US President Biden hosts Quad leaders at their first in-person summit, left to right, then-Japanese prime minister Suga Yoshihide, Indian PM Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison in the White House on September 24, 2021, amid shared concerns about China's growing power and behavior. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

During the historic first physical Quad summit on September 24 in Washington, the leaders of the four countries in that grouping agreed on deeper cooperation in the space and cyber realms. The US, Japan, India and Australia will share, among other things, images and other data collected by satellites to help analyze the risks of climate change and predict natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The Quad leaders expressed interest in continued face-to-face meetings, thereby laying the foundation for the institutionalization of the informal grouping.

During the meeting, US President Joe Biden underlined that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is distinct from the new trilateral security partnership among his country, Australia and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS. 

The Quad and AUKUS

Notwithstanding US statements, many security analysts see the potential for future interconnections between the AUKUS and Quad formats. For example, the two blocs may cooperate in the future to strengthen their countries’ maritime awareness capacities by monitoring China’s expansion in the South China and East China Seas through satellites and other capabilities. 

Beijing as much as acknowledged these potential connections when, the day before the Quad summit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “China always believes that no regional cooperation mechanism should target a third party or harm its interests…. Such efforts find no support and are doomed to failure.”

By contrast, the Japanese prime minister at the time, Yoshihide Suga, welcomed the initiative to establish AUKUS, which he said “plays an important role in peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” 

Managing alliances and enhanced soft power

The combined defense expenditure of the Quad countries is almost four times that of the People’s Republic of China. However, the Quad faces challenges to cooperation. Most notably, India’s history of “strategic autonomy” limits integration. India has long rejected the idea of ​​the Quad evolving into a military alliance. 

The Biden administration has taken a twofold approach to foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region. First, the US has strengthened institutional cooperation with “like-minded partners” via the Quad and AUKUS, while balancing its interests in existing alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Japan-US alliance, and attempting to revive moribund unions such as that with the Philippines. 

Second, the Biden administration has focused on soft-power projects, whether “vaccine diplomacy,” infrastructure strategies such as B3W (Build Back Better World), or the Blue Dot Network.

This overall two-pronged approach is a “multi-speed,” pragmatic and calibrated form of US cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners, whether bilateral or multilateral, recognizing the needs and real possibilities of partnerships in the region. 

Cooperation across issues

During last month’s summit, the Quad leaders followed up on their virtual meeting in March. They focused mainly on issues such as exports of Covid-19 vaccines, efforts to strengthen semiconductor supply chains, raising awareness of the “maritime area,” the US infrastructure initiative B3W, and cooperation in the development of sensitive technologies, including fifth-generation telecommunications (5G).

This was also reflected in the official documents from the September summit: the Leader’s Statement, as well as the Quad Factsheet. In addition to the traditional “mantra” on ASEAN centrality, the Quad leaders welcomed in a joint statement the adoption of the EU Strategy on the Indo-Pacific

Covid vaccines

During the online summit in March, the Quad leaders agreed to increase Covid-19 vaccine production in India and distribute doses across the Indo-Pacific region with financial and logistical support from the other three Quad members.

The Joint Statement indicated that almost 79 million doses of vaccines had been delivered to Indo-Pacific countries to date. During the September summit, the Quad leaders pledged to donate more than 1.2 billion vaccine doses worldwide. 

Critical technologies

With regard to critical and new technologies, the Quad leaders agreed to work together “to ensure that the way technologies are designed, developed, managed and used is created by shared values ​​and respect for universal human rights.”

In partnership with the private sector, the four countries plan to make progress in the deployment of secure, open and transparent 5G telecommunications networks and advanced technologies “beyond 5G” as well as supporting innovation in new approaches, such as Open-RAN.

Institutionalization and increasing cooperation

The first physical summit of Quad leaders demonstrated early institutionalization through interest in continued annual summits (also on the foreign-minister level), as well as expanding cooperation among the Quad countries to the space and the cyber dimensions. 

Regarding Indian strategic autonomy, space cooperation in the Quad format will be implemented only in civilian areas. Nevertheless, future military cooperation in space cannot be ruled out. 

The Quad leaders’ meeting also confirmed interest in continuing the broad areas of cooperation being developed (from the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, through interest in the development of new technologies, to people-to-people exchanges) and adherence to a rules-based international liberal order.

Quo vadis Japan?

The fact that the Quad summit took place at President Biden’s initiative less than a week before Yoshihide Suga’s resignation as chairman of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (September 29) and as prime minister (October 4) demonstrates that American government analysts foresaw no change in security policy even before Fumio Kishida was selected to replace Suga. 

This was confirmed during Kishida’s victory speech on October 4 in which he stressed the importance of the US-Japan alliance, continuation of the FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) initiative, and Quad cooperation. 

Critics of former PM Suga claim that during his tenure Japan’s foreign policy was on “autopilot,” as Suga focused mainly on domestic issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic. They expect a more proactive approach from Kishida. 

With the exceptions of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) and Shinzo Abe (2012-2020), however, other Japanese prime ministers were in power for less than a year on average and failed to make a significant contribution to Japan’s foreign and security policy. 

It can be assumed that under Kishida Japan is poised to continue to be a stable and reliable partner for the US and the other Quad members. However, with the possible return of frequent turnovers in the post of Japanese prime minister after the parliamentary elections on October 31, the prominence of Japan on the world stage, as well as its intellectual and material contribution to its alliance with the US alliance, may decrease.

Erik Lenhart

Erik Lenhart holds an MA in political science from Charles University and is a former research assistant at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He has been active as an Asia analyst and published several articles related to Chinese geopolitical thought.

Michael Tkacik

Michael Tkacik holds a PhD from the University of Maryland and a JD from Duke University. He has published articles in a variety of journals. Tkacik’s current research interests include the implications of China’s rise, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and nuclear-weapons policy across Asia. He is a professor of government and director of the School of Honors at Stephen F Austin State University in Texas.