June 30, 2022

Operationalizing the Quad

By Lisa Curtis, Jacob Stokes, Joshua Fitt and CDR Andrew J. Adams

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Executive Summary

The Quad—made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is becoming the principal multilateral group shaping the geo-economic and technological future and the strategic orientation of the Indo-Pacific. Strengthening the Quad is a central pillar in the Biden administration’s strategic plan to compete more effectively with a rising China and to put forth a vision of a free, open, transparent, inclusive, and peaceful Indo-Pacific.

Although the Quad was revived in 2017 under the Trump administration after a 10-year hiatus, it is the Biden administration that has further strengthened U.S. commitment to the group and elevated it to the next level. In the past year, the Quad has held four summit-level meetings—two virtual and two in person—the latest being held in person in Tokyo on May 24, 2022. The Quad leaders released their first joint statement following a virtual meeting on March 12, 2021, and launched three working groups on vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, and climate. They published an even lengthier joint declaration following their first in-person meeting, held at the White House on September 24, 2021, adding three more priority areas to their agenda for cooperation: infrastructure, space, and cybersecurity.

Working to address regional security challenges offers a potential area for further operationalizing the Quad. Quad leaders have consistently emphasized that the group is not a formal military alliance, and the partners do not have treaty-bound mutual defense obligations beyond those the United States has bilaterally with Japan and Australia. Quad leaders have also generally downplayed the role of security issues in the group’s activities, seeking to present an affirmative, rather than defensive, vision for the region and preempt concerns from China as well as other regional states that the Quad will develop into an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.

Still, the four partners have overlapping—although not totally unified—perceptions of the regional security environment as well as the challenges and threats it presents. If the Quad takes up a security and defense agenda, the countries are particularly well positioned to work together across five areas of security policy: joint exercises, interoperability, and patrols; intelligence sharing and maritime domain awareness (MDA); logistics and access; defense technology development and arms sales; and capacity building with regional partners. From the U.S. perspective, coordination in any of these areas would contribute to advancing Washington’s objective of building “integrated deterrence,” which focuses on “developing and combining our strengths to maximum effect.”

This paper assesses Quad activities and the progress the group has made toward its stated objective of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. It also provides policy recommendations for strengthening Quad cooperation across the six identified priority areas (vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, infrastructure, space, and cybersecurity) as well as on trade and economics and security and defense. To operationalize the Quad and realize its stated objective of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, the group should focus on these issue areas and associated recommendations:

Vaccines

  • Deliver on the Quad commitment to provide one billion COVID-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022.
  • Maintain an open and frank dialogue on vaccine distribution challenges.

Critical and Emerging Technologies

  • Coordinate messaging to other Indo-Pacific nations to ensure that these countries’ leaders have a full understanding of the negative impacts associated with relying on technology from untrusted vendors.
  • Agree to and publish standards for critical and emerging technologies with a focus on telecommunications, artificial intelligence, microchips, biotech, and other essential technologies.

Climate Change

  • Ensure that the climate working group coordinates closely with the critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure, and space working groups.
  • Coordinate on prioritization and distribution of climate change assistance in the Indo-Pacific.

Infrastructure

  • Focus on mapping the infrastructure needs of the region and sharing information about individual infrastructure investments to ensure that each Quad member’s respective activities complement each other and are mutually reinforcing.
  • Incentivize the private sector to invest in strategic infrastructure projects, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Explore cooperation on projects that expand the East-West Corridor to connect India to Southeast Asia through the Bay of Bengal.
  • Coordinate on steps to strengthen international legal frameworks to prevent physical damage and cyberattacks on subsea cables.

Space

  • Enhance cooperative mechanisms to establish space situational awareness among the Quad nations.
  • Launch annual trainings for space personnel to improve interoperability and build people-to-people ties.
  • Promote enhanced industry ties in the space sector among Quad countries.

Cybersecurity

  • Seek to establish a shared set of cybersecurity standards that are influenced by each Quad member’s own internal policies.
  • Enhance multilateral cybersecurity actions with a focus on preventing cyber exploitation.
  • Support civilian cyber workforce interoperability.

Trade and Economics

  • Center economic agendas around supply chain diversification while remaining realistic about new trade agreements.
  • Coordinate responses to counter Chinese economic coercion.

Security and Defense

  • Deepen Quad security cooperation by building on existing bilateral and trilateral security cooperation mechanisms.
  • Quietly agree to send officials at the assistant secretary level to a working group that would meet periodically to discuss crisis management and responses to regional contingencies.
  • Commit to developing a detailed roadmap on improving MDA to fulfill—and eventually expand on—the promise of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness.
  • Identify opportunities for Quad joint naval patrols.
  • Negotiate new, or expand existing, reciprocal access agreements to include strategically located island territories.
  • Map each Quad member’s existing maritime law enforcement and military capacity-building efforts.
  • Ensure that the United States Senate catches up with its Quad partners in ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • Reserve a portion of the agendas for Quad working groups on critical and emerging technologies and space for consultations on the military and defense applications of those technologies.
  • Develop a framework for dealing with nontraditional maritime security threats, such as piracy, threats to marine research activities, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Other Areas

  • Maintain the Quad’s current membership to keep the group nimble and allow for deeper and wider cooperation among the core four nations, while exploring nonmember partnership mechanisms.
  • Establish a strategic communication cell to combine efforts to counter disinformation and misinformation in the region.

Introduction

The Quad—made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is becoming the principal multilateral group shaping the geo-economic and technological future and the strategic orientation of the Indo-Pacific. Strengthening the Quad is a central pillar in the Biden administration’s strategic plan to compete more effectively with a rising China. Although the Quad leaders currently avoid publicly discussing defense-related initiatives and do not seek to make the Quad into a NATO-like organization, the Quad’s purpose is undeniably strategic. Its aim is to provide a counterweight to China’s growing economic and political influence in the Indo-Pacific and put forth an alternative vision of a free, open, transparent, inclusive, and peaceful region as opposed to one dominated by China’s authoritarian ideology.

The idea of a Quad dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was conceptualized by then–Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo around 2007. Abe was inspired by the formation of the Tsunami Core Group, which was created in response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean as a way for the four nations to cooperate on disaster relief efforts. The first-ever Quad meeting of senior officials occurred in 2007 on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum meeting. Days before the meeting, China démarched all four capitals, inquiring about the agenda of the meeting and whether it would have an anti-China focus. That same year the Quad countries plus Singapore participated in the Malabar naval exercise, which India holds annually with the United States and Japan, in the Bay of Bengal. The Australians decided to withdraw from the Quad in 2008, in a move likely aimed at placating China, a major trading partner. The Indians—who share a disputed border with China over which they fought a war in 1962—also indicated a degree of uneasiness with the Quad around the same time.

The Quad, however, was revived 10 years later, in November 2017, during the Trump administration. Building on a series of working-level meetings held in 2017 and 2018, the Quad met at the ministerial level in September 2019 and again in October 2020. In addition, two virtual meetings were held at the deputy national security advisor level in March and May 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the same timeframe, then–Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun held a series of virtual biweekly meetings to address issues related to COVID-19 with the Quad countries plus New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam. Also in 2020, for the first time in 13 years, India included Australia in the Malabar exercise.

The impact of the COVID-19 global crisis and China’s aggressive military, political, and economic moves in the wake of the pandemic strengthened the desire of all four countries to elevate and operationalize the Quad. Whether it was cutting off Vietnam’s access to its fishing waters, undermining Hong Kong’s self-rule, deploying submarines to threaten Japan, suspending Australian beef, barley, and other imports, or contesting Indian territorial sovereignty along the Line of Actual Control separating India and China, Beijing lashed out on several fronts. These actions have all taken place following an ambitious, multi-decade People’s Liberation Army modernization program, which has resulted in a vastly stronger and more capable force. Substantial new military power appears to be emboldening China’s approach toward regional disputes. Chinese economic coercion aimed at Australia and border aggression toward India reinforced for these countries the benefits of the Quad as a way for powerful like-minded democracies to combine resources and capabilities and take collective action to support the maintenance of a free, open, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the dangers of overdependence on China for critical goods. China’s ability to disrupt medical supply chains led the Quad countries to consider ways they could work together to build more resilient global supply chains for critical minerals and technologies.

Since the Biden administration took power in January 2021, it has strengthened U.S. commitment to the Quad and taken the group to the next level. In the past year, the Quad has held four summit-level meetings—two virtual and two in person—the latest being held in person in Tokyo on May 24, 2022. The Quad leaders released their first joint statement following their virtual meeting on March 12, 2021, and an even lengthier proclamation following their first in-person meeting, held at the White House on September 24, 2021. The increasingly substantial joint statements of the Quad leaders are a testament to their growing commitment to the group and its objectives.

The Biden administration has focused Quad efforts on issues such as economics, technology, climate change, public health, cybersecurity, and maritime domain awareness (MDA) but has shied away from defense-related initiatives. The Quad countries have a mutual interest in meeting the challenges stemming from China’s efforts to dominate the economic and technological landscape in the Indo-Pacific and its attempts to control the supply chains for critical minerals and technologies. The Quad also has a role to play in helping to set standards and norms for the use of emerging and critical technologies to ensure that they are developed and deployed in a manner consistent with a free, open, transparent, and rules-based Indo-Pacific. By combining resources and expertise and bringing to bear shared democratic values, these four powerful nations can shape the environment in which new technologies will emerge and protect global access to critical technologies.

This paper assesses Quad activities and the progress the group has made toward its stated objectives of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. It provides a detailed assessment of the Quad’s efforts to address areas that have already been singled out for special focus: critical and emerging technologies, vaccines, climate change, infrastructure, space, and cybersecurity. The paper also examines the prospects and challenges for expanding Quad cooperation on trade and economics as well as security and defense issues. Although the Quad currently downplays security and defense issues, the authors explore future possibilities for defense collaboration in the event increased military aggression or conflict should threaten the overall stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region. Finally, the paper makes policy recommendations for strengthening Quad cooperation on all the issues mentioned above and concludes by noting that a failure to make concrete progress on at least some of these initiatives in the next year will sap regional confidence in the group and provide space for China to assert regional dominance.

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  2. U.S. Department of Defense, “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy” March 28, 2022, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Mar/28/2002964702/-1/-1/1/NDS-FACTSHEET.PDF, 2.
  3. Stephen Tankel, Lisa Curtis, Joshua Fitt, and Coby Goldberg, “Positive Visions, Powerful Partnerships: The Keys to Competing with China in a Post-Pandemic Indo-Pacific,” (Center for a New American Security, March 2021), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/positive-visions-powerful-partnerships, 13.
  4. Siddharth Varadarajan, “Four-power meeting drew Chinese démarche,” svaradarajan.com, June 14, 2007, https://svaradarajan.com/2007/06/14/four-power-meeting-drew-chinese-demarche/.
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  6. Shankhyaneel Sarkar, “‘India’s strong approach towards Chinese aggression encouraging’: White House official,” Hindustan Times, September 17, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/india-s-strong-approach-towards-chinese-aggression-encouraging-white-house-official/story-0LIINKtV9927LscGe20apO.html.
  7. Lisa Curtis, Martijn Rasser, Jacob Stokes, and Zachary Durkee, “CNAS Press Note: The Quad Heads to the White House,” Center for a New American Security, September 22, 2021, https://www.cnas.org/press/press-note/the-quad-heads-to-the-white-house.

Authors

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Jacob Stokes

    Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Jacob Stokes is a Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, East Asian security affairs, an...

  • Joshua Fitt

    Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Joshua Fitt is an Associate Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. He focuses on U.S. East Asian security strategy and specializes in Japanese and Korean penins...

  • CDR Andrew J. Adams

    Senior Military Fellow, Commander, United States Navy

    Originally from Dublin, Ohio, Commander Andrew Adams graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology and a second discipline...

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