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It’s time to shift the Quad Debate

If there really is more to the Quad than security, perhaps it’s time to move the conversation in that direction.


There are always going to be issues more controversial than others, especially in international politics. Few, however, stoke such vehement debate or “outsized interest” as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘Quad’. And so it was relatively unsurprising, then, when comments made by US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phillip Davidson last month stirred the proverbial hornet's nest that is the academic community.

Speaking to reporters in Singapore, Davidson made comments that were subsequently reported and interpreted as signalling that the Quad could be shelved. The next day, a spokesperson from the Pentagon clarified the meaning of the Admiral’s remarks, stating that Davidson "was referring to a formal, regular meeting of military leaders from the four countries” (emphasis added): what the Admiral had actually said was that quadrilateral naval cooperation was off the table in the near-term, but that regular dialogue would continue. Despite the clarification, the fuel to the Quad’s often fiery debate had already caught alight. While this time the debate may have been ignited as much by misleading headlines as by Davidson’s actual comments, the Quad already attracts far greater attention than it would seemingly deserve precisely because of the sum of its membership.

True to form, the academic debate quickly descended into the usual exchanges over the merit of the Dialogue as a meaningful grouping. Indeed, the forcefulness of some of the reactions to Davidson’s comments demonstrated just how controversial Quad remains as a subject of academic debate despite its underdevelopment. While this was not necessarily unexpected, this latest bout of sparring over the Quad also illustrated just how mired these discussions have become in questions of security. That focus might be attributed simply to the dialogue’s complete title, but also to its conceptual origins and more recent association with the various ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategies touted by America, Australia and Japan. Yet it is also clear that the Dialogue is looking to address a range of other regional issues beyond security coordination, though without much discernible headway to date.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering the following proposition: if the Quad cannot or will not become a strategic alignment, as academics and practitioners seem to agree, then surely it is worth shifting the debate to explore other potentially more productive areas for cooperation.

True to form, the latest judgements on the Quad’s future could be split broadly between two camps. On one hand, Quad optimists pointed out that Davidson had been misquoted, that it was never going to be a security bloc anyway, and highlighted the Dialogue’s true role as a diplomatic mechanism and a site for converging interests. Conversely, pessimists seized on the opportunity to herald the end of the Quad 2.0, consistent with past assessments of the dialogue’s over-stated potential. Both detractors and supporters have valid points. Three meetings in eighteen months have produced amicable statements on shared interests and intent, but these sentiments are yet to be operationalised, calling into question the idea that the Quad has the potential to be “much more” than the strategic alignment it is supposedly trying, or trying not, to be.

Conversely, optimists are right to suggest that that the Quad should not be defined in purely strategic terms, contending that the Dialogue is a useful mechanism for low-key coordination between the Indo-Pacific’s four premier maritime democracies on a range of issues and interests, often relating but not limited to China. Some claim that the beauty of the Quad is that it makes the world safe for bilateral and trilateral engagement by providing a distraction to the more meaningful interactions that take place in those settings. While conceptually this is a neat hypothesis, in practice it is unclear exactly how this safety manifests: analyses of the Quad might frequently overshadow that of bilateral or trilateral engagements, which are in fact highly consequential, but one cannot presume that Beijing is blinded to their real significance by the looming potential of the Quad.

While the outline of the perspectives above is not completely exhaustive (the security debate continues to attract new perspectives), as a general rule it would seem that discussion is yet to escape the security focus. That beleaguers an assessment of the Quad’s wider potential and is somewhat strange when both supporters and detractors seem to agree on the Quad’s strategic limitations. It makes sense to escort the debate to new ground in an effort to as they stake out a positive agenda for the Dialogue’s future.

Of course, it is difficult to debate the Quad’s non-strategic dimensions when they are largely non-existent, but a lack of development has not prevented the debate from ceaselessly orbiting the security issue either. Besides, there is at least one example of stalled cooperation in another important area: regional infrastructure building.

In February 2018 it was announced that the Quad would meet to discuss potential collaboration on regional economic initiatives, only for consultations to result in a ‘mere’ trilateral partnership for infrastructure investment between Canberra, Tokyo and Washington. Though still an important development, India’s absence after having participated in initial discussions was notable, yet largely un-noted by the media or policy community. Recent reporting seems to have belatedly noted that the same lack of consensus that has inhibited strategic cooperation may also be affecting economic cooperation and coordination. While the issue here remains the Quad’s inability to get moving, it still arguably provides a relatively fresh and untested line for academic enquiry and debate.

At this stage, shifting discussion to address other areas where the Quad might cooperate would arguably be a far more productive pursuit. Rather than repeatedly staking out the usual positions on the Quad and ‘hard’ security, there are in fact still new propositions to be put and debates to be had on the Dialogue’s unrealised potential.

Tom Corben is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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