Friday’s Quad Summit Will Show if It’s Just a Talking Shop

The fledgling Indo-Pacific alliance needs a mission—and its only meaningful one is maritime security.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning arrives in Hong Kong.
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

When presidents and prime ministers get together for a group meeting, what do they talk about? Only the fly on the wall knows for sure—or in the case of the upcoming Quad leaders’ summit, maybe the hackers. On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a virtual meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The online teleconference of the group—which some consider a fledgling security alliance against China—is bound to be a tempting target for Chinese, North Korean, and Russian cyber-espionage.

Or is it? Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that the Quad leaders would focus on issues including “the threat of COVID,” “economic cooperation,” and “the climate crisis.” Pressed for further details, she reiterated these three core issues. There seems no reason not to take the stated agenda at face value. But if that’s all the Quad leaders will be talking about, the spies might as well sit this one out. Even if it were a public Zoom event, there would be little intelligence value in dialing in.

The COVID-19 pandemic, trade, and climate are all important issues, but they’re not Indo-Pacific issues. There’s nothing about them that requires high-level cooperation among the region’s leading democracies. There’s only one issue that affects the Indo-Pacific region as a region—the one issue that even makes the Indo-Pacific a meaningful regional concept—and that’s maritime security. China, North Korea, and even Russia threaten the secure integration of the Indo-Pacific region on, over, and under the seas. As an alignment of powerful regional democracies, the Quad can effectively counter regional revisionism by these powers. Indo-Pacific maritime security is the one issue that makes the Quad the Quad.

The Quad—shorthand for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—is a reincarnation of the 2007 Quadrilateral Initiative by Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that lasted just six months. The brainchild of then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the original Quad lost its biggest advocate when he suddenly resigned in September of the same year due to ill health. The demise of the first Quad was confirmed when another staunch supporter, then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard, was booted out of office that November. A year later, the closing of George W. Bush’s presidency in the United States put a definite end to any speculation about a potential Quad revival.

The participants in the first Quad spoke vaguely of regional security and held one set of joint naval exercises but never developed a coherent narrative about exactly what the four members would do as a group. When the Quad was reborn in November 2017, its goals were much clearer: “upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight; increase connectivity; coordinate on efforts to address the challenges of countering terrorism and upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.” North Korea was on the agenda, too.

That was then, but this is now. Despite sporadic rhetoric about a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Trump administration never institutionalized Quad cooperation. It didn’t really push to give the Quad a permanent mission until after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, ensuring that its actions would remain sterile. In November, the Quad finally resumed joint naval exercises, and in December it proposed the creation of a new U.S. fleet command in the region that might serve as a permanent multinational force. Had the Trump administration introduced these proposals in early 2018 and demonstrated consistent leadership for the rest of its term, it might have bequeathed a firmly institutionalized mechanism for multilateral Indo-Pacific security coordination to the new Biden administration. Instead, all it gave Biden was a four-letter brand name.

History is littered with the remains of multilateral partnerships that failed because they had nothing to do.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about cooperating on the coronavirus, trade, and climate. But if he really does shift the focus of Quad cooperation from maritime security to civilian issues, Biden will have turned it into just another leaders’ forum. It may save time for Biden to meet with three important partners in a single video chat, but it won’t lay a foundation for future Quad cooperation. The pandemic is a global issue requiring a global response. The four Quad countries share few trade interests. And although Biden has made climate policy a signature issue of his new administration, it is not a signature issue for Suga, Modi, or Morrison.

Indo-Pacific maritime security, by contrast, is an issue that is high on all four Quad leaders’ own policy agendas. Chinese coast guard vessels, newly empowered with government authorization to fire on foreign ships, have repeatedly entered Japanese waters and confronted civilian boats. In the Indian Ocean, Chinese military survey ships operating without navigational transponders have been detected mapping the seafloor in support of potential submarine operations. Australia has been confronted by the threat of a massive Chinese base, allegedly for its fishing fleet, just over 120 miles off its shores, in a corner of Papua New Guinea that hosts no known commercial fishing stocks but controls a strategically important strait.

These challenges reflect China’s penchant for pushing military operations to a point just short of war, relentlessly harassing opponents without offering a clear casus belli. The U.S. Navy itself routinely faces these kinds of operations when transiting waters near China in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. The four Quad navies have a strong interest in working together to track and if necessary confront Chinese vessels acting illegally or just plain dangerously in both international and territorial waters. The countries could also cooperate to help train the coast guards and air forces of Indo-Pacific littoral countries in maritime surveillance and law enforcement.

The Quad is never going to go to war with China. In any case, treaty alliances and military procurement partnerships are more effective tools for preventing war than a loose international grouping. What the Quad can do is provide a backbone for broad Indo-Pacific maritime security cooperation that tamps down China’s brinkmanship across the region. Systematic flight and ship tracking, fisheries management, smuggling interdiction, and the like would also help counter North Korea’s extensive illicit maritime activities. And it would keep Russia on notice as it seeks to develop a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

History is littered with the remains of multilateral partnerships that failed because they had nothing to do. It would be a shame to see the second Quad go the same way as the first, but it will only survive if it has a meaningful mission—one that is distinctive to the grouping and useful to all four countries involved. For that, full-spectrum Indo-Pacific maritime security is the only mission that makes sense.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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