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The Quad and its limits in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy

Kate Backshall | United States Fellow

Image credit: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
Image credit: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

The Indo-Pacific region remains high on the United States’ (US) agenda. Early doors, strengthening ties with allies and promoting a strong presence in the region is the Biden administration’s strategy of choice for countering the rise of China. China and the US have had increasingly fraught relations in recent years and former-President Trump’s approach to the relationship, particularly concerning trade, brought these tensions to the fore. China’s growth is challenging dynamics within the region and, as it economically rivals the US, these dynamics have forced reassessments on both sides over trade relations, militarisation and global norm adherence in the region. This has motivated the US to reinvigorate their relationships with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) nations, but whether this group of nations could genuinely unify to act as a counter-weight to China is disputable.

The Quad is a strategic group comprising of Australia, India, Japan and the US, which has been revived as part of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy responding to China’s rise. The Quad first worked in unison in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but the group has lacked the united vision that characterises traditional alliances. The most recent meeting of the four heads of state, held on 12 March 2021, produced a joint statement from the group entitled “The Spirit of the Quad”. The statement outlines the group’s raison d’etre without mentioning China directly. But the statement's clearly outlines the group's direction, not least the mention of ‘a free, open rules-based order’ which has been used by successive US administrations to reaffirm the foundation of US unipolarity. There are clues in the timing, also, with Japan, the US, India and Australia all involved in their own bilateral squabbles with China.

Beijing has responded to the Quad’s re-emergence, describing the group as an ‘anti-China front line’ and ‘mini NATO’. Likewise, Beijing made clear it considers the claim that they exist outside of the purported rules-based order contentious and had made a point of exposing the alliance’s hypocrisy. In a tit-for-tat exchange responding to the US’ criticism, China released a document jabbing at the US for its own human rights record. The document noted the US’ tragic unpreparedness in handling COVID-19, the systemic poor treatment of minorities, and the US’ withdrawal from international bodies like the WHO when they no longer served the US’ interests.

But China’s description of the Quad as a ‘mini NATO’ exaggerates the group’s current capacity. Equally, China’s mention of hypocrisy does little to deflect from their behaviour which has alienated their relationships with the Quad members, all of whom have strong economic ties to China. The Quad members are primarily aligned due to their grievances with China. They have voiced concerns over several major issues in their relations with the growing power including intellectual property theft, economic and border tensions, aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, and alleged human rights breaches - particularly their treatment of minorities such as the Uyghur Muslims.

The Quad is not a security alliance

Despite many of the group’s grievances relating to security, the Quad is currently focusing its efforts on soft power rather than creating a defence-based alliance. Their first joint project has been to counter China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ by preparing their own vaccine distribution plan to bolster relations within the region. While both Japan and Australia developed strong relationships with the US throughout the 20th century, India remained unaligned throughout the Cold War and therefore lacks a history of military collaboration. Moreover, despite championing the Quad, the US has seen a growing isolationist sentiment within its citizenry, epitomised by the ‘America first’ phase, and has been forced to look inward to address immediate domestic concerns. Though the US population is considerably warier of China since Trump’s presidency, without a domestic appetite for interjecting in world affairs, the US cannot be confidently relied upon to intervene in a skirmish abroad. This also could hamper the potential potency of the Quad.

Jake Sullivan, the US’ national security adviser noted that the group left their most recent meeting with ‘no illusions about China’. As it stands, the group is not showing any teeth in their approach to counter China. Instead, the fledgling group has committed to further expanding their supply chains with one another to reduce their dependence on China. The Quad has also committed to ongoing meetings which may see its parameters expand. But with a clear focus on soft, not hard power gains, the potential for true confrontation with China remains limited.

Kate Backshall is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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