Quad flags image: Lowy Institute

The photos always look impressive: political leaders from four great countries covering very wide geography, bearing very wide smiles.

The fact that in Tokyo recently the “Quad” of Japan, the United States, India and Australia met at all is quite an achievement, especially when one of the key members, India, is taking a stance on Russia’s war on Ukraine so different from that of the others.

Yet if this grouping is to survive and make a real difference, more will be needed than just photos, smiles and summits.

Let us not forget that the Quad has a sort of rival. I do not mean the Russia-China bilateral partnership that was proclaimed in Beijing in early February. What I am referring to is the BRICS summit, which since 2006 has assembled ministers from Brazil, Russia, India and China and which in 2011 added South Africa.

At first, the BRICS summits appeared to symbolize the growing importance of these big emerging economies, reflecting also in a Western-centric sort of way the fact that the idea of “the BRICS” was originally created by a British chief economist at the American investment bank Goldman Sachs as an intellectual piece of marketing.

Now, hardly anyone in the international media pays attention to the meetings. Yet the ministers still assemble together, this year under China’s chairmanship, with what is an impressive array of regular encounters between specialist ministers and business sectors.

Compared with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to give the Quad its full title, the BRICS summits look almost technical in nature. The Quad was initiated by Shinzo Abe in 2007 with the idea of influencing or reshaping the grand stage of geopolitics, using joint military exercises between the four countries as a way to emphasize the Quad’s role as a counterweight in the Indo-Pacific against China’s growing role.

Yet the grouping fell asleep almost immediately as a new Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who took office later in 2007, felt it was unhelpfully confrontational and withdrew his country.

It took 10 years and several new Australian prime ministers before the Quad could be revived – with Donald Trump in the White House, with Abe again Japan’s prime minister and with joint military exercises resumed.

President Joe Biden then gave the Quad an even greater emphasis and greater formality, hosting the first full summits of the countries’ then four leaders twice in 2021. And now they have met again twice in 2022.

There is no doubt that seeing Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida, Narendra Modi and now Anthony Albanese meeting together makes the Quad look like a geopolitical game-changer.

Quad leaders meet in the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo. Photo: Kantei

And so it could be, for India’s border clashes with China in 2020-21 convinced many that India had found a strong incentive to build close security friendships with other leading Indo-Pacific democracies.

Yet we must return to the comparison with the BRICS summits if we are to be able to judge how big a game-changer the Quad really can be.

India, it must be noted, is a member both of the Quad and of the BRICS groupings. Prime Minister Modi has moved almost immediately from one summit, supposedly of like-minded friends, to the other, with little embarrassment.

Moreover, the quite intense annual program of BRICS ministerial meetings and other events shows that even if this grouping is largely ignored by the international media it nevertheless has established quite a strong habit and necessity of consultation and collaboration among the five member countries.

Current BRICS leaders in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo: Alan Santos / PR

This is something the Quad has yet to achieve.

The leaders’ summits have tried to set up some joint projects, most notably an agreement in March 2021 to make a headline-grabbing collective investment in manufacturing 1.2 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses in India for distribution to poorer countries in the Indo-Pacific. This, however, made better headlines than actual outcomes, for it quickly was overtaken by India’s own coronavirus crisis, which led the country to ban vaccine exports until that domestic crisis had been overcome.

The result was that the first delivery of vaccines under this scheme was not made until April 2022 when 325,000 doses of Indian-made vaccines were at last delivered to Cambodia.

Now, the Quad has pledged at its late-May Tokyo summit to collaborate on establishing a body called “the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness,” mainly for tracking illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific and potentially responding jointly to natural and humanitarian disasters.

This looks like a good arena for collective endeavor, because it will involve the coordination of military-grade surveillance systems without having a formal and therefore potentially provocative military purpose.

The Quad also pledged to invest US$50 billion in infrastructure investments in the region, but it is unclear whether this signifies new money rather than simply a method to catalog or organize pre-existing commitments.

The basic question, which the four leaders are unable currently to answer, is: What is the long-term strategic purpose of the Quad? Almost certainly, the four governments would, if pressed, come up with four somewhat different definitions of this strategic purpose. But the most different would come from what the other three consider to be the Quad’s most important member: India.

Japan, the United States and Australia see India as the key member for the obvious reason of countering China. But while India does see the need to counter or deter China, it plainly also sees a purpose in consulting quite intensively with China through the BRICS framework.

And, as everyone has been aware since Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine on February 24, India remains dependent on China’s “strategic partner,” Russia, for military supplies and technology, and has refused to join in any sanctions or condemnations of Russia’s behavior.

The February 4 joint statement between Russia and China about that strategic partnership, moreover, talks of an aim of deepening collaboration between those two countries and India. The great subcontinental nation of South Asia is clearly considered to be in play.

The Quad would not succeed if it sought to force India to choose sides. So what should it do? My advice would be that it should seek to emulate the BRICS framework by institutionalizing Quad meetings and projects in a much more regular and multi-level series of summits. The point would be to build, step by step, the habit of consultation while also displaying, continuously, the benefits of collaboration.

In practice, this would have a less grand aim than that of directly countering China in a full security partnership. But it would still have a strategic purpose, perhaps one that is more realistic, given India’s interests and attitudes: The aim would be to ensure that India never develops an interest in becoming genuinely close to China and Russia.

Formerly editor-in-chief of The Economist, which he had served earlier as Tokyo bureau chief, Bill Emmott is currently chairman of the Japan Society of the UK, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the International Trade Institute. This article was originally published on The Mainichi news site and in the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun newspaper on June 5, 2022. It is republished here with kind permission.

Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author of The Fate of the West.