An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College and author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific
30 October 2021
September 2021 was a momentous month in Australian statecraft. The biggest headlines went to AUKUS: the new triple partnership with America and Britain to deliver nuclear-powered submarines and critical technologies.
But the achievement of AUKUS – and the accompanying difficulties with France – should not overshadow another major development in the web of solidarity Australia will need to manage the China-centric security risks in our Indo-Pacific region.
For this is the year of the Quad. This four-nation group – Australia, United States, India and Japan – has rapidly become a fixture in our strategy, a diamond of trust with a comprehensive and promising agenda of co-operation.
Our Quad diplomacy has been confident and creative, and is paying dividends.
As the smallest of the four, Australia draws leverage from the fact that the Biden Administration has made the Quad so central to its strategic policy settings.
After all, President Biden’s first international summit was the inaugural meeting – albeit virtual – of Quad leaders back in March. Then in September at the White House he convened the first in-person Quad summit.
The Quad is the solidifying core of a loose balancing arrangement against Chinese power. But it will contribute most effectively to Australia’s security if we know its limits as well as its strengths.
It is not a formal alliance, the kernel of an “Asian NATO”.
Yes, in theory the four would make a formidable military combination: bringing together the world’s first, third, ninth and 13th largest defence spenders, their advanced maritime capabilities and strategic geography weaving a powerful net across the sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific.
The Malabar exercises hint at that potential.
Last year, Australia was admitted to this India-led activity, which has expanded in scale and seriousness over many years among the other countries.
This year, Malabar has involved warlike training – including anti-submarine operations – in two phases, in the Philippine Sea in August and the Bay of Bengal in October.
But India remains averse to formal alliances. That’s fine. For Australia, India being India – determined and capable in protecting its wide interests – is enough. The US-India defence partnership and our integrated training through Malabar can deepen that capability.
If one day Quad members contemplate co-ordinated military action in a crisis, that will be entirely China’s doing.
But nor is the Quad just about talk, an “attention-grabbing idea” that is doomed to “dissipate like ocean foam”, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed a few years ago.
Indeed, the summits this year have broadened the Quad into something more comprehensive and durable than either mere talk shop or shadow alliance.
The leaders committed to “a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity – a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient”.
In March 2020, the first Quad summit recast the grouping’s agenda to include the provision of public goods to the region: co-operation and capacity in critical technologies, vaccines and climate policy. The in-person summit in September reinforced this action plan, introducing new technology standards consistent with democratic values, tracking a vaccine rollout predicted to reach two billion doses in 2022, and promoting civilian maritime security like a “green shipping” arrangement to reduce coastal pollution.
All this is hardly hawk talk, and unmasks the theatrics of fulmination that the Quad previously attracted from parts of the commentariat (or for that matter the Chinese propaganda machine).
The Quad is a foundation for larger coalitions to address shared problems.
In 2020, the Quad countries were joined by Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand in one setting, and Brazil, South Korea and Israel in another, for talks on managing the pandemic and supply chain risks.
There is scope to co-ordinate overlapping groups: the Quad, the 5-Eyes (US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), the G7, and perhaps even larger groupings of democracies, such as the 11 self-proclaimed “open societies” – G7 plus India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa – that assembled in Britain in mid-2021.
Already we see hints of “Quad Plus” arrangements. This year, French, British and Canadian forces have exercised with all Quad powers, whether all together or in smaller combinations. A big test of France’s continued Indo-Pacific commitment will be how it coordinates with the Quad.
And for all the clamour that the Quad is somehow dangerous, the reality is that middle powers are quietly accepting the balance it brings. Opinion polling has shown that Southeast Asian elites recognise the Quad as complementing rather than displacing their cherished ASEAN as the hub of regional diplomacy.
In India, support for the Quad is so great that the arrival of AUKUS requires strategists to explain why this new arrangement won’t in turn supplant the Quad – which of course it won’t, since a trilateral technology pact which makes Australia stronger will, among other things, boost the capability we offer as a Quad partner.