Quadrilateral Security Forum (Quad) 

In Nov 2020, Australian Naval ship HMAS Ballart joined the navies of the US, India and Japan in the 2020 edition of the Malabar Naval Exercise in the Indian Ocean. The re-inclusion of Australia in Exercise Malabar under the auspices of Quadrilateral Security Forum (Quad) has raised fresh hopes of countering China in the Indo-Pacific. 

The Quad was conceived in an August 2007 meeting in Manila, held on the side-lines of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), between the PMs of India, Japan and Australia and the Vice President of the US. The Quad was widely perceived as a security forum to rein in the Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific and re-establish a rule-based International order. In Sep 2007, using the already existing Malabar Exercise framework between the Indian and US Navies, a major Naval drill was conducted between the Navies of India, US, Japan and Australia (Singapore participated as well). The Chinese government responded angrily to Exercise Malabar 2007 by issuing formal diplomatic protests. Australia, quickly backtracked from Quad and made its intention clear to not participate in future Malabar exercises. The Quad 1.0 thus quickly lost steam and wilted away. The US, India and Japan though continued to engage mutually and trilaterally in naval exercises but Australia was absent till 2020.

Strategic Imperatives Driving the Revival of Quad 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Shinzo Abe and other world leaders at an ASEAN Summit dinner in Manila, 2017.

The reasons for the revival of Quad (or Quad 2.0 as it is being called) are driven by a renewed commitment amongst the partner countries to confront the plethora of strategic challenges emanating from China such as aggressive territorial grab in the South China Sea, curtailing Freedom of Navigation, use of debt-traps to develop influence overseas, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During the 2017 ASEAN Summit, all four former members re-joined in negotiations to revive the Quad forum. PM Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, PM Shinzo Abe of Japan, PM Narendra Modi of India, and President Donald Trump of the United States agreed in Manila to revive the Quad. During the foreign ministers-level conference in Japan on 06 Oct 2020 in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out China as a threat to the region, although the three other foreign ministers, including India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, did not directly mention China. The Indian Government in October 2020 announced that Australia would join the Malabar 2020 naval exercise, to be held in Nov 2020 making it the first such Quadrilateral Exercise since 2007.

The four countries united in the need to counter China, however, have their own unique set of strategic imperatives to revive Quad and thus it is useful to look at each country separately.

United States

The US views China as its primary competitor in the post-cold war era and harbours a deep suspicion of its “revisionist” agenda. The US Strategic approach to China has undergone a fundamental re-evaluation in recent years. The United States is now pushing back on Beijing’s hegemonic assertions and excessive claims. The US is acutely aware of the erosion of its military capabilities vis-à-vis China1.  US military assessments indicate that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military2. A report by American Policy Think Tank RAND in 2017 brought out that over the next five to 15 years, if U.S. and PLA forces remain on roughly current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance3. The RAND report recommended that the US adjust its force structure, operating concepts, and diplomacy in ways that will slow the process and limit the impact of such erosion on deterrence and other U.S. strategic interests. The US thus needs partners to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific. The US Policy statements highlight the importance of such partnerships “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India”4 The Quad 2.0 thus fits nicely into the new US Strategy to protect its interests in the backdrop of growing Chinese power.


India US Japan Australia Navy
Malabar 2020 with Indian Navy‘s Vikramaditya Carrier Battle Group exercising with US Navy‘s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, Australian Navy‘s HMAS Ballarat, and JMSDF‘s JS Murasame in the Arabian Sea. Photo Courtesy: Indian Navy/ Twitter

Before the Chinese transgressions in Ladakh in May 2020, the Indian Government was not keen to publicly acknowledge the dangers of Chinese threat despite serious territorial and other disputes with China. The Annual MoD report 2018-19 indicated that except for the Doklam Standoff with China the “The situation along the India-China border has remained peaceful”5. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region was outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Shangri La Dialogue on June 1, 2018, where he stated that India stands for a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region. PM Modi in his speech touched upon multilateral arrangements like ADMM Plus and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF)6. The PM was however silent on Quad. The prevailing sentiment before May 2020 was to avoid giving any offence to China in the post Doklam ‘reset’ period. Accordingly, India during this period did not respond favourably to Australia’s request to re-join the Malabar Exercise. Post-Chinese transgressions in May 2020, Indian Strategic thinkers have shown refreshing urgency and shed its traditional ambivalence for multilateralism. There has been wide support in the Indian public and media for India’s new strategic flexibility. An article in Economic Times dated 15 Oct 2020 asserted “…New Delhi has no choice but to embrace the Indo-Pacific Quad”7. In the Indian Government, there is a growing view that Quad enhances rather than limits India’s strategic autonomy.


The 2020 Australian Defence Strategic Update indicates concern about Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific, ranging from “militarisation of the South China Sea to active interference, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion” Clearly China is a top security concern for Australia. The Strategic Update recognises that “Strategic competition, primarily between the United States and China, will be the principal driver of strategic dynamics in our region”8. As an alliance partner of the US, Australia is thus obliged to oppose Chinese expansionism. China has also embarked on its Pacific version of ‘Strings of Pearls’ campaign to encircle Australia leading to a considerable alarm in Australia. Vanuatu is the latest victim of China’s debt trap and there are reports of China setting up a military base there. China is Australia’s largest trade partner and bilateral trade was $159 billion in 2019, among which Australia’s export to China accounted for $104 billion, 30 percent of its total exports9. Australia is a popular destination for Chinese students and tourists providing substantial revenue for Australia. However, the fear that economic dependency on China will shackle Australia’s commitment to Quad seems to be overstated. Chinese economic retaliation might cause short term pain for Australia but in the long term, it will be able to diversify its market and more than offset its losses. Australia with its physical distance from China and strong alliance with the US has the added security that India and Japan do not enjoy10.


The Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s security but Japan has made efforts to realise a favourable regional security environment by combining bilateral and multilateral security cooperation at multiple levels. Japan has been the most clear-eyed member of Quad since its inception in 2007 due to the prevailing Chinese threat. The Japanese National Security Strategy (NSS) highlights the China concern as “China’s advancement of its military capacity without transparency, and its further activities in the sea and air space”11. In 2013, China declared setting up of the “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone” which includes the Senkaku Islands. In recent years, China has been more aggressive about its claim on the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu Islands by China). The Japanese Coast Guard announced in June 2020 that Chinese government ships had been spotted for a record number of consecutive days in the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands12. Japan also has strong economic interest in maintaining the Freedom of Navigation in the Indo-Pacific which is under threat due to aggressive territorial claims by China in the South China Sea. The Japanese understand the importance of multilateral forums like the Quad for promoting the building of a network for peace and prosperity in the region13. A partnership with Quad countries with powerful navies will cause China to stretch its naval resources across the Indo-Pacific thus providing relief to Japan. PM Shinzo Abe consistently advocated a coalition of ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ of Quad members to challenge the Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific14. Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics feels that “From Japan’s point of view, the Quad is a useful instrument to further its own geostrategic approach.”15.

China's Pushback

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a fleet in the South China Sea, 2018. Photo Courtesy: Xinhua

In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi dismissed the then recently-revived Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like sea foam”16. Quad 2.0 is however bound to raise serious concerns in China. In Oct 2020, in China’s most high-profile criticism so far of the Quad, Wang Yi said Washington was aiming to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO”17. Mr Wang’s remarks, underline how Chinese officials, who once sought to downplay the Quad as an overhyped idea are now highlighting it prominently, describing it as part of a broader American effort in the region to “contain” China. Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, China Daily, in a recent article warned Australia “To be an ally of the US does not necessarily mean it has to be a roughneck in its gang. With Australia mired in its worst recession in decades, it should steer clear of Washington’s brinkmanship with China before it is too late”18. New Delhi will also have to be mindful of its vulnerability to Chinese retaliation along the border should the Quad take on a military dimension. Unlike Japan and Australia, India does not have the luxury of a formal alliance with the US. Japan will have to strike a balance in its desire to confront Beijing over security issues while preserving its intertwined economic interests with China (Japan’s exports to China were US$134.68 Billion in 2019)19.

Quad: Future Trajectory

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo hosts a Quad Meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, at the Palace Hotel, in New York City, New York on September 26, 2019. Photo Courtesy: US State Department

Quad 2.0 has lent considerable optimism towards a robust forum to check China’s ambitions and preserve a rule-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. There are signs that Quad could expand to become Quad Plus with the addition of countries like South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand20. Germany has indicated that it will increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific possibly bringing it a step closer to Quad. France which already has a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean could be a possible candidate to join Quad. United States has publicly distanced itself from the idea of Quad being an ‘Asian NATO’ but has not denied the possibility of it attaining a similar status in future21. As American power declines in the Indo-Pacific, the need to rely more on partnerships like Quad will increase. 

The Malabar naval exercises provide a good template for quad countries to further their cooperation. As the maritime challenges are a common ground, increasing interoperability between the Navies should be a priority. China despite its aggressive actions in the South China Sea remains vulnerable at sea. Improving intelligence sharing, Secure communications, shared logistics and better interoperability are key areas in which there should be a year-round focus rather than only during the annual Malabar Exercise. India’s recent signing of Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) and the earlier Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) and Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US are positive steps in that direction. A similar agreement needs to be worked out between other Quad nations at the earliest.

There are some apprehensions that the new US administration may not be as committed to pushing Quad as the present administration. The strong bi-partisan support for Quad and the anti-China sentiments in the US, however, belies such an assumption. According to the Pew Research Centre, 73 per cent of Americans hold a negative view of China, up 13 percentage points from last year. There is no doubt that all eyes will be on the new US Administration to signal continued support to Quad. India, Australia and Japan have committed to Quad at considerable military and economic risks from China. Any dithering by the US will be a mortal blow to the prospects of Quad.

For India, it is time to shed its traditional reluctance for multilateralism couched under ‘strategic autonomy’. India needs to send a clear signal to other Quad members that it is not only willing to increase military cooperation but also take part in developmental initiatives like the existing trilateral partnership (between the US, Japan and Australia) for infrastructure investment in Indo-Pacific. The successful conduct of Malabar 2020 has sent a strong signal to China that the march to Pax Sinica will not go unchallenged. A suitable follow up to Malabar 2020 will be conducting the next Malabar Exercise in the South China Sea. The first step to defeating the dragon would be to take the battle to its backyard.


Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 2020

Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 2020

US Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996–2017, 2017, Michael Nixon, Forrest E. Morgan, Jacob L. Heim et al

The National Security Strategy (NSS) of USA 2017

Annual MoD report 2018-19

 Annual MoD report 2018-19

India must exercise the Quad option to check China’s economic and military power, The Economic Times, 15 Oct 2020

 2020 Defence Strategic Update, 2020

 Canberra only has itself to blame: China Daily editorial, China Daily, 05 Nov 2020


Lavina Lee, Assessing the Quad: Prospects and Limitations of Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests, The Lowy Institute, May 2020

 Why this Japan-China island dispute could be Asia’s next military flashpoint, CNN, 22 Jun 2020, Accessed 10 Nov 20

National Security Strategy, Accessed 10 Nov 2020

Lavina Lee, Abe’s Democratic Security Diamond and New Quadrilateral Initiative: An Australian Perspective, The Journal of East Asian affairs, 01 Dec 2016

‘Quad’ meeting in Tokyo prizes symbolism over substance, Japan Times, 07 Oct 2020, Accessed 10 Nov 20.


‘Quad’ move will dissipate like sea foam: China, Times of India, 08 Mar 2018

China’s Foreign Minister says U.S. using Quad to build ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’, The Hindu, 13 Oct 2020

Canberra only has itself to blame: China Daily editorial, China Daily, 05 Nov 2020


US State Department, Deputy Secretary Biegun Remarks at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, 31 Aug 2020,

US State Department, Deputy Secretary Biegun Remarks at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, 31 Aug 2020, 



Header photo: Malabar 2020 with Indian Navy‘s Vikramaditya Carrier Battle Group exercising with US Navy‘s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, Australian Navy‘s HMAS Ballarat, and JMSDF‘s JS Murasame in the Arabian Sea.

Picture Courtesy: Indian Navy/ Twitter

About the Author
About the Author

Manoj Rawat

Manoj Rawat is a former Indian naval captain and director of naval operations at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on front­line warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Ministry of Defence. Rawat is an alumnus of National Defence Academy, Singapore Aviation Academy, Indonesian Command and Staff College, and College of Defence Management.
  • Opens in a new tab