Charting the Quad’s Bilateral Way Forward

As the next Quad summit draws close – presently scheduled for May 2022 – the remarkable growth of the grouping in the past five years is worthy of recap. Its future, however, remains increasingly dependent on the strength of the bilateral ties between the four member powers, especially given recent events ranging from Afghanistan to AUKUS to Ukraine, all of which have shown divergences in interests and outlooks. In order to strengthen the Quad, it is important that the grouping not just expand its Indo-Pacific focus by looking at more areas to cover, but also find avenues to link already established individual, bilateral and trilateral ventures of its members to give a holistic boost to the grouping.


The age of minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific has actively begun, with more trilaterals, ventures and partnerships emerging every month. The goal of such widespread engagement –with often overlapping aims –is to ultimately build trust. For the Quad, such confidence building was spearhead upon the grouping’s revitalization by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, supported by his approach of building personal camaraderie with leaders. At present, the Quad has evolved from a mere consultation framework to a critical Indo-Pacific security grouping with leadership summits, foreign ministerial and senior official level consultations, naval exercises like Malabar with all Quad partners and a widespread focus post-pandemic on sectors of interest ranging from vaccines to critical technology to rare minerals. Such growth culminated into a long-awaited joint statement titled ‘Spirit of the Quad’ released in 2021.


A foundation of strong bilaterals?


Building such multilateral synergy amongst four of the biggest and strongest Indo-Pacific democracies has been a herculean task that has cohesively spearheaded the evolution of their ties. Such foreign policy connect has however been ultimately founded on the basis of domestic policy building, with each of the four powers realising the importance of the Indo-Pacific in their individual capacity before connecting with partner states.


Therein, as the Quad looks to prove its mettle and move forward with renewed focus, it is also equally important to remember –as seen with Japan and India on matters ranging from the G7 expansion to Ukraine –that partners do not have to always agree. Hence, drawing deeper roots by linking together initial domestic ventures –to both reinvigorate the initiatives and strengthen the linkages between the Quad countries –is a much-needed goal.


Key initiatives to tap into are Australia’s Pacific Step-up; India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), SAGARMALA, Bharatmala, Cotton and Spice Routes as well as the notion of Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) cushioned within Delhi’s Act East Policy (AEP); Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) guided by its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy; and the US’ AsiaEDGE and the US-led Build Back Better World (B3W) which it launched with the G7.


Trilateral avenues like the US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN) and India-Japan-Australia led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) are critical to such a compatibility building vision as well. As the number of ventures in the region continues to grow —the new creation of a Middle East Quad showing expansion of minilaterals beyond the Indo-Pacific geography led by US and India —the emphasis on quality over quantity must be remembered.


Overlapping of goals of such ventures, it can be argued, aides stronger trust and confidence building. However, it is important that the funds and energy being invested in each initiative receive due diligence. For instance, despite the stir they caused in media and strategic circles upon their launch, initiatives like BDN, Sagarmala, SCRI, AsiaEDGE and B3W are yet to produce any quantifiable successes. All in all, beyond EPQI, few Indo-Pacific ventures of the four states have led to tangible outcomes that make a dent against the massive Chinese investments going into the Indo-Pacific region.


Proving a vision beyond China


The focus of the Quad powers on maintaining a rules based international order has many a times given rise to the label of being an anti-China body. Beijing itself has touted it an ‘exclusive clique’ reminiscent of ‘Cold War mentality’ and ‘bloc politics’. However, it is important to note that while the Quad’s ‘like-mindedness’ is bound together by a shared threat perception to a democratic, free and open Indo-Pacific due to China’s revolutionary revisionism, the grouping has never officially identified as an anti-China coalition.


Considering the critical economic ties of the four powers to China —especially Australia, India and Japan —the grouping has maintained that its goal remains protection of the rules-based order. Hence, while it maintains focus on containing –rather than outrightly countering –China, its scope extends beyond the Beijing threat to emphasis on engaging with the region and each other better in their own capacities.


By looking inwards into their own ventures, reinvigoration of the initiatives that they have already invested millions in can be done, so as to make them fruitful by direct bilateral engagements with each other under the Quad’s umbrella. Such a linkage would also further deter Chinese attempts at discrediting the Quad as an anti-China US-led bloc framework. For instance, Australia’s Pacific Step-up and the Quad (as a whole and individually with each of the other members) have immense and still unventured room for collaboration.


Beginning of such collaborations would only strengthen the core of the Quad, and also make room for engagement with non-Quad partner states like the UK and European Union (EU), fuelling a potential rotational ‘Quad Plus’ mechanism dream. In lieu of the upcoming the Quad summit, there is no denying that we have see a maturation of the dialogue process with broader goals and varying degrees of engagement up to the national leader level. Still, a call for the Quad to look inwards and further cement ties between its foundational members by forming deeper, long-term and domestic ventures driven linkages is increasingly crucial.

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