On March 12, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden and three counterparts will virtually convene the first ever summit-level meeting of the Quadrilateral framework (or Quad)—a forum composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This once-informal group has become more formalized in recent years, but it has been hampered by its lack of a clear functional agenda. And the group is unlikely to cohere, much less endure, without one.

To succeed, the Quad needs to evolve from a China-focused club of four to a group of first movers on an array of specific functional challenges. The best way to do this is for the four countries to form the core of a rotating set of problem-solving coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. This rotating roster would always include the Quad countries but would also pull in other regional partners on an ad hoc and issue-by-issue basis, depending on which countries bring the most capacity—and will—to the table.

The Evolution of the Quad

The Quad began nearly seventeen years ago with a joint response to a tangible and urgent crisis, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. For nine days in December 2004 and January 2005, these four countries’ navies provided rapid and effective relief to injured and displaced people all around the Indian Ocean littoral.

Evan A. Feigenbaum
Evan A. Feigenbaum is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi on a dynamic region encompassing both East Asia and South Asia.
More >

In the years since, this informal group has become more formalized. It holds meetings, and it has discussed an array of joint initiatives. But the group has groped for purpose: instead of a quadrilateral that responds jointly to specific functional challenges, the four are today united largely by their shared suspicion of the rise of Chinese power. Indeed, former president Donald Trump and his administration seized on this more abstract purpose, viewing the Quad as a useful means of countering China’s rise in Asia. Trump’s team made the Quad a focus of its efforts to foster a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Now the Biden administration, which shares its predecessor’s ambivalence toward Beijing, has apparently settled on the Quad as a cornerstone of its own regional strategy.

A Matter of Function, Not Form

Because the Quad has enjoyed so much attention in recent years, it would be easy to presume that it has accumulated a record of meaningful accomplishments. Yet to date, the grouping has suffered from the very deficiency that plagues nearly every other multilateral grouping in Asia: an emphasis on the geometry of bilaterals, trilaterals, and quadrilaterals as well as a presumption that formalizing the pulling up of seats around a table will deliver meaningful solutions to Asia’s most pressing problems.

In fact, the recent history of Asia mostly shows that the opposite is true: in nearly every pressing crisis of the last three decades—from the East Timor crisis of 2006, to the avian influenza epidemic of 2007, to the Myanmar cyclone of 2008—formalized groups have played almost no problem-solving role. Instead, ad hoc regional coalitions, often assembled by the United States, have helped to spur collective action.

The Quad now risks falling into the same trap. What began as an informal response to a specific crisis is rapidly evolving into a standing group. Predictably, from the coronavirus pandemic to the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the four Quad countries have not provided collective solutions to urgent challenges. And their inability to do so stands in stark contrast to the precedent they themselves set in 2004, when their response to the tsunami delivered real, practical, and effective solutions.

James Schwemlein
James Schwemlein is a nonresident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That precedent established a model for how coalitions can best function in the Indo-Pacific. As former under secretary of state Marc Grossman, who led the tsunami coordination, has noted, the 2004 version of a successful Quad grouping had no standing secretariat. It issued no joint communiques. It held no meetings on a fixed schedule. It did not make sweeping claims for its mandate. Nor did it pledge to become a permanent institutional architecture for the region. Instead, it succeeded precisely because it took function, not form, as its guide: its goal was discretely defined, reflected clear metrics for success, and involved meaningful activities such as sharing operational information and conducting relief operations. When the mission was accomplished, the problem was solved, and this functional purpose was met, the successful group simply disbanded.

A standing group could yet have tremendous utility, even in the absence of an urgent purpose. But that will only happen if the group can work together as a core to spur regional collective action.

Trade offers just one example of how mission-focused groupings can, and have, achieved meaningful results. The trade pact known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership began with four first movers within the larger Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum—Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. Sensing that other countries might have an interest in liberalizing trade but that they were not yet ready to move, these four pushed forward a positive regional agenda while inviting others to subsequently join.

The Quad could function in a similar way—acting as first movers and pathfinders on other important issues where regional players have been too reluctant, or else too politically constrained, to move ahead.

But since the Trump administration doubled down on the Quad in 2017, the group has played no such role. Instead, it has suffered from a lack of purpose and a lack of definition.

Biden and his team could change this. For example, a call among the Quad countries’ foreign ministers last month highlighted the need for joint responses to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other challenges, such as countering disinformation, advancing counterterrorism, assuring maritime security, and restoring democracy to Myanmar. But these four countries cannot solve any of these issues acting alone. Logically, they need other partners.

The Quad’s future would be best reconceptualized as the core of a set of ad hoc coalitions that bring in a changing cast of partners, where needed, based on capacity and will.

On Myanmar, for instance, the four would naturally seek to pull in individual ASEAN countries, since ASEAN itself has thus far failed to act collectively in a decisive way.

On countering disinformation, they will need to attract other regional democracies as partners, including Indonesia, New Zealand, and South Korea.

On climate change, they will, inevitably, want to at least try to coordinate objectives and responses with China, whose capacity for action—not just to control emissions but to export and scale green technologies and green finance solutions—is substantial.

Thinking Beyond Security

Part of the problem has been that the Quad is hampered by its nearly exclusive focus on security issues. Its main success to date has been in increasing the tempo of joint military exercises in the region, including through the India-led Malabar and U.S.-led Sea Dragon exercises. These military exercises have been a useful step, since they are functional by definition: they involve planning and conducting drills against specific hypothetical scenarios. But a disproportionate focus on security issues has also limited the Quad’s growth potential. Expanding maritime surveillance efforts could be one area of continued action.

But non-security issues offer the greatest potential for problem solving and successful action. As a first step, the prospect of the group leading ad hoc regional coalitions in four areas stands out: coordinating best practices for COVID-19 vaccines, addressing climate change, promoting transparent infrastructure financing, and bolstering supply chains:

  • Coordinate vaccine best practices: As a first priority, the Quad should seek to become the core of a regional coalition that aims to coordinate and share data among the various national regulatory bodies for pharmaceuticals and biotechnology across the Indo-Pacific as these bodies review the various COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

    Many countries do not have rapid approval procedures for new medicines and therapies, and some require imported drugs to remain in quarantine even though the storage timeline for some of the new vaccines is much shorter. The Quad first could coordinate to advance joint recommendations for regulatory best practices. Then the group could seek partners among other countries’ regulatory bodies that would agree to adopt these practices as their baseline national standards.

    As a subsidiary issue, the Quad could also jointly commit to resisting vaccine nationalism and make assurances that needed vaccines will flow across borders without political interference. Just last week, the Italian government, with the European Commission’s backing, diverted a large order of the AstraZeneca vaccine destined for export to Australia. The Quad could form the core of a regional coalition pledging to facilitate, not obstruct, the cross-border flow of vaccines and other medicines.

    And the Quad could seek partners to help expand and accelerate vaccine production by broadening the pool of licensed private producers, as Biden did by using the Defense Production Act to enable collaboration between Merck and Johnson & Johnson. India has a special role to play here because it has an indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, and substantial domestic manufacturing capacity through Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute.
  • Lead on green technology and finance solutions: Second, the Quad could lead regional coalitions on green energy innovation and finance. Biden has identified addressing the climate crisis as his administration’s top priority, as have Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Biden and Suga for their part have committed their countries to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while India has made remarkable progress in rolling out new renewable power projects over the last five years. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has lagged in prioritizing green energy investment compared to its peers, and today Australia’s per capita emissions remain three times higher than the average among G20 states. Still, coordination among the Quad countries could first and foremost improve cohesion and offer an example for others in Asia, including China, by committing to jointly announcing ambitious new commitments ahead of the November 2021 UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.

    Beyond this, the group can together announce expanded financing for green energy R&D and possibly consider issuing a joint green bond or coordinating their separate green bond issuances. China is rushing ahead to become a global leader on green finance, focusing on an array of products from green credit to green insurance. Beijing also seeks to lead regionally and globally in setting green finance standards, including for the G20 where all four Quad countries are present. The Quad should work jointly to define best regulatory practices, propose coordinated or joint products and schemes, and lead coalitions in these areas as well. The group also could follow Japan’s lead in dramatically expanding investment in renewable power projects in Asia.

    Where appropriate, the Quad countries should press China to join them, while pulling in other green-focused partners, such as New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and coastal and island states threatened by climate change such as Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the Pacific islands countries.
  • Export high standards for infrastructure financing: A third area where the Quad could jointly drive functional progress is on accelerating efforts to raise infrastructure development and finance standards. Under Japan’s leadership, G20 nations convening in Osaka endorsed a set of “Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment,” which were intended to serve as common standards for financing and executing competitive, transparent, and sustainable infrastructure projects. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and its Australian and Japanese peers joined the Blue Dot Network, which was announced as a means of certifying compliance with the aforementioned principles.

    But the Quad alone cannot achieve this without partners. And in practice, the Blue Dot Network proved difficult to execute. So the Quad countries should work together to bring others on board—perhaps around the upcoming G7 summit, to which Australia, India, and South Korea have been invited. The goal would be to encourage partners to enact quality infrastructure investment standards both in their respective development finance institutions and, perhaps, through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    They could also expand policy coordination and investment transparency with the goal of reducing the space state-owned enterprises have to dictate nonmarket terms that do not live up to quality infrastructure investment standards.
  • Make supply chains more resilient: A fourth area for joint Quad leadership of ad hoc coalitions would be improving supply chain resilience. Over the last year, pandemic-related disruptions and China’s aggressive behavior toward Australia and India have underscored the need to protect supply chains. Australia, India, and Japan have already announced plans to work together to create a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative aimed at reviewing current systems for vulnerabilities to potential disruption and exploring the potential for shifting production to improve predictability in the future. Just last month, Biden ordered a rapid review of supply chains for many of the same reasons, with the goal of shifting sensitive manufacturing supply chains back to the United States or to like-minded friends and partners.

    The Quad leaders should commit to coordinating their national supply chain resilience reviews with the goal of reaching new political agreements around common rules and standards going forward. Then they should reach out to natural partners to form enhanced informal coalitions, depending on the industry and supply chain segment. South Korea, for instance, could be considered for an ad hoc partnership focused on telecommunications gear, and Taiwan could be a candidate for an industry-specific, corporate-led coalition focused on semiconductor fabrication and supply.

Avoiding the China Trap

The bottom line is this: to endure and meaningfully solve problems, the Quad needs to shift its focus from its novel form of dialogue toward joint functional action by the group on the most pressing priorities that others in the region now face. If other countries in Asia view the Quad as little more than a talk shop to discuss the looming risks posed by China’s rise while occasionally holding joint military exercises, it is unlikely that other countries will see its utility or view it as a model for their own choices and conduct.

Of course, Beijing’s actions toward Australia and India over the last year highlight the benefits of solidarity among like-minded partners. But the rest of Asia is less focused on the Quad’s problems with Beijing and the security dimensions of its partnership than on grappling with an array of daily challenges and pressing, long-term development priorities. To lead, the Quad countries must demonstrate in deed, not just word, that they are making major contributions to solving the larger economic, transnational, and environmental challenges that preoccupy nearly everyone else in the Indo-Pacific.

If it does so successfully, the Quad can comprise the firm core of an elastic regional architecture. Ultimately, the priority today should not be on countering China for its own sake but on increasing areas of alignment and cohesion with a larger community of potential problem-solving partners. That is the best path for advancing the interests of the Quad countries, preserving security, and promoting development in the Indo-Pacific.