On Friday, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States will gather for the first-ever quadrilateral (“Quadrilateral”) summit in person. A year ago, such a gathering would have been difficult to imagine. Until January 2021, Delhi and Tokyo would not even use the word “Quad” in their statements. More importantly, as the US election approached, the fate of the Quad was unclear. The Trump administration helped revive it in 2017, but Joe Biden’s campaign had shown little interest in the Quad. Rather than adopt a stance other than Trump, however, President Biden not only embraced this coalition, but doubled it down.
So what is the reason that the Biden administration persists with the Quad, and even elevates it from the ministerial level to the leader level? Utility prevailed over politics. The coalition fits with the president’s desire to see democracies try to deliver, and the administration’s broader foreign policy approach emphasizing alliances and partnerships – and it helps resolve his Chinese problem.
Biden’s embrace for the Quad came early in administration. Less than a month after taking office, the administration organized a ministerial summit, then, a month later, a virtual summit of Quad leaders. This was consistent with the administration’s desire to consolidate alliances and partnerships, in part to build a “position of strength” from which to approach competitors such as China. As the first multilateral leaders’ meeting hosted by Biden, the Quad summit also reflected – and stems from – the administration’s intention to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, it signaled that the administration would not follow a China-focused approach, but an Indo-Pacific or Asian approach first from which Chinese policy would flow. Additionally, like the Trump administration, Biden officials envisioned an important role for unallied India in their strategy for the region – and the Quad provided a means of working with India at- beyond bilateral platforms.
The Quad is also consistent with the administration’s adoption of flexible multilateralism. This stems from the recognition that bilateral alliances and partnerships, as well as regional and international organizations, are necessary but insufficient mechanisms to meet today’s challenges. This is where coalitions come in, bringing together allies and partners aligned on certain issues or interests.
In the Indo-Pacific, a crucial interest in the Biden administration is maintaining a rules-based order, which is challenged by a assertive China. The US star alliance system is essential; ASEAN is important. But they are not enough and an Asian NATO is impossible. Enter the Quad, which brings together countries that meet the three conditions of an ideal coalition membership: they are relevant, resourceful and ready to work together to meet the challenges of the Indo-Pacific.
And make no mistake, for the Biden administration (and other members) this challenge is significantly about China. Quad leaders do not explicitly mention the C word in their statements. Yet this country’s assertion in recent years is what made the Quad both necessary and possible. Necessary because the challenges that China has generated in the Indo-Pacific are acute and cannot be tackled alone. And possible because Beijing’s assertiveness – especially towards Quad members themselves – has created the market for collaboration between those like-minded states that share concerns about Beijing’s behavior. This behavior has also helped to strengthen the bilateral and trilateral ties of the four countries on which the Quad is based. And the increased competition with China has helped the Biden administration overcome any reluctance it may have had to embrace the Quad.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration and the other three governments have reframed the conversation around the Quad away from the Trump administration’s more explicit framing of China. They highlighted the origins of the Quad in the collective response of the four countries to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which led to the short-lived Quad 1.0 in 2007. And Quad 2.0’s first major collaborative initiative is to provide 1 billion doses of Covid vaccine in the Indo-Pacific by 2022.
The first allows to highlight the regional and biological origins of the Quad. The second conveys a more welcome message in Asia: the grouping is not against something (it is China) but for something (offering solutions to regional problems and preserving a rules-based order). And both help counter Chinese talking points that either dismiss the Quad as unnecessary or accuse it of being an exclusive, anti-China US-imposed security alliance that will destabilize the region.
That’s not to say that the Biden-era Quad lacks a security dimension. The four Marines and their special forces are indeed conducting a military exercise. And the summit’s agenda will likely include a discussion of the state of the Chinese challenge, maritime security cooperation, and critical and emerging technology collaboration. But it will also include tackling Covid and climate change, improving regional connectivity and encouraging innovation. It’s not that countries won’t discuss building a balancing coalition in the region privately, but, publicly, they are more likely to talk about building resilience in the region.
Given the month he has had with the fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the deployment of AKUS, President Biden will also want to emphasize America’s resilience – and that reports of its decline are greatly exaggerated. And its Quad partners have come from afar to express their belief – or at least their hope – that this is the case.
The writer is director of Project India at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC