Ever since its revitalisation, the Quad grouping, comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia, has evolved an ambitious agenda. Over the past two years, the Quad has established six leader-level working groups, covering domains like the COVID-19 Response and Global Health Security, Climate, Critical and Emerging Technologies, Cyber, Space, and Infrastructure. These are long-term agenda items that have primarily focussed on establishing frameworks and standards, boosting sharing of information and best practices, identifying vulnerabilities and discussing pathways to address them. The two most visible products of the Quad’s engagement so far have been the COVID-19 vaccine partnership and the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). These also underscore a desire to be near-term outcomes-focussed, while working on longer term challenges.
Importantly, all these initiatives reflect a strategic congruence among the four countries in terms of the desire to shape a “free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific” region, address current challenges and shape the global governance agenda in key domains that will underpin future prosperity. This sense of purpose, however, does not imply the absence of disagreement over certain specific interests. For instance, member states have had clear differences in terms of their approaches to Russia’s war against Ukraine or the political developments in Myanmar.
Some analysts tend to view these differences as fundamental contradictions that strike at the heart of the grouping. Such a view, however, is based in an archaic approach to international relations. It does not account for the impact of three decades of economic globalisation after the end of the Cold War, which created a web of networks and dependencies that cannot be immediately abandoned or transformed. Neither does it account for the changes in the dispersion of power across different countries around the world. The world today is not unipolar and neither is it moving in the direction of bipolarity. What is emerging is an uneven multipolarity. This is characterised by significant absolute power differentials in terms of comprehensive national power among the different poles. But this gap is far narrower when one takes into account relative power dispersion across different factors that constitute comprehensive national power. Invariably, such a situation engenders complexity in terms of any group’s dynamics.
Moreover, such an old-world perspective on geopolitics misunderstands the nature and purpose of the Quad. The Quad is characterised by strategic congruence, political fluidity and diversity in terms of the geographies, capacities and specific interests of each member. Each of these are strengths rather than weaknesses.
A strategic congruence among member states allows for clear and common agenda
Fluidity provides for flexibility to accommodate differing interests. It creates room for domestic political manoeuvrability for each member state. It does not entail rigid commitments without necessarily limiting the scope and depth of cooperation. Ensuring that this situation remains an asset requires continued and frank engagement.
Diversity in capabilities, experiences and interests ensures an inclusive approach and one that can leverage each other’s strengths
The last of these three is perhaps the most critical to the Quad’s future success. This was amply evident in conceptualisation and execution of the Quad’s Vaccine Partnership, which saw each member state bringing a unique set of capabilities to the table. That said, there is something to be said about the need for the Quad to focus on outcomes and deliverables. For instance, the vaccine partnership was first announced at the leaders’ virtual summit in March 2021. Then, during the first in-person meeting between the Quad leaders in September 2021, they committed to donating more than 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022. As of May 2022, however, merely 257 million doses had been provided by the group. This number has since grown to around 670 million, informed the Assistant Australian Foreign Minister Tim Watts in a recent conversation. Nevertheless, it still falls well short of the original commitment. This underscores the importance of an outcomes-focussed approach that balances and long- and short-term objectives.
IPMDA & Maritime Governance
This is more so the case with the Quad’s maritime security and governance agenda. While the IPMDA was announced earlier this year during the May 2022 leaders’ summit in Tokyo, the roadmap for its implementation is rather unclear. Announcing the IPMDA, the Quad leaders had said that the initiative would “innovate upon existing maritime domain awareness efforts”, rely on “a combination of Automatic Identification System and radio-frequency technologies,” provide a “common operating picture” integrating “three critical regions—the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region,” and extend “support for information-sharing across existing regional fusion centers.” They envisioned a five-year window of investment in the initiative. The IPMDA is a significant agreement. It has the potential to go beyond merely domain awareness to not only provide a much needed boost to maritime governance, resource conservation and law enforcement, but also deepen potential intelligence cooperation. It is little surprise then that Chinese analysts have described it as a “rare” Quad initiative that “has teeth,” while also seeking to discredit it as an anti-China measure. The challenge, however, is that it has been six months since the announcement of the IPMDA, and there has been little information regarding the progress made in terms of the technologies that will be used, the process for tracking small fishing vessels, the methodology for sharing the data gathered and the consultations with partners with regard to implementation. It is important that these questions are addressed at the earliest.
This is because domain awareness is merely the beginning of what should be a multi-pronged agenda for the Quad’s maritime security and governance effort. Closer coast guard cooperation among the Quad countries, maritime law enforcement equipment development and training support for littorals in the Indian Ocean Region and the use of shiprider agreements to boost law enforcement capacities of countries in the region is the way forward.
In addition, Quad countries should engage in more active maritime health diplomacy, leveraging the strengths of partner states in geographies that are of primary interest to each of them. Such an approach can allow for expanded presence for each of them, while leveraging each other’s capabilities and social capital. For instance, the navies of India and Australia could work together to engage in health outreach and humanitarian and disaster management efforts in the South Pacific and the Western Indian Ocean region. Some of these initiatives can be operationalised rather easily and quickly. Doing so is important to ensure that the Quad is not just addressing the long-term challenges that countries in the Indo-Pacific face but is also seen as addressing immediate needs while building goodwill.