Since the first official quadrilateral consultation among officials from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was held last November in Manila, views have diverged over the role of “the Quad”. Some argue that the Quad would be a useful consultative mechanism to align views among the four parties in order to bolster the rules-based regional order that serves as a counter to China’s assertiveness. Others cast doubts and called the Quad a distraction due to its perceived hostility toward China and a considerable divergence of views on China among the four parties.

Regardless of the disagreement, the governments continued efforts on the consultation. The second quadrilateral working-level consultation took place in Singapore on June 7, following the Shangri-la Dialogue. According to press releases, the consultation addressed a range of common interests, including respect for the rule of law, maritime security, and sustainable development. The officials also agreed on the shared objective of the Quad: protecting a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and emphasizing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s role in the region.

Contrary to concerns that the Quad would complicate relations with China, the arrangement does not seem to have prevented any participant from cultivating pragmatic ties with Beijing. For example, Sino-Japanese relations have dramatically improved since mid-2017, resulting in Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2018 first visit to Tokyo. Li and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed multiple agreements and memoranda of understanding, including long-awaited maritime and aerial communication mechanisms. Additionally, there is little evidence that sacrificing a mechanism to appease Beijing garners any long-term goodwill. One may recall in 2008 when Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd attempted to show prudence, eschewing the Quad for fear of antagonizing China. That consideration, among others, failed to deter China’s provocation and unilateral action in the South and East China Seas in subsequent years.

From the Japanese perspective, the Quad serves two purposes: its role as a hedging strategy against China, and as a functional cooperative mechanism that enhances the existing regional order.

First, the Quad epitomizes Japan’s hedging strategy toward China. Japan’s “China policy” has been always a combination of engagement and hedging, not relying solely on either. Although hedging in international relations often refers to the combination of engagement and balancing, Japan’s hedging vis-à-vis China has meant being prepared for a situation in which China does not behave as a responsible stakeholder in international society. Since the objective of this hedging is not to contain China but to face it in a stronger position when it comes time for negotiation, its purpose is stabilizing the balance of power with China in order to prevent Beijing overestimating its power.

The steadfast U.S.-Japan relationship is always the cornerstone of Tokyo’s foreign policy, but it is particularly so in the case of Japan’s hedging toward China. Due to recent rapid shifts in the distribution of power, however, Japan has expanded security partnerships with Australia, India, and Southeast Asian states in conjunction with U.S. efforts to build a principled security network. While the Japanese government has refrained from mentioning China as the inspiration for those expanded partnerships, one aspect of the Quad is and should be enhancing security cooperation among key regional maritime powers to balance against China’s increasing naval presence. While the Quad’s functional capability to balance power is still nascent, its consistency with the U.S.-led alliance system and its goals align with Japan’s concerns over China’s maritime expansionism.

Second, the Quad has the potential to be a functional mechanism for maintaining the existing regional order. In this sense, as the government has maintained, the Quad does not target China specifically. Rather, it complements Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims at maintaining and enhancing a free, open, inclusive, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, wherein all sovereign states, regardless of size or political system:  (1) must comply with agreed-upon rules, such as international law, and be equal under the law; (2) shall have freedom to seek economic prosperity based on free trade and market economy; (3) are expected to contribute to global public goods, especially open sea lines of communication and airways and open and transparent infrastructures.

That said, the cold reality is that authoritarian regimes and extremist groups have challenged these principles that were woven into international society in the wake of World War II by publicly challenging the legitimacy of rules as Western-imposed, and ignoring them in pursuit of national interests. To make matters worse, the current U.S. president shows little enthusiasm to protect these values except when directly affecting U.S. national interests, and existing regional cooperation frameworks centering on ASEAN have demonstrated the limitation of their consensus-based decision-making on sensitive issues like the South China Sea, where Chinese influence has stymied any feasible resolution. These circumstances demand a greater role of cooperation among like-minded states defending fundamental values to serve as a lodestar, guiding the future of the region to greater freedom, openness, inclusivity, and support for fair rules.

However, challenges remain to the further development of the Quad. First, collective balancing requires not only material power, but unity among partners. China is becoming not only bigger and more assertive, but also more active in attempts to drive a wedge between regional countries through economic and political leverage, as seen in China’s intervention in Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2012 and in Australian domestic politics. Due to a lack of institutionalization in these early stages, the Quad is still vulnerable to domestic and international pressures. A good role model for the institutionalization of minilateral cooperation is the China-Japan-Korea trilateral arrangement. Despite its exclusivity, the trilateral has justified itself through its contributions to regional cooperation and progress since 1999. Following the CJK model, the Quad could be incrementally institutionalized, from current official consultation to informal leaders’ meetings and up to formal annual summit alongside the East Asia Summit, for example. Quadrilateral Track 2 dialogues might provide new ideas and pathways for development.

Second, the Quad remains largely symbolic. Except for 2007’s Malabar 07-2 exercise in the Bay of Bengal, the four navies have not conducted naval exercises together all at once. Instead, threesomes omitting one of the four have developed variously to support security cooperation, including bilateral and trilateral joint exercises and training, information sharing, acquisition and cross-services agreements, and other related efforts. In one case this has meant Australia, Japan, and the United States collaborating on capacity-building in Southeast Asia, while in another India, Japan, and the United States also agreed on joint investment in Southeast Asian infrastructure. Compared to 2007, the materialization of the Quad would now be a patching together of these strategic triangles, not building from the ground up.

This piece suggests defining the Quad as (1) a balancing measure for all four to enhance the U.S.-led alliance system and eventually better engage with China, and (2) a guiding forum for consulting and implementing policies to maintain the regional order based on shared values and actions. A Chinese government statement in response to a question about the Quad gets it right. It says that “it is the shared responsibility of all regional countries to promote stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific” and “[w]e hope that the policies and actions of relevant parties would correspond with the trend of the times that calls for peace, development, friendship and cooperation, and serve to maintain and promote regional peace, stability and prosperity”. The trend of the times, however, requires cooperation within the Quad to better prepare for authoritarian challenges to the fundamental principles of the stable regional order in the economic epicenter of the 21st century.

About Ryosuke Hanada

Ryosuke Hanada is research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, focusing on Japan’s diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region. He is in charge of the Council of Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). He is also a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.