Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend an event during the summit of Quad leaders in Tokyo, Japan, on May 24, 2022. Photo: Pool

MANILA – Not long ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the whole “Indo-Pacific” discourse, the cornerstone of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping (Quad), as nothing but an “attention-grabbing idea” which will “dissipate like ocean foam.”

His ministry’s spokesman, Zhao Lijian, likewise lambasted the Quad, composed of the United States, India, Australia and Japan, as a “closed and exclusive cliqu[e]”, which has more bark than bite.

The latest Quad Summit in Tokyo, however, is a testament to how the once inchoate grouping is starting to come of age. After a number of false starts, recent years have seen the Quad launch new mega-initiatives and high-profile summits, underscoring the sense of urgency now driving the new bloc.

Among the attendees at the latest summit was Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose party (Labor) was a staunch skeptic of the Quad grouping the last time it was in power. But the emerging bipartisan support for Quad among member states underscores its long-term sustainability and promise.

The Summit also underscored how shared Indo-Pacific interests have nudged the US and India to largely gloss over their differences over Russia, which remains a key source of energy and armaments to New Delhi.

The latest Quad Summit unveiled a series of consequential initiatives, which underscore the power bloc’s determination to shape the Indo-Pacific region based on shared strategic concerns. Naturally, much attention has been paid to Biden’s newly-launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which aims to mobilize billions of dollars and a package of new agreements to facilitate free and quality trade and investment flows across the region.

But the Summit also unveiled a number of other mega-initiatives, including a potentially game-changing Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), which underscores the breadth and potential for strategic cooperation among Quad powers.

Australian, US, Indian and Japanese leaders all convened in person for the Quad’s second summit held in Tokyo. Image: Screengrab / BBC

From Covid-19 vaccines to maritime security to climate change to infrastructure-building, the Quad is positioning itself to provide crucial public international goods across the Indo-Pacific, cementing its position as a leading bloc in the 21st century.

Crucially, the Quad is upping its game on the maritime security front. Not only have the grouping’s members regularized joint naval drills, most prominently exercises, but they are also pushing for a pan-regional maritime domain awareness regime.

Under the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), the Quad aims to “offer a near-real-time, integrated, and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture. This initiative will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

This way, the Quad powers will be able to assist more vulnerable regional states, especially nations with rival claims with China in the South China Sea, to enhance their “maritime domain awareness—a fundamental requirement for peace, stability, and prosperity—through an investment in IPMDA over five years.”

For decades, smaller countries across the Indo-Pacific have had to grapple with large-scale illegal fishing and, more recently, harassment from para-military vessels from China. Until now, many regional states lack even the basic capabilities to monitor their maritime domains.

As maritime security experts Zack Cooper and Gregory Poling explain, this new initiative is extremely crucial, since it “satisfies the desire of most regional partners for the Quad to provide public goods and address the needs of smaller states in and the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands,” whose domain awareness capabilities “remain patchy and enforcement resembles a game of whack-a-mole in which badly outnumbered and overworked patrol vessels attempt to catch illicit operators,” oftentimes from China.

To appreciate the significance of the wider new Quad initiatives, one must understand the grouping’s fragile and uncertain beginnings. No less than long-time Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who espoused for a so-called “democratic security diamond” against China, is one of the key architects of the Quad and the whole “Indo-Pacific” paradigm.

During his first stint in power, Abe actively courted India, a traditionally “non-aligned” nation, to join in an emerging power bloc along with the US and Australia. The first major blow to the grouping, however, came from former Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who shunned tighter security cooperation with the other Quad powers amid his charm offensive with Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a joint military exercise in the South China Sea in April 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Advocating for strategic caution, the former Australian leader skeptically argued: “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.” On his part, former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh also demurred from the grouping in a bid to stave off any confrontation with China, then an emerging new major economic partner.

China’s growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific, however, provided the impetus for steady but not realized crystallization of the Quad into an “Asian NATO.” At once, a series of nationalist and hawkish leaders took power in all Quad powers, including in India (Narendra Modi) and Australia (Scott Morison), who embraced a more muscular multilateral approach to China.

The former Trump administration launched a series of high-level meetings among Quad officials, including an informal summit on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila in 2019.

More recently, South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, another hawkish nationalist, has also declared his interest in joining a prospective “Quad Plus” grouping. On its part, Japan has also pushed for parallel security cooperation with other US treaty allies, including the Philippines. Without exception, all these strategic moves are driven by growing concerns over a resurgent China.

By and large, the Biden administration has built on the efforts of its Republican predecessor by turbocharging the institutionalization of the Quad, including the inaugural summit among the four powers last year.

The bipartisanship, however, also extends to other major capitals, including in Canberra, where the new Labor-led government has acknowledged “all that the Quad has achieved” and is committed to “[s]tanding together for a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific region” and “working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region.”

In fact, the new Labor government has also backed other Quad-related agreements, including the “bipartisan AUKUS agreement”, which aims to expand trilateral military cooperation among the US, UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, with Japan and India as key partners.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force conducts Malabar 21 – an inter-nation exercise with the Indian Navy, US Navy and Royal Australian Navy – to improve tactical skills and further strengthen the Quad navies. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

The new bipartisan mood in Canberra has even surprised top Biden officials including Indo-Pacific czar Kurt Campbell, who has expressed his renewed confidence in sustained Quad-related cooperation with Australia.  

Moreover, the Quad is demonstrating an ability to place realpolitik above semantics. After initially criticizing India’s refusal to join anti-Russia sanctions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, the US has, with much prodding from Japan and Australia, largely patched up its differences with New Delhi.

Instead of publicly chiding India, if not threatening sanctions, the Biden administration has sought to win India over by offering more quality and substantive alternatives to Russia, including in areas of military technology.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeyadarian