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How Biden Can Make the Quad Endure

Thought Leader: Evan Feigenbaum
March 11, 2021
Source: Link


On March 12, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden and three counterparts will virtually convene the first ever summit-level meeting of the Quadrilateral framework (or Quad)—a forum composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This once-informal group has become more formalized in recent years, but it has been hampered by its lack of a clear functional agenda. And the group is unlikely to cohere, much less endure, without one.

To succeed, the Quad needs to evolve from a China-focused club of four to a group of first movers on an array of specific functional challenges. The best way to do this is for the four countries to form the core of a rotating set of problem-solving coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. This rotating roster would always include the Quad countries but would also pull in other regional partners on an ad hoc and issue-by-issue basis, depending on which countries bring the most capacity—and will—to the table.


The Quad began nearly seventeen years ago with a joint response to a tangible and urgent crisis, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. For nine days in December 2004 and January 2005, these four countries’ navies provided rapid and effective relief to injured and displaced people all around the Indian Ocean littoral.

In the years since, this informal group has become more formalized. It holds meetings, and it has discussed an array of joint initiatives. But the group has groped for purpose: instead of a quadrilateral that responds jointly to specific functional challenges, the four are today united largely by their shared suspicion of the rise of Chinese power. Indeed, former president Donald Trump and his administration seized on this more abstract purpose, viewing the Quad as a useful means of countering China’s rise in Asia. Trump’s team made the Quad a focus of its efforts to foster a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Now the Biden administration, which shares its predecessor’s ambivalence toward Beijing, has apparently settled on the Quad as a cornerstone of its own regional strategy.


Because the Quad has enjoyed so much attention in recent years, it would be easy to presume that it has accumulated a record of meaningful accomplishments. Yet to date, the grouping has suffered from the very deficiency that plagues nearly every other multilateral grouping in Asia: an emphasis on the geometry of bilaterals, trilaterals, and quadrilaterals as well as a presumption that formalizing the pulling up of seats around a table will deliver meaningful solutions to Asia’s most pressing problems.

In fact, the recent history of Asia mostly shows that the opposite is true: in nearly every pressing crisis of the last three decades—from the East Timor crisis of 2006, to the avian influenza epidemic of 2007, to the Myanmar cyclone of 2008—formalized groups have played almost no problem-solving role. Instead, ad hoc regional coalitions, often assembled by the United States, have helped to spur collective action.

The Quad now risks falling into the same trap. What began as an informal response to a specific crisis is rapidly evolving into a standing group. Predictably, from the coronavirus pandemic to the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the four Quad countries have not provided collective solutions to urgent challenges. And their inability to do so stands in stark contrast to the precedent they themselves set in 2004, when their response to the tsunami delivered real, practical, and effective solutions.

That precedent established a model for how coalitions can best function in the Indo-Pacific. As former under secretary of state Marc Grossman, who led the tsunami coordination, has noted, the 2004 version of a successful Quad grouping had no standing secretariat. It issued no joint communiques. It held no meetings on a fixed schedule. It did not make sweeping claims for its mandate. Nor did it pledge to become a permanent institutional architecture for the region. Instead, it succeeded precisely because it took function, not form, as its guide: its goal was discretely defined, reflected clear metrics for success, and involved meaningful activities such as sharing operational information and conducting relief operations. When the mission was accomplished, the problem was solved, and this functional purpose was met, the successful group simply disbanded.

A standing group could yet have tremendous utility, even in the absence of an urgent purpose. But that will only happen if the group can work together as a core to spur regional collective action.

Trade offers just one example of how mission-focused groupings can, and have, achieved meaningful results. The trade pact known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership began with four first movers within the larger Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum—Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. Sensing that other countries might have an interest in liberalizing trade but that they were not yet ready to move, these four pushed forward a positive regional agenda while inviting others to subsequently join.

The Quad could function in a similar way—acting as first movers and pathfinders on other important issues where regional players have been too reluctant, or else too politically constrained, to move ahead.

But since the Trump administration doubled down on the Quad in 2017, the group has played no such role. Instead, it has suffered from a lack of purpose and a lack of definition.

Biden and his team could change this. For example, a call among the Quad countries’ foreign ministers last month highlighted the need for joint responses to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other challenges, such as countering disinformation, advancing counterterrorism, assuring maritime security, and restoring democracy to Myanmar. But these four countries cannot solve any of these issues acting alone. Logically, they need other partners.

The Quad’s future would be best reconceptualized as the core of a set of ad hoc coalitions that bring in a changing cast of partners, where needed, based on capacity and will.

On Myanmar, for instance, the four would naturally seek to pull in individual ASEAN countries, since ASEAN itself has thus far failed to act collectively in a decisive way.

On countering disinformation, they will need to attract other regional democracies as partners, including Indonesia, New Zealand, and South Korea.

On climate change, they will, inevitably, want to at least try to coordinate objectives and responses with China, whose capacity for action—not just to control emissions but to export and scale green technologies and green finance solutions—is substantial.


Part of the problem has been that the Quad is hampered by its nearly exclusive focus on security issues. Its main success to date has been in increasing the tempo of joint military exercises in the region, including through the India-led Malabar and U.S.-led Sea Dragon exercises. These military exercises have been a useful step, since they are functional by definition: they involve planning and conducting drills against specific hypothetical scenarios. But a disproportionate focus on security issues has also limited the Quad’s growth potential. Expanding maritime surveillance efforts could be one area of continued action.

But non-security issues offer the greatest potential for problem solving and successful action. As a first step, the prospect of the group leading ad hoc regional coalitions in four areas stands out: coordinating best practices for COVID-19 vaccines, addressing climate change, promoting transparent infrastructure financing, and bolstering supply chains:


The bottom line is this: to endure and meaningfully solve problems, the Quad needs to shift its focus from its novel form of dialogue toward joint functional action by the group on the most pressing priorities that others in the region now face. If other countries in Asia view the Quad as little more than a talk shop to discuss the looming risks posed by China’s rise while occasionally holding joint military exercises, it is unlikely that other countries will see its utility or view it as a model for their own choices and conduct.

Of course, Beijing’s actions toward Australia and India over the last year highlight the benefits of solidarity among like-minded partners. But the rest of Asia is less focused on the Quad’s problems with Beijing and the security dimensions of its partnership than on grappling with an array of daily challenges and pressing, long-term development priorities. To lead, the Quad countries must demonstrate in deed, not just word, that they are making major contributions to solving the larger economic, transnational, and environmental challenges that preoccupy nearly everyone else in the Indo-Pacific.

If it does so successfully, the Quad can comprise the firm core of an elastic regional architecture. Ultimately, the priority today should not be on countering China for its own sake but on increasing areas of alignment and cohesion with a larger community of potential problem-solving partners. That is the best path for advancing the interests of the Quad countries, preserving security, and promoting development in the Indo-Pacific.

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