The group has risen to prominence over the years, but gained popularity following deadly border clashes between India and China in 2020 and a recent increase in Australian diplomatic and trade confrontations with Beijing.
Members stress it is not an ‘Asian NATO’ and cast it as a group that can offer others in the region an alternative to China in areas such as Covid-19 resources, relief disaster response and cybersecurity.
Roots in 2004 Tsunami Aid
The four countries came together for the first time for relief operations after the January 26, 2004 earthquake in Indonesia caused devastating tsunami waves along India’s east coast, killing an estimated 230,000 people .
Three years later, the countries formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Japan’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to have played a leading role in the effort.
The Quad’s first major act was to conduct joint naval exercises under the existing bilateral US-India Malabar exercise format.
But a year later, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled out of the fledgling alliance, not wanting to be part of a group seen as openly defying China, which had become a powerful economic partner of Australia.
Australia returns home
A decade later, China’s increasingly aggressive push to build regional networks and project its military power – particularly in the South China Sea – as well as its violent border clashes with India, have brought the four , with Canberra now a more committed partner. .
They all took part in the Malabar 2020 exercises, making the group appear more and more like a military alliance.
Beijing has responded by calling it a Cold War-style organization dedicated to containing China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi likened the grouping to “the foam of the ocean”, something that will make waves but quickly dissipate.
While the Trump administration has made efforts to support the Quad, President Joe Biden has gone further, convening the first Quad leaders’ summit virtually in March 2021 just weeks after taking office.
In September 2021, the four met in person in Washington, further elevating the group — but still without creating a formal institution.
It was an example of Washington’s new approach of building coalitions of countries and institutions around specific mutual needs, regionally and globally, rather than traditional security alliances.
This means, according to Washington, that the Quad can work with other groupings, such as ASEAN, where interests overlap.
For the United States, Australia and Japan, the Quad is a long-term courtship with India. New Delhi traditionally insists on its non-aligned status when it comes to superpower competitions.
Deadly fighting that erupted in 2019 between Chinese and Indian troops in a disputed border region in the Himalayas appears to have pushed India away from that position.
But India, citing “neutrality”, continued to offer material support to Russia amid the invasion of Ukraine, creating a new source of friction.
India is “the critical and crucial member of the Quad,” Kurt Campbell, White House national security coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region, said in November.
In its strategic planning for the region, the United States has stopped saying “Asia-Pacific” and now dutifully calls it “Indo-Pacific”.
Vaccines and climate change
But officials from all four countries say the Quad must offer more than defense. No one is pushing for a formal alliance – India, analysts say, remains deeply suspicious about it – and there are doubts it could effectively challenge Beijing’s military might anyway.
Instead, the four democratic countries are turning to other “soft power” activities that offer the rest of the region a contrast to authoritarian China.
The Covid-19 pandemic has played a central role in giving more meaning to the grouping. The four countries used the Quad framework to commit to distributing 1.3 billion doses of vaccine, of which more than 485 million have already been delivered.
Other issues they are working on within the Quad format: “clean” navigation, the fight against global warming and the construction of more secure IT and Internet infrastructures.