Analyses about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) tend to focus on its four-way formal structures. An examination of the bilateral and plurilateral interactions between Quad members, as well as those between Quad members and other regional states, suggests that their coalition building is much more nimble and flexible.
Since its revival in 2017, the Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. has become an increasingly prominent institution in the Indo-Pacific regional architecture. Starting from a low-key consultation at the assistant secretary level, the four-way grouping has been upgraded to the leaders’ summit meeting and its agenda expanded beyond the security focus to embrace climate change, infrastructure, supply chains, and critical and emerging technologies. Besides its institutionalised structures such as the annual Quad summit, foreign ministers’ meeting, senior officials’ meeting, and six functional working groups, it is important not to overlook the Quad’s “flexible” and “nimble” character as expressed through Quad-lite configurations amongst Quad members as well as those between Quad members and other states.
The Quad’s renaissance is driven by its members’ strategic imperative to counter-balance Chinese power and influence. But Quad members still confront challenges in bringing their diverse perspectives, interests and capacities together through the Quad platform (that is, all four countries). Of note, India adds strategic value to the grouping in countervailing China but it is also a drag on the Quad’s performance due to New Delhi’s non-alignment tradition and limited state capacities. The Quad Vaccine Partnership, which fell through because India had to prioritise its vaccine stock for domestic use amid the Covid-19 surge in early 2021, was a case in point. To date, the Quad remains a work in progress as its members build up their internal coherence, bureaucratic infrastructure and capacities — both nationally and collectively — to deliver on its ambitious agenda.
Against this backdrop, the Quad should be valued beyond its institutionalised four-way set-up to take into account the multiplicity of interactions and collaborations through bilateral ties and ‘tangled trilaterals’ amongst its members. In fact, the Quad’s strategic objective is being realised as much through such four-way formal structures as through Quad-lite arrangements (Table 1). The latter includes various bilateral and trilateral exercises, security consultations, reciprocal access agreements, mutual logistics support agreements, and defence industrial cooperation deals between and amongst Quad members. This thickening web includes not only defence-military cooperation but also economic-functional domains such as talent, supply chain and technologies.
Therein lies the utility of Quad-lite interactions: these sub-sets of collaboration do not carry the Quad “brand”, but they provide the building-blocks for strengthening strategic coherence and interoperability among its members. For examples, Australia has joined the India-US-Japan Malabar exercise as a permanent member since 2020, and India this year will join for the first time the Talisman Sabre exercise that Australia traditionally conducts with the U.S. but increasingly with Japan and other U.S. allies.
China once held that the Quad would ‘dissipate like sea foam’. Quite to the contrary, Quad members are increasingly sailing in tandem in the Indo-Pacific, and on occasion with Southeast Asian countries.
Quad-lite configurations also provide flexible and practical pathways for collaboration with third parties. Southeast Asian countries are wary of participating in any Quad-labelled initiatives or exercises for fear of riling China. Yet, even if they do not say it publicly, some regional states do find the revival of the Quad desirable at a time of growing Chinese assertiveness. By participating in Quad-lite activities and initiatives, Southeast Asian states effectively lend support to certain aspects of the Quad’s vision of a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, especially in regional maritime governance. These initiatives are often issue-based, addressing specific challenges and matching the capabilities of Quad members and the practical needs of Southeast Asian states, for instance in maritime domain awareness, supply chain diversification or decarbonisation. As such, they are not burdened with the ‘Asian NATO’ stigma and can fly under the radar of Chinese consternation. They allow Southeast Asian countries to become more comfortable and acculturised to the workings of Quad members over time.
Various formal and ad hoc plurilateral collaborations involving some Southeast Asian countries and Quad members are emerging. A notable example is the U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral with their national security advisors’ meeting and joint maritime drills recently. A similar configuration is unlikely for Vietnam, given its aversion to alliances with foreign powers. However, India, the U.S. and Japan have separately donated naval, coast guard and fishery patrol vessels to Hanoi. The individual donations have in effect synergised with each other in supporting Vietnam’s maritime capacity to guard against Chinese encroachments. These developments suggest the strategic comfort that the Philippines and Vietnam have towards the Quad members’ Indo-Pacific strategies. According to the 2020 State of Southeast Asia survey, Philippine and Vietnamese respondents registered the strongest support for their countries to participate in the Quad’s security initiatives, at 84.7 per cent and 65.1 per cent, respectively. Indonesia has also evinced its forward-leaning approach to plurilateral collaboration with Quad members. In 2022, it expanded its Garuda Shield exercise with the U.S. to include Japan, Australia, India (as an observer), Singapore, and other U.S. allies. Singapore has a thick web of defence and diplomatic linkages to all four Quad members, including a Strategic Framework Agreement with the U.S. which recognises the island as Washington’s major security cooperation partner. Singapore has stressed that it welcomes minilaterals such as the Quad and AUKUS, as long as they support ASEAN centrality and the rules-based international order.
China once held that the Quad would ‘dissipate like sea foam’. Quite to the contrary, Quad members are increasingly sailing in tandem in the Indo-Pacific, and on occasion with Southeast Asian countries. Its four-way structures, especially the leaders’ summit, are important for signalling their strategic intent and setting the cooperative — and competitive — agenda that involves both security-centric balance of power against China and tactful outreach to third countries focusing on delivery of regional public goods.
Meanwhile, flexible Quad-lite configurations can deliver tangible results on practical issues and secure buy-in from non-Quad nations. This multi-layered structure has enabled coalition-building within and beyond the Quad members in a flexible and fluid manner. In other words, it is not the Quad per se, but the sum of its parts that matters.
Table 1: Different Quad-lite Configurations
|Among Quad members|
|India-Japan-U.S.||India-Japan-U.S. Summit MeetingIndia-Japan-U.S. Trilateral Meeting (Assistant Secretary level)|
|Australia-India-Japan||Australia-India-Japan Supply Chain Resilience Initiative|
|U.S.-Japan-Australia||U.S.-Japan-Australia Trilateral Infrastructure PartnershipU.S.-Japan-Australia Trilateral Defence Ministers’ MeetingU.S.-Australia-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue|
|Australia-India-Japan-U.S.||Malabar Exercise (Australia is a permanent participant since 2020)|
|Quad members with other major powers|
|U.S.-Japan-ROK||U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Ministerial Meeting|
|Australia-India-France||Australia-India-France Trilateral Dialogue|
|U.S.-Japan-France||U.S.-Japan-France trilateral replenishment-at-sea (RAS)|
|Australia-U.K.-U.S.||AUKUS tripartite security partnership|
|La Perouse Exercise||Involving Australia, Canada, France, India, Japan, U.K., U.S.|
|Blue Dot Network||Australia, Japan, U.K., U.S.|
|Quad members with Southeast Asian countries|
|Five Power Defence Arrangements||Australia-Malaysia-New Zealand-Singapore-U.K.|
|France-India-Indonesia||Trilateral Strategic Partnership|
|Australia-India-Indonesia||Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral foreign ministers meeting|
|U.S.-Japan-Philippines||U.S.-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Meeting (National Security Advisors level) U.S.-Japan-Philippines joint maritime drills|
|Multinational maritime exercises||U.S.-India-Japan-Philippines joint maritime exercise (2019)U.S.-Australia-Singapore-Brunei Multinational Group Sail (2020)Super Garuda Shield 2022 (Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, U.K. and U.S. France, Germany and India participated as observers)Exercise Talisman Sabre (included Canada, Japan, New Zealand South Korea and U.S. in 2021. India will join exercises in 2023. The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand will participate as observers).|
|Australia-Japan-U.S.-Vietnam||Japan, Australia and the U.S.’ joint support for clean energy and decarbonisation projects in Vietnam|
|U.S.-Japan-Mekong||US-Japan Mekong Power Partnership|
|IPEF||U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity comprising, inter alia, four Quad countries and seven Southeast Asian countries|
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
William Choong is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.