President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House staff, participates in the virtual Quad Summit with Australia, India, and Japan Friday, March 12, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Experts Debate the Role of the ‘Quad’ In a Changing Asia

Is the Quad’s trajectory raising risks of a new cold war with China? How can the Quad be repurposed to reduce these risks? What role could India play in such a shift? On April 21, the Quincy Institute hosted a panel discussion led by QI Research Fellow Rachel Esplin Odell on the geopolitical implications of the Quad — aka the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India — for Asia’s security landscape against the backdrop of China’s development as a great power in the region.

Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, argued that it is not the Quad per se that is destabilizing Asia, but rather the lack of a comprehensive, long-term U.S. strategy for managing the arrival of China as a great power and the simultaneous decline in America’s relative power. The Quad’s shortcoming, according to Mahbubani, lies in that it ignores the reality that the nature of competition in Asia is not military but economic in nature. The real danger of the Quad, therefore, is that it risks becoming oriented around the old Cold War-era notion that building a strong countervailing military alliance or security partnership will lead China’s power to collapse as the Soviet Union’s did. The focus on the Quad also distracts the United States from the “real game” of economic integration, as embodied in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement signed by 15 Asia-Pacific nations in November 2020.

Sarang Shidore, senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, took a more explicit position that the trajectory of the Quad is destabilizing Asia, while concurring with Mahbubani that the current competition in Asia is economic in nature. Although objectives articulated in Quad statements such as freedom and openness are themselves desirable, the organization has put a greater emphasis on the military elements of the relationship in the past four to five years. By tying together and boosting the traditional U.S. hub-and-spokes security architecture in Asia, the Quad is creating the impression that it aspires to become an informal military bloc. This perception will in turn deepen the security dilemma in Asia, according to Shidore.

Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China program at the Stimson Center, noted that although the Quad itself is not an ideal strategy to counter China, China’s own words and deeds as the bully in the neighborhood have contributed to its formation. According to Sun, China’s views about the Quad have evolved over time. During the Trump era, Beijing’s concern about the Quad was not as strong as was widely believed by foreign observers, because even U.S. allies and partners were skeptical of the sustainability of Trump’s policies. But Beijing’s perception has changed as the Quad is becoming institutionalized with regular meetings and summits under the Biden administration. Facing these developments, according to Sun, China sees its bilateral ties with each member of the Quad as more important than multilateral relations between China and the Quad as a whole. In particular, Beijing believes that if it can manage its problems with Tokyo and Delhi in bilateral settings, then the effectiveness of the Quad in countering China’s interests can be limited.

The panelists also noted that the divergence of interests between the United States and other Quad members and between Quad members and other Asian countries may constrain the Quad. Mahbubani contended that the growing level of economic integration in the region makes Asian countries reluctant to join the Quad because they are not convinced that the best way of balancing China is by creating a Cold War-style network against China. Even the Quad members, including not only India but also Japan and Australia, are economically more closely tied to China than to the United States.

Shidore observed that while growing India-China tensions over their border disputes has increased support in India for the Quad, in the long-run, India’s convergence with the Quad has structural limits because of India’s proximity with Eurasia which is likely to eventually manifest itself in India’s foreign policy. India’s policy and interests in Eurasia are not exactly aligned with those of the United States or the Quad, which focus on the western Pacific. In particular, the growing emphasis on security cooperation in the India-U.S. relationship creates risks given the mismatches of interests and perceptions between the two countries on Russia, Iran, and even Afghanistan. Given this divergence, according to Shidore, in the long run India may seek to restrain some of the Quad’s current trajectories, even though in the last 4-5 years India has signed crucial military-to-military agreements and conducted exercises with the U.S. further offshore from the Indian mainland.

Sun also noted that China pays close attention to inconsistency among Quad members about China. Japan is economically heavily dependent on China and does not share the same position with the United States on human rights issues in China. India is more concerned about the land border, while the U.S. is interested in having India play a greater role in the maritime dimension. As such, China’s assessment is that the Quad will still face constraints that prevent it from evolving into a wholly China-focused security organization, although it could affect specific issues related to China. Going forward, Sun suggested the Quad focus on pragmatic issues, citing vaccine diplomacy as a prime case of the organization balancing China through practical cooperation on specific issues. Shidore noted that the United States should pay attention to India’s under-discussed interest in Eurasia in terms of not only security challenges but also the lack of connectivity between India and the region. Mahbubani noted that the U.S. can win its geopolitical competition with China by more effectively leveraging American private investment in Southeast Asia and Eurasia in the face of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Watch full video of the event here.