This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The 'Australia-India-Japan-United States consultations on the Indo-Pacific' on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila provoked more excited commentary than might be expected of an officials' minilateral.
But then, as Tanvi Madan argues, the 'Quad' (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to give it its original name) has long assumed 'mythic proportions'. In Australia, two concerns have been expressed, sometimes at the same time: that the Quad is unduly provocative and that it holds out false hope. Neither are well-founded.
Far from being an 'Asian NATO', the Quad began as a forum for the discussion of issues of mutual interest, beginning with disaster relief coordination and maritime security. The low-key but widely parsed statements released after the recent meeting show a broader agenda that included the challenges inherent in upholding the 'rules-based order', ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, regional connectivity, counter-terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. In other words, the consultations dealt with issues Australia already discusses in established bilateral and trilateral dialogues with India, Japan, and the US, and with others, including the annual AUKMIN ministerial consultations with the United Kingdom.
The Quad is, in other words, an extension of evolving practices, not a radical or destabilising innovation. Nor is it a cure-all for regional security challenges. Like the many strategic partnerships and 'minilaterals' that have emerged in recent years at the behest of India, Japan, the US and indeed China, it is neither an alliance nor a multilateral institution. As critics rightly point out, the Quad does not bind participants to mutual assistance in times of conflict; it is not designed for that purpose. Instead, such minilaterals are flexible arrangements that permit the pursuit of particular projects at particular times, and laying the foundations for what Madan calls 'more advanced habits of cooperation' at the working level.
The value of flexibility was clearly demonstrated by the recent Quad consultations, with officials rather than ministers or heads of government present, no joint statement issued, and reassuring signals sent by the participants.
Taking the Quad forward, however, will mean communicating more clearly what it involves to the public as well as to strategic elites, efficiently coordinating policy, developing a focused agenda, and engaging partners in productive ways beyond the four, such as the UK.
Communicating what the Quad consultations involve and do not involve is crucial. The notion that it is device for orchestrating the 'containment' of China must be dispelled. This is not to suggest that the participants should deny that they discuss the potential negative consequences of Beijing's recent behaviour for regional security and the political independence of regional states. It is crucial that publics and elites across the Indo Pacific understand that economic interdependence means that China cannot and should not be 'contained', but at the same time its territorial claims and attempts at interference can and should be challenged.
Better policy coordination is also essential between states with an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, and in opposing attempts to bring about changes to the territorial status quo by coercion or force. This should involve a concerted effort to develop ways of better managing unplanned encounters or accidents at sea, an area in which too little progress has been made in the Indo Pacific despite the agreement of a non-binding Code in 2014.
Establishing a clear agenda that leads to effective coordination and tangible results is also essential if the Quad is to remain informal and not institutionalised. Between 2007 and 2017 the talking points have proliferated; some analysts have quite reasonably called for the inclusion of even more. There is risk, however, of the Quad's agenda becoming too cluttered to manage in the context of periodic meetings on the sidelines of conferences.
Despite the risk of exacerbating that problem, it may also be advantageous to diversify the Quad consultations and, as Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently suggested, bring in other states with significant regional interests such as the UK. There are significant overlaps between the Quad's agenda and other ongoing processes, such as those held under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, recently discussed at the AUKMIN meeting in Sydney in July. Parallel dialogues could be created within the framework of the Quad to facilitate policy development and coordination on issues such as counter terrorism, drawing on the extensive experience of states such as the UK in these areas.