The degree of interest in a meeting of foreign ministers is evidence of how important the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has become as a mode of geopolitical signalling. Its relevance was accentuated by the foreign ministers meeting in person in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, of Indian and Chinese troops facing each other, and of the United States (US) president getting infected by the disease. Critics are not wrong to grumble that the dialogue remains informal; that it fails to produce a joint statement; and that its only tangible accomplishment is its existence. The real measure of the Quad, however, is to look at its trajectory.
The original Quad was a disaster-relief exercise. It broke up, came together again, and then struggled to find convergence among its members. The present meeting strengthened four important elements of the Quad’s present stage of evolution. One, all the member-states represent a domestic political consensus on the Quad and its importance in balancing China in the Indo-Pacific. This was not true in the past. Australia, for example, changed its Quad policy when there was a change in government. Two, though most members prefer to not name China, the expanded areas the members have agreed to work together, from the maritime realm to cyberspace, are aimed at countering China’s influence and capabilities. Three, the foreign ministers’ agreeing they would meet at least once a year and upholding the importance of Southeast Asia indicates that both institutionally and in terms of geographic spread, the Quad is set to deepen and widen. And finally, the language of the participants indicates that Quad has already assumed a quasi-formal status.
The most important driver of the Quad’s evolution is China. Its military aggression against India and Japan, its attempts to subvert Australian civil society and its embrace of open geopolitical rivalry with the US is the strategic glue of the Quad. The most important determinant of which path is taken is the degree to which the Quad members can disentangle themselves from the economic and technological embrace of China. Which is why discussions on 5G networks, supply chains and rare earths are so important to defining how far the Quad can go on the military and strategic side. The foreign ministers identified what it will take to convert the Quad into a real multilateral body; the question now is how and when all these proposals will become reality.