The recent summit meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, could not have come at a more critical juncture in world politics. Between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has destabilised accepted norms on respecting territorial sovereignty; its knock-on effects on commodity and input prices, fuelling inflationary pressures and impacting global supply chains; and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that spotlighted deficiencies in public health infrastructure, the leaders of India, the United States, Australia and Japan are likely to have had a full and multidimensional policy agenda in Tokyo. For the leaders the obvious, if not always explicitly stated theme linking several global issues is the China factor and the unique strategic challenges that that country poses to the rules-based international order. While U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida were blunt in their condemnation of Russia’s belligerence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese avoided any direct reference to Moscow, as indeed did the summit’s joint statement. On China, however, the four nations were on the same page, and the Quad joint statement called for continued cooperation towards maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific; championing adherence to international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight; and meeting challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas.
The Quad leaders affirmed the Dialogue’s two core messages. First, they will continue to strongly oppose coercive, provocative, and unilateral actions by Beijing that seek to change the status quo and heighten tensions across the region, including through manoeuvres such as the militarisation of disputed territories, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and clandestine attempts to disrupt other nations’ offshore resource exploitation activities. To this end, military coordination between the Dialogue members will continue to provide strategic depth to the mission, including notably the annual Malabar exercise. The second message seeks to leverage Dialogue member resources in vaccine delivery, climate action, supply chain resilience, disaster response, cyber security infrastructure, and economic cooperation. Even though Beijing may consider the Quad to be an “Asian NATO”, the Dialogue can be about much more than a strategic pushback on China’s hegemonic intentions. At a time when the liberal consensus on globalisation has anyway run its course and across the Indo-Pacific, there is, post-pandemic, a strong appetite for deepening regional cooperation for trade and investment. In this context, the Quad is in pole position to shape economic alliances and regional security architecture towards a new world order based on national interest and realpolitik.