Author : Girish Luthra

Issue BriefsPublished on Jul 06, 2021 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

The Indo-Pacific Quest for the Quad’s Spirit

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US—has outlined a collective vision that recognises each country’s peculiarities in their approach to the Indo-Pacific while building upon the areas of convergence. Maritime security will continue to be a key pillar in this vision, although there is a shift towards making the Quad’s objectives more broad-based and relevant to the emerging global geopolitical challenges. Implementing this vision will require a clear framework and an agenda with adequate flexibility, which the Quad should articulate at the next summit.


Attribution: Girish Luthra, “The Indo-Pacific Quest for the Quad’s Spirit,” ORF Issue Brief No. 473, July 2021, Observer Research Foundation.


The maiden summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, has been a subject of analyses and debates since it was held in March 2021. The discussions centre on the trajectory that the grouping will likely take in the future. The talks were widely seen as significant and historic, given the intent and potential to influence the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific in the coming years. The summit-level dialogue is the final step in formalising the Quad arrangement, providing it with the much-needed conceptual anchor.

The Quad first appeared as an informal grouping in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This version (from 2006 till early 2008) was an ad-hoc consultative arrangement with maritime security as the key theme and would eventually dissipate. In 2017, the four countries started reviving the Quad as their interests converged vis-à-vis an assertive and aggressive China, and they reaffirmed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), rules-based order, and joint action against terrorism[1] (see Table 1). Bilateral and trilateral mechanisms and regular official meetings prepared the ground, albeit incrementally, for the formalisation of the Quad. Its objectives became more broad-based, focusing on development-linked initiatives to drive the common good and cooperative security.

Table 1: A Timeline of Quad’s Evolution

The ‘Spirit of the Quad’ joint statement issued at the end of the March summit[2] has been hailed as a major step forward since it presents a consensual and broad vision for a free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific and recognises that the four countries “bring diverse perspectives and are united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The statement also announced the constitution of three groups—Quad Vaccine Expert Group, Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, and Quad Climate Working Group. It also stated that the next in-person summit would be planned towards the end of 2021, indicating a commitment to sustaining progress. As was the case during its initial outing (2006-2008), China has opposed the revival of the Quad partnership. In 2018, the Chinese foreign minister referred to the Quad as a “headline grabbing idea…that would dissipate like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.”[3] After the March summit, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated, “We hope relevant countries will…refrain from forming closed and exclusive cliques.”[4] China sees the Quad as meaningless and doomed to fail,[5] and has attempted to pressurise countries in the region (such as Bangladesh[6]) to avoid cooperating with the grouping. China views the Quad through the lens of ‘wei qi’ (encirclement strategy), dismissing the initiative as representing a “Cold War mentality.”[7] Russia also opposes the Quad, highlighting the negative consequences of bloc type approaches that invariably veer away from inclusivity.[8]

Outlook of Quad Countries: An Overview

The lack of a common approach and vision was considered a primary reason for the partnership’s demise in 2008. Consequently, Quad 2.0 is the outcome of substantial groundwork over the 2017-2021 period. In large measure, China’s behaviour and actions injected a sense of urgency and imparted momentum to the preparatory phase. New opportunities for cooperation have been discussed,[9] but peculiarities in respective approaches remain, despite some significant transitions.

The US

The US has been most concerned about the global competition with China across different domains, such as security, economic, trade, technology, cyber, space, and ideology. As a result, it has prioritised the Indo-Pacific region, including it as a separate section in its National Security Strategy 2017.[10] This was followed by the issuance of the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report in 2019, which highlighted an enduring commitment to a FOIP.[11] The 2019 report identified China as a revisionist power with predatory economic and coercive strategies and stressed that Beijing was attempting to subvert the international rules-based system. In addition, it referred to Russia as a revitalised malign actor that was also undermining the international rules-based order. In the Indo-Pacific, the US’s primary focus has been on the South China Sea, the East China Sea and East Asia.Beyond the economic competition with China, the US also faces political and diplomatic challenges, including China’s influence in multilateral institutions, the increasing appeal of state-led authoritarian capitalism, sharp power politics, narrative management, and aiding the democratic decline.[12] The US is also mindful of the shifting balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and China’s growing military footprint.[13] It has stepped up efforts to support Taiwan and prepare for any military escalation in the Taiwan Strait and Luzon Strait. Grey-zone operations[a] by the People’s Armed Forces Militia in the South China Sea have been highlighted as an established strategy for incremental occupation and harassment by China.[14] The US is also keen to strengthen relationships with like-minded allies and partners at the economic, military and governance levels.A strong proponent of the Quad, Washington is keen to step up the grouping’s military dimension.[15] However, it recognises the current limitations—and the need to increase the Quad’s appeal—towards benignly strengthening stability. Accordingly, it has boosted bilateral ties with the other Quad members, including re-energising the military alliance frameworks with Japan and Australia. It has started to forward deploy and position military assets in northern Australia, and both countries are undertaking a bilateral force posture review.[16]Additionally, the US is also attempting to deal with the perception that it seeks to use the Quad to extend hegemony and sustain dominance.


Japan is a strong advocate of the Indo-Pacific construct and the FOIP, which former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally introduced in August 2016.[17] In addition, a reinterpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution (which outlaws war) and efforts to move away from the unwritten norm of restricting defence spending to 1 percent of the GDP have been a direct result of developments in the region.Historical enmity with China and increased Chinese assertiveness have made Japan’s threat perception vis-à-vis that country more acute since around 2010. The sovereignty issue over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has pushed Japan to get the US to agree that the defence of Senkaku islands falls within the ambit of Article 5 of the US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty.[18] It is also deeply concerned about the evolving situation of military operations around Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. Japan is keen to expand the alliance coordination mechanism with the US by incorporating deterrence and response arrangements against grey-zone operations.[19] The Japanese Defence White Paper 2020 implicitly indicated an enhanced role for its armed forces because of Chinese attempts to alter the regional status quo.[20] Japan has stepped up economic cooperation with countries and groups in the region, particularly Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Through carefully balanced near-parallel negotiations, it became a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In October 2016, the US, Japan and Australia also agreed to share military information.[21] There has also been a significant upswing in the Japan-India relationship in the last decade.Japan believes that the Quad can be a central pillar to take forward the FOIP concept and has sought to suitably align the group’s objectives. It also favours a transition to an active security role in the region under a multilateral umbrella.[22] While Japan holds the same view as India on the geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific (from the west coast of the Americas to the east coast of Africa, and the Arabic/Persian Gulf) and has undertaken numerous joint initiatives in central and western Indo-Pacific, its approach has been aligned more with the pressing compulsions in East Asia.


Geographically, Australia has a relatively secure environment, though concerns related to the escalation of diplomatic, trade and security tensions with China have come to the fore in recent months. It was one of the first countries to comment that the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision in 2016, which dismissed China’s historical claims in the South China Sea, was legally binding. It was also the first country to bar Huawei from participation in the 5G network, citing national security concerns.[23] Australia’s relations with China have been in a downward spiral since 2018 after Canberra passed the foreign interference laws and Beijing retaliated by ‘weaponising trade’. Calls for an independent enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation. Australia has been concerned about reports of Chinese initiatives in the South Pacific, including a plan to reactivate a Second World War airstrip in Kiribati’s Kanton atoll and attempts to establish facilities on Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.[24] The lease of a facility at Darwin to a Chinese company is also under review.[25] In May 2021, China indefinitely suspended the strategic economic dialogue with Australia, and for the first time in decades, the possibility of a war between the two countries entered public discourse.[26]Australia was the first country to officially use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in 2013, which was reaffirmed and elaborated upon in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.[27] In addition to the Pacific Step-up plan,[b],[28] it has enhanced cooperation with India since 2016[29] and has focused on strengthening partnerships and capacity building in the ASEAN region.Australia looks at the Quad to enable a secure environment, particularly in the western and southern Pacific, and increase counter-coercion options against China. It is a key proponent of addressing the risks associated with an overdependence on China for critical and emerging technologies and supply chains.


India’s foreign and security approach has seen a significant reorientation in the past decade or so. The country has sought to balance its relations with Russia and China while enhancing other partnerships. As the only Quad member with a long and disputed land border with China, India has attempted to move towards being a conscious maritime power while sustaining its continental emphasis and orientation. In 2009, the Indian Maritime Doctrine included for the first time the South China Sea, other areas of the west Pacific Ocean, the littoral states in the continents of Australia and Africa, the Red Sea, the southern Indian Ocean, and other regions based on considerations of diaspora and overseas investments, in its secondary areas of interest.[30]India has been concerned about the growing presence and footprint of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean Region and its immediate neighbourhood. It raised red flags early on about the Belt and Road Initiative but adopted a cautious approach to avoid any deterioration in ties with China. However, Chinese intrusions along the Line of Actual Control between the two countries, such as the Depsang incident in 2013 and the Doklam incident in 2017, led to some serious rethinking in India. Violent clashes between the army units in Galwan in eastern Ladakh, with several casualties on both sides, added a new dimension to the growing fragility of the environment. The process of disengagement has since been partially completed, though high levels of preparedness are still being maintained. From an Indian perspective, this is seen as the continuation of a trend, with the recognition that border challenges will mandate a focus on its organic military capabilities.In 2015, India enunciated the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) concept.  Building on this, India outlined its vision for the Indo-Pacific in 2018. This was followed by the launch of Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), with seven specific pillars for promoting broader cooperation and maritime security in the region.[31] India has attempted to align the objectives of the Quad with those of SAGAR and IPOI. At the same time, like other Quad members, it seeks to constrain China’s coercive strategies,[32] expansionism and aggressive behaviour. It, however, does not look at the Quad as a potential military alliance, resembling the NATO, the Warsaw Pact or the Quadruple Alliance formed by Russia, England, Austria and Prussia in 1815. India believes that minilateral partnerships, whether bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, or more, can positively impact the current environment. It holds the view that multiple partnerships need not be mutually exclusive. For India, the western Indian Ocean Region in the Indo-Pacific is also critical, and it seeks to balance these imperatives in the Quad.There is now a substantial convergence of interests and outlook among the four Quad members, which will likely facilitate an increased cohesion in ongoing and new joint initiatives (see Table 2 for some areas of convergence). While each member has a distinct approach towards China, a common thread is related to its challenges.

Table 2: Areas of Convergence and Levels of Inclination

Note: A: Strong Inclination; B: Moderate Inclination; C: Not Inclined 

Shaping a Framework and Agenda for Quad 2.0

Unlike many other minilateral forums, the Quad has attracted sharp global attention due to the varied perceptions of its influence.[33] The Quad now has increased clarity and purpose, although there is a need to place more details on its planned functioning in the public domain, which will also dispel the notion that it is a Cold War redux in a new setting.

The Quad’s broad vision can be summed up thus: to cooperate and collaborate on areas of common interest, with a particular focus on promoting stability, security and development in the Indo-Pacific region. There are no plans for a Quad secretariat,[34] but coordination and review meetings may need further acceleration. With the ‘spirit’ of the Quad outlined at the inaugural summit, the next summit must spell out the overall framework for cooperation coupled with relevant measures to monitor progress. This is necessary to devise implementation strategies, taking cognisance of the challenges involved. The framework will need to be flexible, given that predictable factors could be as influential as unpredictable ones.

Emphasise Co-existence with Other Architectures and Organisations

With an emphasis on partnerships based on shared interests, a suitable articulation of the Quad’s co-existence with other regional and subregional architectures, frameworks and mechanisms is desirable. The March joint statement mentions support for ASEAN centrality, but a clearer statement will allay apprehensions about any intent of displacing or weakening other arrangements in the region. Moreover, the Quad itself should be open to interface with other willing organisations and countries where similar objectives are planned to be pursued, without any requirement from partners to make binary choices.

Outline Basic Principles of Rules-Based Order

The Quad framework should outline some basic principles and practices of the rules-based order. These can be under categories like good order at sea, fair trade practices, cyber norms, commitment to international laws and norms, and compliance with the judgements of duly constituted international courts and tribunals. A dialogue should be initiated with multilateral institutions (such as the G20) that have a broader representation of these foundational principles and practices. The four Quad countries will also need to set high standards, build common ground through frank and open conversations, and encourage an enhanced commitment to these practices.

Prioritise Development Goals

Development goals for the Indo-Pacific region should be prioritised and made public. Based on these goals, specific initiatives can be launched with transparent and effective implementation. Ongoing schemes among the Quad countries on infrastructure, connectivity and emerging and critical technologies should be aggregated under one umbrella. Mutual concerns related to the existing supply chains, particularly those with security implications, can be taken up for mitigation with the relevant agencies and industries from the Quad countries.

Elevate Maritime Security Cooperation

Maritime security cooperation within the Quad, the linchpin of the earlier framework, has made good progress at bilateral levels and gained further momentum through the Malabar Exercise and other interactions. This pillar’s relevance, importance, and complementarity in the new framework is just as high as before, notwithstanding the much wider canvass indicated in the new vision for the partnership. It is also the first pillar in India’s IPOI.

Cooperation in this area should be elevated to the next level through more advanced naval exercises, a structured forum for discussions on operational concepts and scenarios of common interest, enhanced information sharing arrangements from “white shipping” to “shipping of common interest” and operationalising finalised logistic and support agreements.

Initiate Space Cooperation Programme

A working group should be constituted for cooperation in space programmes, technologies, data sharing, and situational awareness by building on the ongoing collaboration at the bilateral level between the space agencies of the four Quad countries.

Coordinate Regional Efforts in Public Goods

Cooperation under this pillar can include the mitigation of pain, suffering and other adverse effects amid the ongoing pandemic and other disaster events, improving health infrastructure and skillsets, addressing the challenges of digital divide and access, and meeting targets related to climate change and biodiversity.

Promote Quad Breakout Initiatives

Initiatives involving two or more Quad countries aligned with the grouping’s objectives should be promoted concurrently. These could include other partnerships whose potential can be assessed separately, and result in a broader web of cooperation. France, for example, can be a key partner given its significant convergence with the outlook of the Quad.


The Quad has evolved as a unique partnership and is poised to play a meaningful role in promoting stability, security and development in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad countries recognise each other’s approaches and have endeavoured to revive the group by building on the areas of convergence. The maiden leaders’ summit held in March 2021 outlined a vision that encompasses a broad canvas. It indicated a clear intent to address common challenges and tap opportunities, both existing and potential, cooperatively and collaboratively. Although security cooperation, particularly maritime security, is a central theme, the group does not mirror any Cold War military alliances or structures.

The Quad framework must be detailed further, which should be announced at the next in-person summit. Several measures to shape the framework and agenda can be initiated in the run-up to the meeting. Given the partnership’s broad outlook, it must remain active between summits and be seen as doing so.


[a] Operations at a level below hostilities and above those in the accepted range under peacetime.

[b] An Australian investment plan for the Pacific Island nations in cooperation with the US.

[1] Patrick Gerard Buchan and Benjamin Rimland, Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Washington DC, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), March 16, 2020.

[2] The White House, Government of the United States of America. March 12, 2021.

[3] ‘Quad’ move will dissipate like sea foam: China“, The Times of India, March 8, 2018.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the People’s Republic of China. March 15, 2021.

[5] Zhou Bo, “Why US-led, anti-China Quad is either meaningless or doomed to failure“, South China Morning Post, April 2, 2021.

[6] China warns of ‘substantial damage’ to ties if Bangladesh joins US-led Quad alliance; Dhaka calls it ‘aggressive’“, The Economic Times, May 11, 2021.

[7] Sujan R. Chinoy, Yes, The Quad Will Endure!, New Delhi, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA), April 9, 2021.

[8] Sandeep Dikshit, “Quad should be more inclusive, open-minded: Russia“, The Tribune, September 9, 2020.

[9] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. April 15, 2021.

[10] Alyssa Ayres commented on “More Prominence for India and the Indo-Pacific in the U.S. National Security Strategy“, Council on Foreign Relations, posted December 19, 2017.

[11] The United States of American, The Department of Defence, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region, (Washington DC, June 1, 2019), 3-6.

[12] Mathew Kroenig and Jeffrey Cimmino, Global Strategy 2021: An Allied Strategy for China, Washington DC, The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, 2020.

[13] Andrew S Erickson and Ryan D Martinson, “Records Expose China’s Maritime Militia at Whitsun Reef“, Foreign Policy, March 29, 2021.

[14] Abhijit Singh, Deciphering grey-zone operations in maritime-Asia, New Delhi, Observer Research Foundation, August 3, 2018.

[15] Lavina Lee, Assessing the  Quad: Prospects and  Limitations of  Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests, Sydney, Lowy Institute, May 19, 2020.

[16] Ben Packham, “US eyes Top End military build- up to combat China threat“, The Australian, May 26, 2021.

[17] Nanae Baldauff, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy: What does it mean for the European Union?, Brussels, EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations, November 2018.

[18] “Assessing the  Quad: Prospects and  Limitations of  Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests”

[19] Takashi Saito, Susumu Nakamura, Hidetoshi Hirata, Hideshi Tokuchi, Goro Matsumura, and Koichi Sato, Murky Waters in The East China Sea: Chinese Gray-Zone Operations and U.S.-Japan Alliance Coordination, ed. Jonathan W. Greenert, Washington DC, The National Bureau of Asian Research, (May 25, 2021), 19-27.

[20] Gurjit Singh, Japan’s Defence White Paper 2020: An enhanced role emerging?, New Delhi, Observer Research Foundation, July 27, 2020.

[21] Ryosuke Hanada, The Role of U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Cooperation, or the “Quad” in FOIP: A Policy Coordination Mechanism for a Rules-Based Order, Washington DC, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), (2019), 6.

[22] Prof. Yoichiro Sato, “The Quad in Japan’s Image“, YouTube Video, May 16, 2021.

[23] “Assessing the  Quad: Prospects and  Limitations of  Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests”

[24] Jamie Seidel, “Australia scrambles to revive Pacific ties as China’s War influence grows“,, May 9, 2021.

[25] Australia reviewing lease of Darwin port to Chinese firm“, Reuters, May 3, 2021.

[26] Jade Gailberger, “Global Times Editor warns of missile attack on Australian Soil“, Perth Now, May 14, 2021.

[27] Rory Medcalf, An Australian Vision of the Indo-Pacific and What It Means for Southeast Asia, In Southeast Asian Affairs 2019, ed. Daljit Singh and Malcolm Cook, (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2019), pp. 53-60.

[28] Eerishika Pankaj, Australia’s Pacific Step-up and the Quad, Sydney, Lowy Institute, January 19, 2021.

[29] Malcolm Turnbull, “Quad Leaders Hand Australia a Bigger Stick to Fend Off China“, Nikkei Asia, March 16, 2021.

[30] India, Ministry of Defence (Navy), Indian Maritime Doctrine: Naval Strategic Publication 1.1, (Indian Navy, 2009), 62-68.

[31] New Delhi, ASEAN-India Centre at RIS, Indo-Pacific Cooperation: AOIP and IPOI, by Pradeep Chauhan, Prabir De, Sarabjeet Singh Parmar and Durairaj Kumarasamy, (Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), October 2020), 12.

[32] VAdm Girish Luthra, Countering Coercion in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi, Vivekananda International Foundation, July 8, 2020.

[33] Prashanth Parameswaran, “The Future of Asia’s Quad: Managing the Perception Gap“, The Diplomat,  March 20, 2019.

[34] Suhasini Haidar, “PM to attend first Quad Summit on March 12“, The Hindu, March 11, 2021.

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Girish Luthra

Girish Luthra

Vice Admiral Girish Luthra is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He is Former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command, and Southern Naval Command, Indian ...

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