WITH the third meeting within a year of the quadrilateral security dialogue, or ‘Quad’, between officials from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, bullish analysis suggests the Quad is a formation that is evolving but enduring. After weathering turbulent geopolitical (and American political) headwinds over the past two years, the Quad will likely remain an important part of the geopolitical rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific region, but one that likely lags (and possibly drags) independent balancing efforts.
The Quad’s current prominence belies its humbler beginnings. It was conceived after the 2004 Tsunami relief efforts, consummated in 2007, collapsed quickly thereafter, and then following a decade of advocacy, track-two fora, and scholarship, revived in 2017 as a ‘natural’1 multilateral engagement of states with a set of purportedly converging interests in a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ region, with China as the unnamed challenger. Although the Quad has not yet defined its functions or a set of action items beyond dialogue, tangible steps suggested by the four countries include interoperability to respond to humanitarian disasters, protecting freedom of navigation, and coordination in infrastructure and connectivity projects.
A previously reluctant India seemed to be embracing the Quad grouping in 2017 after a months-long militarized border stand-off with China. However, by spring 2018, there was rampant speculation that India had already begun to retreat from the Quad’s confrontational approach to China after the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit. Since then, India has been chastised as the weakest link in the Quad. The brief but turbulent history of the Quad, and India’s place in it, raises two interrelated questions. First, since a concrete agenda of the Quad continues to have infinite potential but elusive specifics, what is the purpose of the Quad? Second, given several fits and starts and mutual suspicions, how natural can this partnership really be?
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