The Quad is finding its purpose, at last

O N AGAIN, OFF AGAIN for years, the security grouping known as the Quad appears in recent months to be gaining purpose at last. Not least, the two members who are not part of the G 7, Australia and India, have been invited to attend that club’s summit in Britain between June 11th and 13th, joining the two who are, America and Japan. A virtual gathering of the Quad’s leaders organised by Joe Biden in March was one of the American president’s first foreign-policy moves. There is talk of the group’s first in-person summit later in the year. Meanwhile, Congress has thrown its weight behind legislation designed to counter China. Among other things, it gives backing to the Quad by boosting co-operation in military and tech matters.

Listen to this story Your browser does not support the

For the Quad’s new purpose has everything to do with China. Four decades of engagement, say some, have not made China a friendlier state nor moderated its behaviour. China’s competitive edge, notes Lisa Curtis, a former American official involved with Indo-Pacific policy and now at the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank in Washington, “has sharpened across the military, economic, diplomatic and technological domains”.

All four members have felt the effects, including a deadly brawl last year on India’s border with China, embargoes China has slapped on exports from Australia and military incursions around Japan’s Senkaku islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu islands. The Quad’s talk of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” once sounded like waffle. But increasingly assertive behaviour by China, from expanding its presence in the contested South China Sea to seeking influence through murky infrastructure deals, represents a challenge to the relatively open way in which the Asia-Pacific region has long operated.

Leaders in Beijing accuse the Quad of being an anti-China bloc bent on perpetuating American hegemony. That charge was easier to make when Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, and others were spouting bombastic rhetoric and urging Asian countries to take sides. With a change of tone from America under Mr Biden, Quad members are now “focused on what they seek to achieve, not merely what they want to counter”, another former official, Danny Russel, argues in the Diplomat, a magazine.

American naval patrols in the South China Sea have expanded. A new “Blue Dot” infrastructure network, aimed at countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative, promotes transparency and environmental sustainability. And a vaccination programme unveiled at the virtual summit in March aims to get jabs into Asian arms. The point, Mr Russel says, is not to force smaller Asian states to choose but to ensure they have viable options. That is broadly welcome: China is all but alone in the region in denigrating the Quad.

Its effectiveness, however, remains unproven. The Quad lacks even a secretariat. The promise of Asian vaccinations was predicated on supplies from India, which that country’s enormous second wave stymied. Even security co-operation among Quad members has limits. Not only is India, long averse to formal alliances, reluctant to join “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea; so too are Australia and Japan, treaty allies of America.

Unofficial “Quad-plus” partners have grown in importance as a logical next step, argues Michael Auslin of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Post-Brexit Britain wants to increase trade and security ties in Asia. A new British aircraft-carrier, with accompanying warships, is heading for the Pacific. A French submarine recently patrolled the South China Sea. By themselves these gestures may not amount to much, says Mr Auslin. But added to the surveillance and other efforts of its core members, the Quad can muster a “very robust presence” and send a strong signal to China.

Smaller Asian countries would be appalled to be seen joining security efforts against China. By contrast, non-defence co-operation could well grow. South Korea and Taiwan, which together make two-fifths of the world’s semiconductors, are both willing to help American-led initiatives to ensure chip supplies. They also seem willing to work with Quad members against Chinese cyber-attacks and cyber-theft. Ms Curtis highlights scope for broader co-operation on next-generation telecoms standards. Loose coalitions rather than hard structures: it is now up to the Quad to show these to be the most effective grammar of modern Asian diplomacy.