Mihir Sharma

A Summit Won't Solve the Quad's Biggest Problem

US diplomacy’s recent stream of own goals has been quite impressive. Even apparent victories such as the announcement of a “new, enhanced, trilateral” Australia-UK-US defense partnership, awkwardly abbreviated to AUKUS, have been tarnished by a sense that allies’ interests have been dismissed or ignored.

The French are justifiably mad that their contract to build submarines for Australia — for which $325 million had already been spent in France — was abandoned in the process. Even some Asian nations are perturbed: Indonesia, which Australians like to describe as their “most important security partner,” says it’s “deeply concerned” about the “projection of military power” in Southeast Asia. Instead of welcoming the deal, the Indian foreign secretary said it basically had nothing to do with India.

The Anglophone alliance may be complacently telling itself that AUKUS shows it is “welcome in the region.” In reality, the new arrangement has many of America’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific wondering where, if anywhere, they fit into US plans.

This should worry not just US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but the other two leaders who will join them Friday for the first White House summit of the so-called Quad — India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga. The AUKUS fallout has underscored just how hard it is to build inclusive and broad-based arrangements to deal with an increasingly aggressive China. Many potential partners — whether European nations such as France or the Southeast Asian powers — cannot help thinking that arrangements such as the Quad and AUKUS are exclusionary by design.

If the Quad indeed hopes to remake the Indo-Pacific into a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion,” as its last joint statement insisted, it will need to develop both more internal cohesion and more external partners.

Compared to AUKUS, the Quad looks more like an inchoate mess of bilateral agreements than anything else. Even Friday’s summit has been preceded by a web of bilateral meetings between the various Quad countries — which, as one Indian newspaper pointed out, “underline the fact that the Quad, so far, amounts to the sum total of bilateral interests rather than an alliance that articulates a common shared agenda.”

At the same time, the Quad’s attempts at outreach have so far been limited to inviting additional observers to the occasional meeting. If anything, that only hinders efforts to discover and communicate a common purpose.

Given the Quad’s recent turn towards “shared challenges” such as global vaccination, infrastructure investment and secure supply chains, perhaps the question we should be asking is not what such groupings can say to convince other countries that they intend to act for the good of all, but how they intend to bring in new partners and give them a stake in those efforts.

One way of getting the Quad on the same page and giving it a clearer direction — while also demonstrating inclusiveness — would be to address directly some of the reasons that countries in the Indo-Pacific are turning to China. If nothing else, Beijing seems to have a plan for the future of trade and connectivity in the region. China’s neighbors can figure out for themselves where they fit in and what they should do to prepare.

If countries worry that arrangements such as the Quad are not inclusive, that is because they are uncertain what role they would play in the Quad’s vision for the region’s future other than as signatories to nebulous, feel-good principles. They aren’t quite sure where they stand or how they’ll benefit within the Quad’s trademark “free and open Indo-Pacific.” It’s a nice vision, sure. But China’s Belt and Road Initiative does better at slotting countries into a coherent structure. It even has a map.

To build trust without and within, the Quad needs its own map — a more detailed guide to the plans and projects that its members feel would help create a more balanced and inclusive regional economic and security order. This would help each partner country decide what exactly they stand to gain if they buy into the Quad’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific. And maybe it’ll convince them that the whole thing isn’t just a front to sell them more submarines.