The Role of the “Quad” in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Concept: A Policy Coordination Mechanism for Rules-Based Order

By Ryosuke Hanada —

Ships from the Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and the U.S. Navy sail in formation during Malabar 2018. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Mr. Ryosuke Hanada is a research fellow of the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). In 2019, Mr. Hanada was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mr. Hanada’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy. Read his full paper here.

The quadrilateral cooperation framework (or Quad) which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was revived in 2017 after a 10 year freeze. In the wake of the first meeting in November 2017 in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (EAS), the four governments have subsequently held quadrilateral consultations in May and November 2018, at the Shangri-le Dialogue and EAS, respectively.

While the Quad members have been circumspect about the aims and objectives of the grouping, it is becoming one of the important elements in geopolitical and geo-economic discussions in the Indo-Pacific region, where the region is not only facing an expansionist China, but are also dealing with uncertainties about U.S. Asia policy and the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Furthermore, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept provided a framework within which the Quad can clarify its roles and objectives and function as a vehicle for achieving foreign policy objectives under FOIP: the maintenance of a rules-based international order. In this essay summarizing the overall Strategic Japan article, I review the historical background of the Quad; analyze the potential and limitations of the Quad based on the four dimensions of power — diplomacy, information, military and economy, or DIME — to assess likely avenues for policy coordination among Quad members to contribute to the rules-based order.

First of all, while the Quad is widely seen just in the context of security partnerships in the region, I argue that while the network of the U.S. alliance system does a play a role, the expansion of Asian regionalism (to both East Asia and later, the Indo-Pacific) is primary driver for its initial inclusion of Australia and India. Interestingly, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe played an instrumental role in creating the Quad in 2007 after recognizing the opportunities afforded by growing expanded regional cooperation, including EAS, and by developments in the U.S. alliance system, such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral. While Japanese diplomats were also involved in the Quad’s 2017 resurrection, the most dominant driver was an increasingly assertive China and the impact this had on the threat perceptions of the four members. Abe’s skill was in grasping this perceived collective threat and in conceptualizing it with the Indo-Pacific regional concept.


The most significant characteristic of the Quad is that it is relatively exclusive and functional as a forum for diplomatic consultation. In fact, the past three Quad meetings since 2017 have been held among diplomats from respective foreign ministries. They addressed broader agendas in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a high level of policy coordination on a number of issues that impact the rules-based regional order, including maritime security, terrorism, cyber security and connectivity. Despite some Southeast Asian states’ concern about their own centrality, the Quad is unlikely to replace ASEAN as an alternative center of regional security cooperation. While ASEAN remains not only as the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific region, but the key provider of “inclusive” regional security dialogue under the loose principle of the ASEAN Way, the Quad can complement this cooperation with implementing tangible policies apart from the constraints of consensus-based decision making and non-intervention principles.


As the Quad is not an alliance, there are constraints on how much intelligence-sharing is possible between its members. After all, even Japan is still excluded from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group to which Australia and the U.S. belong. Despite this, there are increasing signs of information-sharing in a number of military sectors, including maritime domain awareness (MDA). The Quad members’ major military assets are located throughout the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, from Djibouti to Hawaii. This immense geographical range provides a certain strategic logic in institutionalized MDA information-sharing because of increasing risks of unexpected collisions between coastguard vessels in hot spots and remaining non-traditional threats, such as maritime terrorism and piracy. Certainly, it is clear that Quad members are building information networks with Australia, Japan, and the United States sharing defense related information through a 2016 agreement. India, though the odd one out as a non-U.S. ally, has begun to create the foundations for information-sharing with the United States and more gradually with Japan.


While the military component is an essential part of the Quad, it does not play a major part in deterrence since not all of the four have a common mutual defense treaty obligation. Given these constraints, military cooperation among the Quad should be naturally and reasonably limited. That said, Quad members’ mil-to-mil cooperation is important for improving the preparedness for contingency and signaling and showcasing their willingness vis-à-vis potential adversaries. Special measures include the promotion of (1) joint exercises for improving interoperability, (2) military technology and defense equipment transfer among the Quad, and (3) capacity-building of Indo-Pacific regional states. The first element — exercises — has been the most visible and the four militaries have separately conducted multiple exercises since 2004 under the radar of political oversight. Certainly, the four militaries are able to improve the interoperability of equipment and software systems through mutual access to defense technology. For the capacity-building of the Indo-Pacific region in which some countries still rely on Russian equipment, India may supplement the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral.


There is also the economic aspect of the Quad, which includes two major themes: economic integration and regional connectivity. At this stage, there are no trends toward economic integration of the Quad, but regional connectivity has emerged as both a huge area of challenges and potential cooperation. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made a significant impact on the existing norms of infrastructure development. Despite some backlash in the region, recently, the capital-inflow from China still matches the demand of many developing states. The Quad consultation held in November 2018 touched upon the regional connectivity as one facet of the agenda, and it is possible that the group might begin to play a coordination role which determines the division of labor and priority among the group. Given the magnitude of India’s economic growth and its strategically essential locations, the Quad may need to prioritize investment in India, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and Andaman Nicobar. Yet, these investments should consider not only India’s development demand, but broader regional interests, such as how to connect the Bay of Bengal region or Central Asia more to the Indian Ocean through India.

While the Quad has thus found a role in the Indo-Pacific concept, it is clear that it was re-created with China in mind. Chinese behavior and its attempts to re-order the region have caused concern in all four states. The real question going forward is to what extent the four share a common vision of their own order beyond preventing China’s regional hegemony. Thus far, the Quad has focused on practical issues, such as maritime security and connectivity because of the urgency of the issues. Yet, they have to discuss the big picture of the Indo-Pacific region, especially how to reshape China’s behavior, and under what conditions they would reassess China as a responsible stakeholder.

Mr. Ryosuke Hanada is a research fellow of the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent any affiliated organizations.


1 comment for “The Role of the “Quad” in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Concept: A Policy Coordination Mechanism for Rules-Based Order

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *