Into the Fray: Can the QUAD Function in a Contentious Indo-Pacific?

Into the Fray: Can the QUAD Function in a Contentious Indo-Pacific?

Andrew Erskine
State Leaders from the US, Japan, Australia and India at the QUAD Summit held virtually on March 12, 2021.
Source: New York Times, QUAD Summit 2021

On March 12, in a move to re-establish American foreign policy engagement with its allies and harden its strategic pivot to the Indo-Pacific, US President Joe Biden met virtually with the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan to discuss how the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) would focus on the threat of COVID-19, economic cooperation and the ongoing climate crisis. Although these issues are vital to the global order’s stability, the QUAD was not designed to solve these broad and larger-scale threats.

Instead, the QUAD was mandated to act as a formal setting where the region’s dominant liberal democracies could coordinate and collaborate on a central diplomatic and military mission: maritime security. The timing of the QUAD Summit was also no coincidence, as it arrived within President Biden’s first one hundred days in office, suggesting a legitimate diplomatic maneuver to recapture American credibility in the region, along with showcasing US seriousness towards its strategic rivalry: China.

Overall, the idea of the Indo-Pacific needing to remain a “free and open” region is of the utmost importance today. After all, the region is home to 60 percent of the world’s population and is becoming the global economic engine of the multipolar rules-based order. Due to the problems posed by North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and the recent coup in Myanmar, the region could pay grave consequences if left isolated. More importantly, however, the QUAD members point to China’s expanding Wolf Warrior diplomacy and, at times, belligerent disregard for its neighbors’ territorial and intellectual sovereignty and economic interdependence as the primary worriment. With all this said, there is growing debate around whether the QUAD can produce a realistic strategy for promoting the interests of the Indo-Pacific’s liberal democracies.


The QUAD is a reincarnation of the 2007 Quadrilateral Initiative led by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The old partnership established a vague premise of regional security and, on one occasion, held joint naval exercises. However, with then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard ousted from office that year, and the presidency of George W. Bush concluding the following year, the initiative was put on hold. In 2017, it re-emerged when then-US President Donald Trump revived the partnershi, albeit without consistent results.

With the effects brought on by the Trump presidency, the growing erosion of liberal democracies worldwide, and Chinese regional hegemonic ambitions, President Biden has reoriented the QUAD as the centerpiece of his administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy. Unlike the 2007 partnership, today’s QUAD inhabits a deepening multipolar global order and a complex Indo-Pacific regional hierarchical structure that observes the return of great power politics, nuclear proliferation, along with intellectual, technological, and economic frustrations.

The QUAD has committed itself to “promoting a free, open rules-based order that is rooted in international law, thereby advancing security and prosperity, while also countering threats both in the region and abroad.”

Stephen NAGy, japan times

Unlike the transatlantic relationship that developed into NATO, the QUAD partnership has no legal or formal treaty commitments that proclaim a collective security arrangement in the wake of armed conflict on one of the four members. Furthermore, unlike the transatlantic region, the Indo-Pacific does not have the diplomatic, political, or strategic architecture for the QUAD members to pursue a collective, multinational, and multilateral response to direct and belligerent armed attacks. Instead, the region is observed through formal, traditional US bilateral and trilateral alliances with South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand, which share foreign policy interests in the stabilization and flourishing of the East Asian and Western Pacific regions. Meanwhile, India’s inclusion into the QUAD also showcases how the partnership is not a formal alliance, as the former’s political and strategic interests focus more significantly on the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian geopolitical periphery.

With no such formal treaty commitments, why is the QUAD’s return so prolific? The partnership’s renewal as a meaningful regional organization is due to mounting Chinese regional hegemonic behaviors and antagonistic policies that have alienated the QUAD’s four members while also harming the region’s institutional laws, norms, and rules. With China’s regional hegemonic status causing such diplomatic and military tension, the QUAD members have acknowledged that better state cohesion and unity support a stronger outlook in dealing with Chinese aggression. Coupled with their shared interests in maintaining the region’s “free and open” standing through the stiffening of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, the QUAD has a universal inclination for greater cooperation to fulfill this mission. 


Notably, the Indo-Pacific was not a region that heeded significant strategic attention before then-US President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. Traditionally, US foreign policy interests focused on the greater Northeast Asian and the broader Pacific regions, as they had significant American military personnel, bases, and ports that served US geopolitical interests during the Cold War and American hegemony during its unipolar moment.

Strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific region began in 2007 when Japan proclaimed to India that the Pacific and Indian Oceans brought about “seas of freedom and prosperity.” The region was further legitimated when Australian foreign policy began referencing the concept to indicate their geopolitical interests in the region as it promoted greater political and diplomatic avenues for trade and defense partnerships. When President Obama adopted the concept for his administration’s strategic ‘pivot’ it was clear that such a decision to reframe the East Asian region was to serve the one overriding issue the four countries shared: diluting China’s hegemonic authority and strength in Asia.


For the QUAD to have any realistic strategies on China and towards a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, the partnership needs to examine Chinese belligerence and aggressive hegemonic aggrandizement within the pretext of East Asia’s regional order. Despite ongoing studies attempting to identify the type of polarity the region exhibits(Ashley Tellis asserting the region’s multipolarity and some US foreign policy experts arguing its bipolarity) the distinct presence of Chinese positional, geographical, and hegemonic power confirms its claim of regional hegemony. As such, the region should be observed as unipolar due to China’s apex of power and the inability of neighboring to match the military, positional, or economic capabilities to dismiss China’s regional hegemonic ranking.

China’s adamant pursuit for regional hegemony also highlights the historical nature of the region’s hierarchical structure. East Asian history is full of examples of regional hegemons being primarily concerned with shaping the order’s political, security, and economic preferences: the Ming dynasty, European colonizers, the Japanese Empire, and post-war America. China’s assertiveness, therefore, can be better understood through its rooted intellectual and political experience in Asian geopolitical history. Such pretext offers an alternative outlook towards Chinese expansion in East Asia. It can also inform the QUAD of how China can react to such attempts to incorporate East Asia with Southeast Asia, understanding that China will inhabit an order surrounded by hostiles, rivals, and non-aligned states.

Despite China’s regional hegemony, its neighbors are by no means weak or incompetent in their ability to project power in defending state sovereignty and regional institutional rules, norms, and laws. For instance, Japanese resources and technological wealth, South Korea’s technologically driven industries, and a dynamic and determined Vietnam, along with their own defense and military capabilities, possess the resilience needed to stand up to a belligerent regional hegemon. The shortfall among these states are conflicted histories that have hampered inclusiveness and strategic cohesion. Due to this impactful feature, the region’s middle and small powers have urged extra-regional hegemons, traditionally the US and now India, to provide leadership in framing a strategy to balance China.


The QUAD partnership going forward needs to focus on a realistic strategy that employs diplomatic and defense tactics that can inform the regional order’s norms, laws, and rules around Chinese hegemony. Such strategies need to make it clear that a rules-based structure is required for mutual benefits while adjusting China’s hegemonic responsibilities to the latter’s endurance. China failing to correspond with this request would result in more Indo-Pacific states looking towards the QUAD for political, economic, and structural support.

Although intelligence sharing and joint naval exercises are logical strategies to employ, the QUAD is not NATO. Moreover, with China enacting a modernized and zealous hegemonic strategy, the QUAD needs to focus on non-traditional and unordinary tactics to make China recognize its one-sided diplomacy as harmful and destabilizing to the regional order. Tactics should also encourage lower-tiered states to trap Chinese regional leadership and authority to the order and criticize China when it abuses its hegemonic privileges. Given that hegemonic statuses are based on positional and geographical traits, China needs to be informed that there are normative elements to its sought-after title: recognition and fellowship by the region’s lower-tiered states.

The QUAD should also design strategies that assist partners that come under conflict with China. Recently, Australia and South Korea were targeted through economic boycotts to weaken political support and partnership with the US. To collectively depose such behaviors and help the states affected, the QUAD should establish a reserve fund that provides financial assistance to those under pressure. This could strengthen the cohesion, unity, and credibility of the QUAD and also showcase the limits of Chinese soft power going forward. This may have the advert effect of increasingly illustrating the unwavering stance that the Indo-Pacific’s middle and small powers can take to cooperate and collaborate with the QUAD, despite retaliatory political pressures from China. Such measures can also be directed to intellectual, territorial, and governmental sovereignty. The QUAD should also deepen technological, pharmaceutical, and telecommunication networks that can serve as an alternative channel for QUAD members and other Indo-Pacific states to access if they are under threat from Chinese hegemonic belligerence.

The QUAD will also need to be pragmatic about where and when they ratchet up pressure on China by being aware of the Indo-Pacific region’s risk-to-reward ratio. Exacerbated by scarce military bases, personnel, and ports that the US, Japan, and Australia have in the Indian Ocean, the QUAD cannot negate precious resources and personnel from East Asia, thereby stretching its capabilities thinly across one supra-regional area. Instead, the QUAD needs to evaluate the strategic significance of Chinese hegemonic projects in the Indo-Pacific. Such attention can be directed at the impact of projects over a specific period and determine if it merits an immediate threat. Although this is a gamble, China does not hold indefinite resources to continue such projects in perpetuity. Sooner-than-later, the Chinese hegemonic machine will slow down, and at that moment, China will have to reflect upon its position in the regional order, its relationship with its neighbours, and its great power companions.

Lastly, the QUAD needs to avoid zero-sum strategies that solely seek to undermine Chinese hegemonic primacy by forcing the Indo-Pacific to choose between its members or China. The Indo-Pacific is at a crossroads, as many states have significant economic relationships with China, often being the number one trading partner, while also having bilateral security and defense agreements with the US. As a result, it will be difficult for states to sacrifice one partner for the other. Thus, QUAD strategists must recognize that a policy of coexistence and patience through cooperative and competitive conditions is needed to manage regional stability and, in turn, manage Chinese aggressiveness.

  • To be successful in balancing China’s hegemonic rise, does the QUAD need a formal treaty commitment like NATO’s Article V?
  • Will China observe the QUAD as a coalition of hegemonic rivals and act more belligerent in its pursuit of regional hegemonic status?
  • Do you think the QUAD will be an aimless and illegitimate multilateral regional organization, thereby solidifying liberal-democracies as inconsequential actors in world politics?

Suggested Readings

Schneider, David K. (2021). “How China Sees the International Order: A Lesson from the Chinese Classics.” War on the Rock, 18, March 2021.

Babones, Salvatore (2021). “China’s Neighbors Are Stronger Than We Think: All across the Indo-Pacific arc, countries are beefing up their defenses.” Foreign Policy, 18, March 2021.

Blinken, Antony J. & Austin, Lloyd J. (2021). “Opinion: America’s partnserships are ‘force mutliplers’ in the world.” The Washington Post, 14, March 2021.


  1. Pingback: Where Are All the Chinese Villains? - The New Global Order %

  2. Pingback: Strategic Ambiguity, China, and Taiwan: The US-Taiwan Quagmire - The New Global Order

  3. Pingback: China's Push Into the Indian Ocean: How Can the United States Contain Its Growing Reach? - The New Global Order

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Into the Fray: Can the QU…

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 8 min