“Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – Exploring the Sine Quo Non of the Quad

By Priyanjoli Ghosh
Estimated Time to Read: 7 Minutes

Abstract: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has intermittently tried to shape a credible relationship between the participating members in the Indo-Pacific Region. This piece aims to explore the prominence of the Quad and steps that these countries can take to maintain their relevance in the present geopolitical landscape.

The Quad holds a pivotal position in the Indo-Pacific construct. It is a foreign policy outcome of the participating countries, the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. The Quad underwent a significant development on 12 March 2021, when leaders of these countries held the first virtual Quad Summit. The aim was to explore opportunities resulting in a free and open Indo-Pacific, developmental goals, climate change, need for safe and affordable Covid-19 vaccination, technology, and supply chains. Following the Summit, a Joint Statement was released by the participating leaders of the four countries. Despite the creation of this informal strategic dialogue group, the Quad has not formalized itself into an institution with an agenda towards managing the geostrategies and geoeconomics of the region. This has led to a lack of clarity for a combined vision on par with foreign policy goals of the respective members. If the grouping continues to be loosely positioned, the Quad stands the chances of failing yet again. This article will thereby throw light on the necessity of formally institutionalizing the Quad for a structured Indo-Pacific. It is only through this means will the group maintain its relevance.

In 2004, the four future Quad countries formed the Tsunami Core Group following a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In 2005, Marc Grossman fairly said the Core Group was not just part of an effective response to a humanitarian disaster but also a further experiment in a new way of making diplomacy work in the 21st century. Time has shown that his words were materializing into a realistic construct. Following a few dormant years between 2008 to 2017, the Quad started to reassert itself through dialogues between senior government officials and Foreign Ministers of the engaging countries. Shifting its focus from humanitarian assistance, the Quad now aims to keep security dynamics as its pivot. Without institutionalizing itself, the Quad has been examining the scope of showcasing the Indo-Pacific Region as central to its geopolitical goals by trying to safeguard the strategic locations from the Indian Ocean Region to the Western Pacific. Throughout the intimate meetings since 2017, the Quad has been calculating on its vision and challenges it faces in the region—in part, by conducting Foreign Ministers meeting in September 2019, holding a Quad ministerial meeting in October 2020, etc.  There have also been consultation and deliberations on formulating a “Quad Plus” grouping with countries such as Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea. However, it seems vital for the Quad to have a comprehensive agenda to formally attract the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to the group. This would mean including a larger goal of Asian centrality by making Southeast Asia the core of the power competition that is emerging in the region. Pitting against the idea of China being the common enemy will certainly not be a selling point for ASEAN’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific in general, and the Quad in particular.

Of all the threats such as piracy issues, climate change, post-pandemic era, etc., it is the Chinese exertions that is seen as the most common threat for a free and open Indo-Pacific by the Quad countries. The “free and open” Indo-Pacific does not imply accepting the Chinese challenges in terms of opposing the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs), instead it aims for free movement of people, goods and capital in the region, freedom of navigation, freedom from coercion, etc. The Quad Leaders’ Joint statement concludes by stating. “…we are committed to leveraging our partnership to help the world’s most dynamic region respond to historic crisis, so that it may be the free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific we all seek”. One can assess that without throwing a focus on Beijing, it flashily discusses “responding to historic crisis”—which in the current scenario could stand for the novel Coronavirus pandemic (said to have originated in China) and threats posed by the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific region at a military and economic level. 

The Quad has not yet formally portrayed itself as a military alliance. However, in terms of defense cooperation, the USA, India, Japan, and Australia have often engaged in bilateral and trilateral military exercises in the Indian Ocean Region. These have taken place analogous to the Quad discussions. Exercise Malabar is one such trilateral maritime event between India, Japan, and the United States that aims at strengthening cooperation and enhancing interoperability among participants. Following the 2020 India-China skirmish at Galwan Valley, New Delhi pressed for Australia’s participation in the exercise, projecting its strategic desire. Australia’s involvement in the Malabar exercise 2020 showcases the common desire for regional security. As a remarkable new step in April 2021, the Quad countries were joined by France for a multilateral Naval Exercise in the Bay of Bengal. “The Global Times”- a tabloid controlled and sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commented on the France + Quad exercise as a publicity stunt and a loose group. This throws light on “Beijing’s aggrieved behaviour” towards the Quad pursuits in the Indo-Pacific Region. However, if we see this alliance on a more pragmatic note, France’s engagement with the Quad could help strengthen the defense dimension as it can play a key role in anti-piracy tasks, patrolling, as well as an effective logistic exchange for the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom is also looking for avenues to have a discussion with the Quad due to the vitality of the Indo-Pacific for trade, commerce, and security. As these European Countries continue to show their inclination towards the Quad, it also calls for the USA, India, Japan, and Australia to largely focus on keeping the ball in their court. This demonstrates a willingness for a more open dialogue, especially as larger military cooperation in this geopolitical space can aggrieve some countries. The aim should be to act as a defensive structure and not an offensive one.

What does the Quad need to do?

To maintain its relevance amid the plethora of geopolitical events, there are a few recommended steps for the Quad.

First, a defined, clear vision would enable the Quad to materialize itself in the region. A credible plan on what the group aims to do and what its goals are for the next few years is essential to prevent the group from losing its substance. A straightforward agenda would also help in safeguarding the balance of power amongst the four countries.

Second, institutionalization of the Quad and Quad-Plus is necessary to combat threats in the maritime sphere and to focus on unconventional issues such as piracy, climate change, soft-power diplomacy, public health dynamisms, etc.

Third, it should be efficient enough to deter any possible actions that might be termed as offensive.  Throughout its existence the Quad has often faced dubious responses from Beijing.

Fourth, the Leader-level Quad Summit should act as a platform to a more proactive role to be played by the Quad, in the absence of which it stands a chance of losing out on opportunities like it previously did.

Fifth, it is vital to note that the Quad plays a quintessential role in the geo-strategic space, thereby making it important to secure the entire stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific by engaging more countries. Participation of the East African littorals, Southeast Asian nations, and the Oceania is crucial for the Quad.

Sixth, active participation between the navies of participating countries of Quad can be helpful in deterring malicious threats and ensure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. However, it is also equally essential for the participating countries to maintain and follow the rules that guide the sea lanes of communication. Throwing oneself into the territorial waters or Economic Exclusion Zones of another member without a prior permission should be avoided.

Seventh, the Quad countries should jointly work towards understanding the maritime domain awareness of the Indo-Pacific region to facilitate a better understanding of maritime infrastructures, development of ports, shipping, etc. while paying equal attention to creating a Blue Economy.

Concluding Remarks

If successful, the Quad will not only come out to be an institution safeguarding the security dynamics, it will also open up better approaches to cooperation and enable transformation of the global trade, supply chains, and investment opportunities in the Indo-Pacific Region by reshuffling the dependency of several ASEAN, South Asian, and Oceania countries from Beijing. Additionally, Quad’s aim of providing safe and affordable vaccines will not only  help the region in combating the novel Coronavirus in an efficient way, but also help in countering China’s non-transparent vaccine production and provisionary vaccine diplomacy.

Priyanjoli Ghoshis a Global Incident Analyst by profession. She focuses on geopolitical and localized events in Asia, analyzing if an escalation, welfare check or a prompt action is required for clients in IT sector. She has previously written for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs (a professional journal of the U.S Air Force); National Maritime Foundation (an independent think-tank supported by the Ministry of Defense, India) and The Geopolitics. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies from Christ University, Bangalore. Her areas of interests are national security, maritime studies, diplomatic relations, and economic development.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
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