his accession to the premiership in 2008, Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would not be participating in another round of the Quad dialogue.

And so the Quad died an unceremonious and abrupt death. The various countries did continue to carry out naval exercises and other ventures in a bilateral or trilateral manner, but not in the multilateral manner that had characterized the Malabar Exercise in 2007. For almost a decade, the Quad laid dormant as its former members engaged with China in their own ways. Under President Hu Jintao, China operated in a relatively friendly manner, engaging with the world and establishing greater trade ties under a so-called “peaceful rise.”

In 2012, however, Hu stepped down, and with the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the dynamics of Asian geopolitics began to shift rapidly. Instead of a peaceful rise, Xi emphasized a “national rejuvenation” whereby China would retake its rightful place as the pre-eminent power in both its region and the world. Personally centralizing power to an extent not seen since the days of Mao Zedong, Xi led China into aggressive engagements and started claiming territory in the South China Sea, bringing China into dispute with more than half a dozen countries, including Japan. In early 2017, standoffs along the India-China border in the high Himalayan mountains spooked India, and Australia’s Prime Ministers following Kevin Rudd began to emphasize greater cooperation with the United States in the face of such belligerence.

The U.S. meanwhile, was busy trying to shift its attention from quagmires in the Middle East towards the growing threat of China, under Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” initiative. But despite Obama’s promises, it was his successor, Trump, who helped revive the Quad. Upon invitation from Japan, the foreign ministers of the four Quad countries held their first joint meeting in ten years in November 2017, during a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Considering Trump’s heavy criticism of America’s other multilateral alliances such as NATO, it is possible that the Quad appealed to him due to its more informal nature and the fact that the U.S. didn’t have to pay for the security of the whole grouping.

The Quad strengthened further due to events in 2020. Under Scott Morrison, Australia attracted China’s wrath after his government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, leading to a small-scale trade war in which China cut off various food and energy imports from Australia.

Along the tense India-China Himalayan border, an even more devastating event occurred: in May 2020, Chinese and Indian soldiers engaged in violent skirmishes and melees along their disputed border in the Ladakh region. 20 Indian soldiers and up to 40 Chinese soldiers were killed in what was apparently connected to a larger Chinese effort to encroach upon India’s Himalayan territories, dramatically ratcheting up tensions between the world’s two most populous countries.

Thus, China’s belligerence has ensured that all participants are fully on board with the Quad project. But while Japan and Australia’s longstanding cooperation with the U.S. makes their participation in the Quad rather predictable, India’s involvement is a bit of a surprise to observers, and its presence is critical to the Quad’s future.

THE ODD ONE OUT

Despite the warmness of the September meeting, the Quad does face unique challenges that an arrangement like NATO does not. The presence of India is one such quirk; in many ways, India is both the Quad’s most critical member and its weakest link. The U.S and Japan have a longstanding security agreement under their Treaty of Mutual Cooperation, and the U.S. has committed to defending Japan against any military threat. Australia is in a similar position, having first signed the ANZUS treaty with the U.S in 1951 and the new AUKUS agreement last month, a trilateral arrangement between Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. whereby the United States will produce advanced nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

But India has no such collective security agreement with the United States. Though U.S.-India relations have been warming for decades, they have never approached the level of allyship of the United States’s relations with Japan and Australia. At the same time, however, keeping India engaged with the Quad is critical for its success — as the second-most populous country in the world and an emerging economic heavyweight, India provides a natural democratic foil to China’s autocratic model.

India’s engagement with the Quad also represents significant shifts in the country’s foreign policy doctrine. Since the founding of the modern republic in 1947, India has adhered to a policy of “non-alignment,” first choosing not to ally explicitly with either the capitalist or communist bloc during the Cold War and generally charting its own independent course in the post-Cold War period. Thus, for many years, India has had good relations with numerous rivals like the U.S., Russia, and even China, but it has never had any true “allies,” only partnerships.

In recent years, though, and particularly since the ascension of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, India has begun to shift its foreign policy priorities. Modi’s current Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said last year that non-alignment was “a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape” and that, “the era of great caution… is to a certain extent behind us.”

Joint exercises between the U.S. and India over the past few years confirm this increasing willingness to associate with distinct blocs. Nevertheless, India does not appear ready to move towards a formal security alliance, still wishing to retain some measure of its independence. Indeed, India likely would not have signed on to the Quad 2.0 if it was explicitly positioned as an anti-China military alliance, as India is apprehensive to contest an army whose budget is worth four times that of its own.

From this point of view, enterprises like the recent AUKUS deal are welcomed by India’s foreign policy establishment, as it takes some of the pressure off of India to contain China. At the moment, much of China’s power comes from its economic might rather than its military buildup, from its export empire to its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build up infrastructure across Eurasia and Africa. Therefore, it makes sense for the Quad to focus on areas like supply chains and vaccine distribution, where China’s strengths can be directly countered. With China currently being the largest or second-largest trading partner of each Quad country, they have a pressing desire to, as Biden has said, “decouple” from China’s increasingly coercive economic strategy.

SECURITY, REDEFINED

It is clear that due to India’s apprehensions, the Quad cannot yet become a fully-fledged collective defense pact. But is there potential in the future for the Quad to become the Asian NATO that some seem to desire?

There are indications that the United States would prefer such an arrangement, but ultimately, a strengthening of the Quad depends on China’s actions. China has frequently expressed alarm at the Quad 2.0, calling the most recent summit a “closed, exclusive clique” that is “doomed to fail.” The question is, will China become even more aggressive in the face of a strengthening Quad, or back off now that it sees regional actors teaming up against it?

The latter would be welcome, but there is reason to suspect the former scenario is more likely, not because China’s rise will continue to accelerate but because its rise appears to be slowing. China is facing serious challenges, such as an impending demographic crisis, a housing bubble, and slowing economic growth, leading some analysts to scarily predict the activation of a “peaking power trap.” If these analysts are right that China faces a sharp economic decline in the near future, China may be pressured to react in the near future with swift military action, or lose its window of opportunity entirely.

If the threat of a Chinese attack is imminent, some might claim that a NATO structure is critical to prevent it, but an Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization would likely not stop, say, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In fact, China might be more willing to launch such an attack if it feels encircled, or if there is a possibility that Taiwan could join a hypothetical IPTO, just as Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014 to prevent the country’s accession to NATO.

Considering these nightmarish scenarios, the Quad’s best path, for now, appears to be its current one; perhaps it can formalize itself through the creation of a secretariat, but otherwise, it is advantageous to focus on economic competition alongside various joint military exercises. In the September summit, the Quad’s leaders committed to an ambitious agenda including the global donation of 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses through the COVAX program, forming a green-shipping network, establishing a semiconductor supply chain initiative, and creating a working group on space exploration, all worthwhile initiatives that will help secure the future of the democratic world.

Perhaps NATO was the right alliance for its time, and perhaps the Quad doesn’t need to be the next NATO. In this new era of fracturing globalization, the Quad may just be the harbinger for the future of security.

The author is a third-year student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, studying International Politics with a minor in Economics. A version of this story was originally published for Georgetown’s global affairs newspaper, The Caravel, on November 2, 2021.

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Georgetown SFS Class of 2023.

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