Originally Published 2020-05-07 10:11:15 Published on May 07, 2020
Towards a quad-plus arrangement

It is probably too early to sense the shape of the post-COVID world. But there are some early hints of how international partnerships might be shaped by the crisis. Recently, senior officials of the four “Quad” countries (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) teleconferenced about how to respond to the pandemic.

Quad meetings are no longer unusual. But this one was special because it included three additional Indo-Pacific powers: NewZealand, South Korea and Vietnam. The call, reportedly initiated by the US Deputy Secretary of State Steve Beigun, was intended to exchange notes on how these powers were tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.<1>

But it also raises a broader question: Is this is a sign of possible expansion of the Quad mechanism, and how might such an expansion be feasible?

Indeed, whether this was even a “Quad-Plus” meeting is an open question. It appears that only the Indian government formally announced that this meeting was held, and true to fashion, New Delhi did not reference the Quad at all.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a readout of the March 20 meeting only said that these countries had a telephonic conference to share best practices and collaborate in their efforts to contain the spread of the virus.<2> It will reportedly occur on a weekly basis, and covering a range of issues including cooperative vaccine development, addressing questions around stranded citizens, and minimising economic impacts.

However, a press report from a prominent Indian foreign affairs correspondent was more direct, stating that the meeting was also an

“attempt to keep the Quad-plus countries within a certain sphere of influence and strategic direction.”<3>

The Quad-plus countries have held subsequent meetings, discussing not just battling the current pandemic situation but also sharing of technologies, and more importantly, ways to get the global economy back on track without significant setback.<4> They also appear to have agreed on the need to initially focus on the public health dimension of the crisis, and therefore will first target the development of vaccines, manufacture of equipment and calibrating treatment options.

Each of the “plus three” parties are an important partner the Quad countries. Vietnam is an important strategic partner for all four Quad members.<5> South Korea is also, despite the latter’s somewhat troubled relations occasionally with Japan and the US. Importantly, Seoul has managed COVID-19 successfully in comparison to other regional governments.

Perhaps the most surprising country in the list is New Zealand. Its inclusion is noteworthy because, despite being one of the Five Eyes nations, Wellington has generally been reluctant to be perceived as targeting China in any way. It did not initially endorse the Indo-Pacific concept, presumably because it may have strained ties with China. At the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue, the New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark stuck to the old formulation of Asia-Pacific and resisted the term Indo-Pacific.<6> In October 2018, speaking at the MFAT@75 Conference in Wellington, Ben King, Deputy Secretary Americas and Asia Group at Ministry of Foreign and Trade Affairs (MFAT), defended and emphasised its preference for the term Asia-Pacific.<7> Given New Zealand’s heavy economic dependence on China, its positioning was probably understandable.<8>

However, New Zealand’s view has changed recently, with the country formally adopting the Indo-Pacific formulation in February 2020, presumably the result of Wellington’s growing security concerns about China.<9> New Zealand appears to have taken yet another step forward in joining the telephone diplomacy along with other key Indo-Pacific powers.

New Zealand’s path to the Quad mirrors the evolution in Indian thinking. Like New Zealand, India too had traditionally shied away from choosing between the United States and China. But China’s aggressive behaviour in attempting to deny India the strategic space it seeks in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in global platforms such as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) has propelled New Delhi to shift increasingly towards partnerships with others in the Indo-Pacific.

Like others, India had been somewhat uncomfortable with the Quad because of the perception that it was a containment effort against China. But it appears now, in light of recent developments, to be fully invested.

All of this is a big advance for the Quad. Initially labelled the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), the Quad made a comeback in November 2017 when officials from the foreign ministries of India, Australia, Japan and the US met in Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summits to discuss areas of common interest in the regional and global context.<10> This was the first time that the officials from these countries met after the initial efforts to form the Quad fell apart a decade back.

According to the MEA’s press release, discussions focused on the

“converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region that they share with each other and with other partners.”<11>

Subsequent meetings amongst officials in 2018<12> and 2019<13> have concentrated on similar concerns. In a sign of further progress and political commitment, in 2019 Quad meetings were elevated to the foreign minister level.<14>

These institutional developments indicate that the concerns that gave rise to the formation of the original Quad in 2006-07, and its revival in 2017, not only remain relevant but have deepened.

The strategic consequences of China’s rise, its aggressive military posturing and the tendency to use threat of force have become more prominent in the Indo-Pacific. If the Quad’s progress has been somewhat hesitating, the reason is not hard to find: most countries in the region have significant economic exposure to China. This dependence constrained their capacity to participate in a mechanism which the Chinese government has expressly opposed.<15>

But as China’s behavior has become increasingly assertive, many governments' strategic calculus have begun to change. The very fact that there are more countries over the last year endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept is an indicator of things to come. ASEAN’s adoption of an Outlook on the Indo-Pacific in 2019, following previous reticence to explicitly use the Indo-Pacific formulation, is a telling example.<16>

The slow but steady institutionalisation of the Quad suggests that its future expansion is a real possibility.

Efforts to coordinate responses to COVID-19 by the Quad-Plus countries may be a means to expand the original formulation at a pace that would be comfortable to potential new members and without eliciting a Chinese rebuke. It would be hypocritical for China to oppose countries collaborating on COVID-19 when it has itself made precisely such calls.<17> But such cooperation also sets the stage for further Quad dialogue on other problems these countries face, potentially including security problems.

Indeed, a Quad-Plus expansion makes sense for a number of reasons. One is the common security concern these countries share regarding China’s behaviours. Each have faced Chinese pressure plays in recent years, and harbor concerns regarding China’smilitaryand political expansion into areas they consider their ‘neighbourhood’. Additionally, none are in a position to effectively challenge China on a bilateral basis, making minilateral cooperation with like minded partners a better approach.

Together, these factors provide a pragmatic path to greater security cooperation via a Quad-Plus arrangement in future years. Expanding the Quad is not going to be easy, and will bring with it challenges of divergent concerns and burden sharing problems. But there is clearly an impetus for Quad expansion that will begin to find expression in coming months.

This essay originally appeared in Perth USAsia


<1> “How America Is Leading the “Quad Plus” Group of Seven Countries in Fighting the Coronavirus”. The National Interest, Jeff Smith, 30 March 2020. <2>Foreign Secretary’s Conference Call with counterparts from Indo-Pacific Countries (2020), Ministry of External Affairs India. <3>India joins hands with NZ, Vietnam, S Korea to combat pandemic”. The Times of India, Indrani Bagchi, 21 March 2020. <4>India, Quad-Plus countries discuss Covid-19 battle, economic resurgence”. The Times of India, Indrani Bagchi, 28 March 2020. <5>"Special Strategic Partnership” between Aus-VN since mid-2018. <6>Indo-Pacific dominates at Shangri-La: Where does that leave New Zealand?”. Incline, David Capie, 7 June 2018. <7>Remarks on the Indo-Pacific - Ben King, Deputy Secretary for Americas and Asia (2018), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade New Zealand. <8>New Zealand Trade Dashboard (2019), Statistics New Zealand. <9>New Zealand Picks Up on the Indo-Pacific”. East-West Center, David Scott, 18 March 2020. <10> India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on Indo-Pacific (2017), Ministry of External Affairs India. <11> ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (2019), Association of Southeast Asian Nations. <12> India-Australia-Japan-US Consultations (2018), Ministry of External Affairs India. <13>India-Australia-Japan-US Consultations (2018), Ministry of External Affairs India. <14> Australia-India-Japan-United States ‘Quad’ Consultations (2019), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia. <15>Wary China on ‘Quad’ bloc watch after officials from US, Japan, India and Australia meet on ASEAN sidelines”. South China Morning Post, Shi Jiangtao and Laura Zhou, 13 November 2017. <16> ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (2019), Association of Southeast Asian Nations. <17>Xi Jinping calls on Trump to improve US-China relations amid Covid-19 crisis”. The Guardian, Lily Kuo, 27 March 2020.
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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