US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries March 12, 2021, at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images via AFP

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of India, Japan, Australia and the US, has become a more controversial grouping than ever before. The Quad Leadership Summit held on March 12 marked the upgrade of the forum from a ministerial-level consultation to a meeting of the Quad heads of state, spurring debate on the Quad’s future and its role as a balancing mechanism to China’s emerging dominance in the region. 

China has long seen the Quad through a uniquely US-centered lens – as an effort by Washington to build alliances within the region and limit China’s influence and, therefore, its rise.

Such rhetoric was first espoused in 2003, when China claimed that Washington’s engagement within the Asia-Pacific region and the Pentagon’s military strategy vis-à-vis its presence in Japan and South Korea and in military bases in the Philippines and Singapore, was an effort to build a multilateral security architecture in Asia that was analogous to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Beijing has labeled the Quad’s revival in 2017 as an exercise in forming “exclusive cliques” targeted at China. Among others, Beijing has witheringly referred to the Quad as “sea foam” that will dissipate and an underlying security threat to Asia through its objectives of forming an “Indo-Pacific NATO.”

No matter how rhetorical or genuine these perspectives appear to be, China’s concern vis-à-vis a US-centered grouping in the region is visible. More important, if it is rhetoric, does such a rhetoric hold any merit when the Quad has moved ahead with a leadership meet? Alternatively, to China’s dismay, can the Quad be expanded into a militarized structure across Asia like NATO?

Quad’s underlying fissures

Since its revival, the Quad has decidedly gained synergy: regular ministerial level consultations and expansion of the format into a “Quad Plus” framework, including South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Israel and Brazil alongside the Quad nations, have spurred it into an active regional mechanism.

Simultaneously, there has been a bolstering of bilateral relations among the Quad nations. The India-Japan military logistics pact (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement); India’s landmark Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with the US that will enable geospatial intelligence and enhance interoperability; and upgrading of India-Australia ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership are examples of this.

The Quad states have also shown increasing synergy through a shared commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Further, they are seeing an increasing commonalities in their security perspectives – such as through a shared acknowledgement of the “China threat.”

Yet beyond such overt gestures, there has been very little true expansion of the Quad format. In substantial terms, limited steps have been taken to further cooperative work in the Indo-Pacific region. All states continue to adhere to different definitions of “Indo-Pacific,” which in turn impact their regional policies.

Further, apart from a shared perception of China’s rise as posing a threat to the regional order, the four nations have noticeably different China engagement (or in some cases, disengagement) policies. While the US under former president Donald Trump adopted a rather harsh stance on China, evidenced most prominently by their trade war, the other Quad members have been much more hesitant at appearing blatantly anti-China. 

The China factor

For India, which has been involved in a protracted boundary conflict with China, heightening Quad synergy within its national meta-narrative has been accompanied by a cautious approach vis-à-vis Beijing. New Delhi wants to ensure that the face-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) does not deteriorate into an outright conflict or a limited war between the two states, and that their border disengagement materializes smoothly.

Promoting an Indo-Pacific NATO would only enrage China and stall any meager progress in the India-China peace process. Further, as a growing economy, India remains economically dependent on China’s prowess – making a complete decoupling from China not yet a possible policy option.

Similarly, Australia remains heavily dependent on China; it forms Australia’s foremost market in domains like mining, food and merchandise and tourism.

With the Covid-19 pandemic sending global economies – including those of partner nations India (-8.6%), Japan (-4.8%) and the US (-3.5%) – into recession, while China went up by 2.3% in 2020, maintaining a trading status quo with China remains a priority for Australia.

Although trade ties with India, Japan and the US may now be on an upward trajectory, China will continue to occupy a central place in Australia’s economic plans. Diversification, in order to limit China’s economic coercion and compromise national security, will undoubtedly be important; a reparation in Australia-China ties will continue to be an attractive possibility.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed former Chinese ambassador to Australia Fu Ying’s calls to renew a bilateral dialogue to “reset” diplomatic ties and calm escalating tensions.

Australia’s 2021-22 federal budget paints a similar picture; it makes limited attempts at diversification and leaves hardly any diplomatic flexibility to move away from its status quo with China.

Under such conditions, supporting an Asian NATO, perceived to be overtly anti-China, is not a viable option for Canberra.

Beyond its economic ties with China, Japan’s logic on an Asian NATO is drawn staunchly on its postwar constitution, which “renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Although former prime minister Shinzo Abe made strong attempts to amend this clause, persistent public opposition and wariness have hindered its revision.

The limits of the law have undoubtedly been pushed: Japan no longer has a ban on collective self-defense and allows for a standing armed force for self-defense. Yet despite such groundwork in overturning the clause, its postwar constitutional pacifism remains woven into the fabric of Japanese society.

Tokyo is far from participating in a collective defense institution – like an Asian NATO – that could bind it to support its security partners (like the US) in combat in regions distanced from Japanese territory for collective interests.

Under President Joe Biden, the United States’ long-term foreign-policy direction toward China and the Indo-Pacific is still taking shape, and is perhaps not expected to be as confrontational as it was under Trump. Despite a “rejection of Trumpian populism,” the US under Biden is firmly embroiled in a superpower “extreme competition” with China.

While his recommitment to multilateralism and security alliances in the Indo-Pacific could potentially accelerate the emergence of an Asian NATO, Washington’s advances will face challenges.

The US no longer holds the regional position it once did; Biden will need to rebuild American alliances in order to form any sort of militarized Asian coalition against China. Simultaneously, the domestic socio-political criticalities of America’s Quad partners will limit their strategic choices vis-à-vis an Indo-Pacific body analogous to NATO. 

A multilateral security architecture in Asia?

A multilateral security alliance system has long been absent in Asia, even as NATO grew and became a staunch pillar of the trans-Atlantic partnership in Europe, and not for lack of trying, either. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) is a vital illustration of such efforts.

Founded in 1954, and involving the US, France, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan, SEATO remained limited to an abstract consultative framework rather than the envisaged “defensive alliance” rooted in Article 51 (collective self-defense) of the United Nations Charter.

SEATO’s failure was drawn on several factors, not the least of which was the lack of participation of major regional powers, including India, Japan and China. 

A “hub-and-spokes” security arrangement in Asia is shaped by a number of determinants: the absence of a collective “Asian identity” in the geographically vast and diverse continent; deep and continuing historical grievances (such as over Japanese imperialism); colonial sensitivity to Western intervention; lack of a common and binding threat perception (such as the one presented by the Soviet Union and communism to Europe and the US); and preferences of actors to pursue bilateral security alliances.

Asian norms generally prioritize non-intervention and state sovereignty over any institutionalized multilateral security architecture, making any Western-led, NATO-like security alliance practically unlikely. 

Then how might the Quad evolve, and what could an Indo-Pacific security architecture look like?

The prospect of a multilateral security architecture in Asia cannot be entirely ruled out, particularly if China continues on its trajectory of regional belligerence and global power grab. In other words, the emergence of an Asian or Indo-Pacific NATO would be ironically contingent on China’s actions, and how far they push the Quad nations to prioritize security over socio-politico-economic concerns.

Even so, such a body is not likely to be a multilateral effort. Rather, what might materialize is a limited collective self-defense arrangement that is necessarily Quad-led – and not Washington-dominated.

The onus of preventing the Quad’s evolution into such a body lies necessarily on China; Beijing must revisit and recalibrate its strategy, and temper its aggressive foreign-policy tactics, if it wants to prevent the actualization of a body it has crudely claimed that the Quad is currently pursuing.

The Quad is no longer a tentative partnership, but a diplomatic and political association; while it is not yet poised to be an Asian NATO-type body, China’s belligerence might just prove to be a catalyst that leads to its crystallization as a form of limited collective self-defense framework.

Mahima Duggal is an associated research fellow at the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. She is also editorial assistant to the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.