On March 12, U.S. President Joe Biden will lead the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue talks with the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan. Making the Quad work could be Biden’s most important task in Asia but doing so requires a specific agenda that builds on shared goals. And it’s not just about China—it’s about getting Asia right.
Biden faces a resurgent China, more confident than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. That will make it harder to deal with a host of challenges in Asia, from maritime security to North Korea. In the face of such risks, the Biden administration is right to continue former U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to reinvigorate the group.
The Quad can play an important role in countering Beijing’s “might makes right” foreign policy, but it has a bigger role than that. Never envisioned as a formal alliance, the group is more an aspiration that is grounded in common interests among the most important democracies in Asia. And it offers the best opportunity to lead a robust values-based partnership in the Indo-Pacific for those democracies and other like-minded nations.
The four Quad countries first acted collectively in response to the devastating 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, providing disaster response aid in Indonesia in particular. The Japanese prime minister proposed a more formal Quad plan during his first term as premier in 2006. Yet the shortness of Shinzo Abe’s first stint in office as well as concern by Canberra and New Delhi over alienating China led to little action beyond a 2007 meeting on the sidelines of the Association of South-East Asian Nations Regional Forum (ASEAN) and a naval exercise in September that year.
What a difference a decade makes. In October 2017, with Abe back in power in Tokyo, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson and then-Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono proposed resuming the dialogue.
A second formal Quad meeting took place in November that year, again at an annual ASEAN summit. Since then, the foreign ministers of the Quad countries have met three times, in 2019, 2020, and just last month with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in attendance. US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan has also said the Quad is “fundamental” to the United States’ position in the Indo-Pacific.
All this is welcome news, yet the real test of the Quad will be how it actually helps uphold the rule of law and stabilise Asia. There are four areas in particular where Australia, India, Japan, and the US can work co-operatively in ways that advance their common interests and strengthen peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
The first is maritime security. China’s growing maritime claims have been stoking instability in the South and East China Seas for years. From building and militarising island garrisons in the South China Sea in flagrant violation of international law to repeated incursions into waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, China has been raising tensions in the region. A new law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard to use weapons to enforce Chinese maritime claims only raises the risk of an armed encounter.
Given the naval strength of the Quad nations, they should take the lead in enhancing regional maritime security co-operation; capacity building of smaller navies; increased information sharing; and regular, joint maritime patrols that maintain freedom of navigation in international waters and deny Beijing the ability to intimidate and coerce smaller nations.
A second area of Quad co-operation should be on supply-chain security. The Quad nations are among the world’s largest economies and most important traders.
China’s delays in shipping personal protective equipment made by US companies in Chinese factories, and its threats to deny the US access to its pharmaceuticals as the coronavirus pandemic spread, was a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of the world’s global supply chain. It underscored the urgent imperative to reduce dependency on China for a range of materials and goods like rare earth elements that are critical to US national security.
Trusted allies and partners broadly in the region need to coordinate efforts to develop secure supply chains among them and deny China the leverage and coercive tools it currently enjoys.
Technology co-operation should be a third area of focus for the Quad. Ensuring that nations with a shared commitment to the rules-based international order maintain a technological edge in emerging technologies, as well as in new domains of conflict and competition like information technology and space, is crucial. Doing so will ensure economic and military competitiveness in the coming generation.
Although all nations have fallen behind China in the race for 5G, the Quad countries should concentrate on developing shared next-generation telecommunications technologies and expanding viable options beyond China, given the demonstrated downside risks of its technologies.
Finally, the Quad can draw on the diversity of its members to enhance diplomacy between leading democracies and other nations in Asia in ways not possible for Washington alone.
Japan, for example, traditionally has maintained ties with authoritarian regimes and can engage with countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, and others, while both India and Australia have deep ties to many nations in Asia and Oceania where the US is less present.
The Quad should complement the United States’ current hub-and-spoke alliance system, as well as multilateral organisations like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. The grouping will gain the most support if presented as an alignment based on shared interests and values.
Linking the largest democracies in the region to promote co-operative action among all nations sharing a similar vision for a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific may offer the best chance to channel China’s increasing power and more positively influence Asia, as well as strengthen democracy and liberalism in the world’s most dynamic region.
James Mattis, the Former US secretary of defence with Michael Auslin, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and Joseph Felter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence