As the tension between China and the United States increases, analysts and policymakers look to historical precedent to help inform the design of their foreign policy going into the future. In the West, particularly American strategic thought, this emerging conflict is looked to as the 21st century’s Cold War. In the broad strokes, this comparison is natural: The United States and its allies wage a conflict with an ideologically opposed superpower to maintain the existing international order. I think that the comparison between the conflict of the Cold War and the conflict now is inappropriate. There are intense differences between the character, geography, and positions in international systems, like global economies and institutions, of belligerents on both sides of the conflict. The comparison of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, otherwise known as the Quad and sometimes Asian NATO, to NATO is flawed.
NATO is an intergovernmental institution while the Quad is an informal organisation, the distinction between these descriptors is simple: NATO has the capacity to compel its members to act through organisational architecture, while the Quad does not. The different organisation composition represents the ability of member countries to agree upon and coordinate to achieve common outcomes. NATO represents the grand strategy of western countries of the Cold War, containment of the Soviet Union.
The achievement of this strategy was aided by the precedent of trans-Atlantic cooperation, most recently developed throughout World War II and the deployment of the Marshall Plan, and the economic isolation and backwardness of the communist Soviet states. In its full context, NATO was a product of an international system that was predisposed to develop systems of effective and institutionalised cooperation because of a shared threat perception, high levels of trust built through prior conflict, and isolating the Soviet Union came with few economic costs of low levels of engagement. The Quad does not have a history of cooperation nor does share a similar regional outlook.
As a regional entity has had various levels of bilateral engagement with each other but acting together is a new phenomenon. The Quad was initially convened in 2004 to offer a collective and cohesive response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that affected Indonesia. In 2007 the countries would meet for their first informal meeting 2007 which was shortly discontinued in 2008. The grouping then reconvenes in 2017 following numerous changes in government personnel from all parties and changing attitudes towards China. If we examine the Quad members at the end of World War II, we see that only Australia and the U.S. were allies, Japan had only just become an American ally in the aftermath of nuclear bombing, and India was only beginning the process of decolonisation from the dwindling British Empire. When understanding the Quad in the present, it is a platform that brings these disparate countries together for the first time.
Compounding about this lack of historical precedent as a barrier to cooperation is the disagreement on views about China. In the case of NATO, the possibility of a Soviet threat was imminent and affected every member similarly. Whatever threat China represents to these countries is different and carries a greater economic cost. A significant component of the 2008 halting of the Quad was the Australian Rudd government fearing economic reprisals from China and pulling out of the organisation.
In the decade since the initial Quad’s disbandment, China has become an even larger component of international supply chains and a growing market hungry for foreign goods and natural resources. The global economic entanglement of China to the rest of the world is the most distinct difference between China and the Soviet Union. The deployment of economic coercion during the recent tensions between Beijing and Canberra indicates the severity of the threat that China can pose to the domestic livelihoods of Quad members. In addition to the economic disincentives to cooperation, is the differing regional security priorities of each of the Indo-Pacific countries. For Australia, the core of its security outlook lies within the South Pacific and increasing engagement with nearby Indonesia; India is pinned between China and Pakistan, and Japan is concerned with the ongoing regional dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and the ever-present threat of North Korea. In highlighting these disparate but connected issues, the prospect of containment is much more difficult to envision. Is containment tenable on all these fronts? Can the Quad exert enough influence over states in the Pacific? Are states willing to bear the costs of containment?
The Quad is a poor analog to NATO because, in part, it is a precursor to a formalised institution that may be formed in the future. It is currently serving as a platform for its members to improve its ability to coordinate and articulate strategic positions that appeal to the needs of its members. In the last five years, Quad countries have worked to tighten the bonds between them including joint military exercises like Malabar and joining regional free trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. Furthermore, the Quad needs a unique strategic voice to adequately combat the challenges being presented to its members and if expectations of Cold War-style containment is pinned to it, it may stymie the ability of decision-makers to craft policy that suited to the region.