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Rebalance of Power: The Quad’s Effectiveness in the Indo-Pacific

As U.S. foreign policy shifts eastward to address the growing threat of Chinese influence: the Indo-Pacific region has become a geopolitical hot zone. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal alliance of Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S., serves as a democratic counter to China’s totalitarian ambitions in the region. However, the Quad lacks a coordinated policy or effective communication between members, making it less a forceful coalition and a loose ideological association. By neglecting to expand its regional influence, it created a gap that China exploited to forge powerful economic and political interdependencies in Southeast Asia. The Quad can become an effective check on China’s burgeoning supremacy, but it must tighten its military, political, and economic goals to form a cohesive policy that addresses China on multiple fronts. Specifically, the U.S. should direct its energy towards building beneficial partnerships, instead of alienating potential allies by requiring them to explicitly choose between the U.S. and China.

China’s Presence in the Indo-Pacific

China’s aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region are part of its overarching plan to extend its political and economic supremacy. Championed by President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative is a global strategy to build a land-based “Silk-Road Economic Belt” from Asia to the Middle East and Europe, and a sea-based “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” from Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. By funding infrastructure in underdeveloped regions and strengthening its economic ties with developed ones, China crafts strategic dependencies to promote its influence. While the U.S. is pressured to propose an alternate vision for international trade, tensions with the U.S. ironically push China towards new markets, namely underdeveloped countries outside of U.S. influence. The “String of Pearls” is China’s regional strategy within the Indo-Pacific: China “monopolizes strategic choke points” by investing in ports and encircling geopolitically important countries like India. China has also established a military base in Djibouti and now attempts to secure bases in Cambodia, Tanzania, the UAE, and Kiribati, within striking distance of Hawaii. This two-pronged effort characterizes China’s foreign initiatives: it reinforces its extension of economic soft power with tactical, military, and technological advancement, requiring Western opposition on both fronts. 

The West—and the U.S. in particular—must play catch-up in the fight to counterbalance China’s growing power. According to a 2020 RAND Corporation study, countries in the Indo-Pacific see the U.S. as having a more significant political and military influence and China as having a greater economic influence; however, these countries prioritize economic development over security concerns. China effectively leverages its economic power against U.S. military influence, while Southeast Asia countries do not view U.S. military power as a substantial counter to Chinese economic aspirations. Whether this perception reflects reality matters less than pushing possible geopolitical allies away from the U.S. and towards China. The U.S. suffers from a poor “alliance architecture in Asia,” and by prioritizing defense measures over economic ones, it allowed China to move in on regional markets through the BRI. The U.S. now contends with a China that has both a greater “incentive and coercive capacity” even within those countries that align ideologically with the U.S. Some Indo-Pacific sub-powers seek to join the U.S. in a competitive strategy, but cooperation has been impeded by political tensions, confused objectives, and poor communication.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the primary strategic countermeasure against China in the Indo-Pacific. Established in 2004 as an ad-hoc tsunami response group, it sought to create a network capable of addressing regional issues and promoting liberty and law. After an eight-year hiatus, it was re-established in 2017 as an informal alliance between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. According to a 2021 White House press release, the Quad “[commits] to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” Nebulous if admirable, this goal nevertheless suggests the problem that has plagued the Quad from its inception: neither its members nor its neighbors know if it is an “Asian NATO” or a peaceful regional dialogue. Members convene bi-monthly to discuss current issues, and while China argues that the Quad is an attempt at containment, no official coordinated initiatives have stemmed from the Quad. Summits have focused on “the denuclearization of North Korea, support for the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ concept, and the promotion of a rules-based system in the Indo-Pacific region”; these drives do not explicitly target China. The Quad thus resembles a loose partnership over a targeted alliance. If the Quad’s goal is to be a non-threatening influence in the Indo-Pacific, then anti-inflammatory rhetoric will allow Southeast Asian elites wary of antagonizing China to align with Western initiatives. However, such a message of inclusivity would be confused by the “bilateral and trilateral military-military relationships among the Quad nations.” In response to China’s saber-rattling in the South Pacific, the Quad has tightened its focus towards military and strategic infrastructure development, most recently performing a tabletop counterterrorism exercise. Multilateral action reflects this movement towards more decisive policies: the U.S. has pledged to equip Australia with eight nuclear submarines in the AUKUS alliance, and the U.S.-Japanese alliance has deepened its mutual security cooperation. Perhaps surprisingly, the Southeast Asian region has responded positively to this movement, signaling an openness towards a more explicitly anti-Chinese stance. 

Recommendations for the Quad 

Regional actors wish to see an alternative to China rather than just opposition. The evidence implies that, while most countries are reluctant to pick the U.S. over China, they believe their political interests align with the West. Further, though countries may agree with Western policies and yet accept Beijing’s infrastructure investment offers, the Quad is an avenue for diluting China’s power without alienating potential allies. The fact that the Quad is intended for containment is an open secret; China criticizes it as such, and both former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have implied that their goal is containment. However, a danger lies in assuming that combatting China would be fatal for the Quad. Harsh rhetoric risks alienation, but a strong stance encourages alignment. The Quad must assert itself as a multilaterally-based pole of regional power, for such cohesion is necessary to counter the pole of Chinese power. Also, rather than directing all energy towards competition with China, the U.S. must realize that “U.S. allies would like to see a reliable partner with policies that consistently support them, unlike the autocratic regimes about which they worry.” The Quad need not be an Asian NATO, and its structure must be flexible enough to adapt to countries’ specific needs, yet it must also provide a viable alternative to the benefits China offers.

To create a free and secure Indo-Pacific, the Quad’s must tighten its focus in three areas: military, politics, and economics. First, China does not hesitate to flex its military might, and to counter potentially disastrous initiatives like the “String of Pearls” and aggression in the South China Sea, Quad members must clarify their agenda. Implementing “‘2+2’ meetings of foreign and defense ministers,” which already occur bilaterally between Quad members, would encourage cooperation and a unified though balanced approach. This could also discourage Chinese aggression without escalating tensions. Second, the Quad must refine its political focus. Though it should not frame itself as an explicitly anti-Chinese organization, it should combat China while cultivating a heightened sensitivity towards the political interests of regional partners. It must “avoid framing activities… mainly in U.S.-China competition terms… avoiding the optics of requiring the partner to choose between the United States or China.” This problem occurs even within the alliance: though a member, India evinces serious hesitancies in participating in an “alliance of democracies” against China. Third, the Quad’s primary focus should be to develop Indo-Pacific infrastructure. Because many countries choose China for economic reasons, the Quad should “[coordinate] regional economic and developmental assistance” to effectively signal the benefits of Western alignment. A strategic initiative to fill gaps in regional infrastructure will weaken several facets of Chinese influence (including the BRI) while encouraging a more complete partner alignment. Chinese incursions into geopolitically significant ports will be blocked, Western allies will be strengthened, and the Chinese economy will be undermined by limiting its partners’ interdependence.


The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is shifting the Indo-Pacific region in the right direction, but not quickly enough. China has exploited gaps in the Quad’s approach to establish significant footholds in infrastructure, ports, and trade markets, and the Quad cannot loosen this grip immediately. Increased cooperation and clarity of method are needed on key fronts. The loose nature of the Quad alliance is beneficial insofar as it allows members to act independently, as a rigid alliance would complicate fast adaptation to China’s policies. However, Japan, Australia, the U.S., and India must coordinate their responses to maintain a cohesive front against Chinese economic influence. The chief objective should not be to defeat China, but to replace China within its own spheres of influence and re-establish Western supremacy.


Works Cited 

Akimoto, Daisuke. “China’s Grand Strategy and the Emergence of Indo-Pacific Alignments.” Institute for Security and Development Policy. April 14, 2021.


Buchan, Patrick G., Benjamin Rimland. “Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2020.


Harold, Scott W. “Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific: Japan.” RAND Corporation, 2020.


Lin, Bonny., Michael S. Chase, Jonah Blank, Cortez A. Cooper III, Derek Grossman, Scott W. Harold, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Lyle J. Morris, Logan Ma, Paul Orner, Alice Shih, Soo Kim. “Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific: Study Overview and Conclusions.” RAND Corporation, 2020.


Masterson, Julia. “U.S., UK Pledge Nuclear Submarines for Australia.” Arms Control Association, October 2021.


Miller, Manjari C. “The Quad, AUKUS, and India’s Dilemmas.” Council on Foreign Relations, October 13, 2021.


Sacks, David. “Countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Who’s In and Who’s Out.” Council on Foreign Relations, March 24, 2001.


Schaus, John. “Moving Beyond ‘China, China, China’ in the Indo-Pacific.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 12, 2021.


Singleton, Craig. “Beijing Eyes New Military Bases Across the Indo-Pacific.” Foreign Policy, July 7, 2021.


White House. “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad.’” White House Briefing Room: Statements and Releases, March 21, 2021.