Quad: Quo Vadis?
The increasing influence of China's activity, particularly in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region, has raised many eyebrows among western nations and members of the Asia-Pacific region itself. As a reactionary measure to compete and off-set the meteoric rise of the Asian superpower, America and its friends from the region, namely Australia, Japan and India, have used its platform—the Quad—to give the world an insight of what the future of competition against China might look like. Although China was not mentioned exclusively in the recent deliberations of the Quad leader's summit, the joint statement released by the White House stating, "…cooperation on the critical technologies of the future to ensure that innovation is consistent with a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific" and "…meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas,"clearly hint at the push-back against Chinese influence. However, the initial function of the Quad was far from the current state of affairs in the region and its scope of operations has undergone several mutations in the last decade.
When Japanese Prime Minister at the time Shinzo Abe first proposed the Quad in 2007, he called for a "quadrilateral strategic dialogue" among the nations. However, this was not the first time these nations have come together for a mutual cause. The Quad members have worked before during 2004-05 in coordinating response to the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean as a the "Tsunami Core Group". So, at the very beginning, the scope of operation between the nations was not for security. But fast-forward to the fall of 2007, after Abe's announcement, the Quad and Singapore conducted their first maritime exercise, expanding the scope of its operations. Just like now, the exercise left a notion of political ambiguity around what all of it would mean: would this be a simple exercise for cooperation? Or ultimately some form of defence treaty?
A major obstacle came the way of the Quad as Australia opted out with the Australian foreign minister declaring in a joint statement that "they would not be proposing to have such a dialogue again." This marked the end of the quadrilateral security dialogue for quite some time. It was not until the November of 2017 that the group resurfaced again and since then, it has met regularly and worked at ministerial levels. The nations of the Quad each laid out its vision for a "free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific" in the form of comprehensive and separate official documents discussing their way forward.
With all things considered, and with Australia returning to the crux, all eyes are on the future trajectory of the Quad. Many analysts argue that it will evolve into a defence treaty—possibly a more structured NATO of Asia. A growing fear of militarisation of the region could see the light of day considering India, Japan and US have already been participating in the Malabar joint naval exercises with the recent addition of Australia. The Quad members have also been taking part in each other's multilateral exercises; most notable of which is the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC)—the world's largest naval exercise—which is clearly an attempt to further deepen their defence ties.
The Quad may also look to expand its membership and reach out to other nations to form a more comprehensive collaboration regarding security. This can be seen to happen in two stages. Firstly, they would seek to acquire participation from major nations in the Indo-Pacific region. They have already exemplified this interest through naval interactions with South Korea in the form of exercise "Pacific Vanguard". New Zealand would also be a great addition as the nation already engages in security dialogues with its neighbours through the "Five Power Defence Arrangements" and the "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing mechanism, and this will only add value to the Quad's existing cooperation measures. Secondly, the Quad may look to include more allies in the west with influence in the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, France and UK would be suitable options as they have major stakes in the region. France has extensive interests in the Indo-Pacific in French territories in the region. The French Republic is also a member of the FRANZ Arrangement with Australia and New Zealand and is a member of the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The UK, on the other hand, has undertaken what experts describe as a "tilt" of focus towards the Indo-Pacific and their ties with members of the Commonwealth within the region make a considerable asset for the Quad.
Instead of directly evolving membership, the Quad may also opt to take a "plus process" approach—QUAD plus three, etc., to collaborate with other major member states at various levels. This could be similar to how ASEAN conducts its ASEAN+3 cooperation. The Quad can also expand to work with and support smaller nations. These nations can act as "support clusters" to assist the operations and be a part of QUAD based activities and cooperation. It would be in the best interest of the Quad to lobby members from south and south-east Asia into the clusters due to their strategic relevance.
The scope of operation of the Quad has not expanded to just include security. The "Quad Leader's Joint Statement" also displayed the four nation's commitment to tackling climate change. A more notable area of cooperation that the summit highlighted was equitable access for the Covid-19 vaccine in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad is not just confining themselves to conventional diplomacy but also exploring the new avenues of post-Covid-19 multilateralism. Many developing nations were left astray as they could not meet the demands for vaccines required to help fight the spread of Covid. It was initially China and Russia that came to their rescue as they shipped millions of jabs to these destitute nations. This not only strengthens bilateral ties but also bolsters their strategic influence. The Quad is perhaps looking to form its own vaccine distribution project to off-set the influence of that of China and Russia. However, this exhibition of "vaccine diplomacy" combined with the Quad's expansion into regional security can prompt severe implications.
The Quad's attempts at countering Chinese influence in the region can cause a stiff rise in strategic tension based on strategic competition. Many have regarded China's quadrilateral discussion with Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan—otherwise known as the Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network—as a "Himalayan Quad" formed as a counter, even though Beijing has stated that this cooperation is solely for mutual economic interests. Although a major reactionary measure is yet to have been taken from Beijing, it is likely that the Asian superpower may look to enter discussions with the Russian Federation for future deliberations on the region. China will also look to its companions in South and South-East Asia to not have direct involvement with the Quad if they are to ensure relations with Beijing do not turn sour. Bangladesh has been the latest recipient of this as the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh stated that should Dhaka join the "club", it would substantially damage bilateral relations between the countries, even though there was no formal invitation from any members of the Quad for Bangladesh. The remark gives us an idea of the important strategic role Bangladesh has in terms of future deliberations of the Quad and a glimpse of what a militarised future in the Indo-Pacific might look like—either you are against the Quad or against China.
Conclusively, going forward, Bangladesh and countries alike must tread very carefully regarding matters involving Quad operations. We must find innovative ways to manoeuvre diplomatically and use a "hedge-and-engage" approach whenever necessary. However, this is not to say that Dhaka should engage in any form of direct action or alignment. The best course of action would be to exercise all elements of strategic neutrality so that a bi-polar geo-political situation, like the Cold War era, does not arise in the region. However, such a future seems to be more plausible as days go by.
Major General ANM Muniruzzaman ndc psc (retd.) is the President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org