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Quad Results and Challenges: Japan and Australia’s leadership role

By Gemma King
The Perth USAsia Centre
January 13, 2023
The Quad is indisputably a key forum through which some of the Indo-Pacific’s largest powers – Australia, India, Japan and the US – cooperate to uphold regional stability. In recent years its agenda has become more expansive than ever, with regular meetings at the leader’s level.

Most significantly, the Quad has paved the way for a deepened Australia-Japan alliance. With regional uncertainty growing, the two countries have a significant leadership opportunity, both within the Indo-Pacific, and within the Quad itself.
The flags of the four nations of the Quad: Japan, US, India, Australia

Quad achievements so far 

The uptick in the Quad’s activities have taken place against the backdrop of rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific regional dynamics. The US is more stretched and distracted, China’s approach is increasingly coercive, non-traditional security issues affect the region and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has uprooted decades of European stability.

In the context of such strategic uncertainty, the Quad’s strength lies in its convening power – and its ability to act as a force multiplier.

Nowhere is that convening power more evident than in the security collaborations that have emerged out of the Quad in recent years. The grouping’s informal nature and lack of specific security obligations prevents it from defining itself as a security alliance. Instead, Quad members are working outside of the quadrilateral framework – at the bi- and trilateral levels – to strengthen their defence and security ties. And that is helping to build institutional trust and bolster the impact of the grouping as a whole.

The US-Australia alliance is continuing its momentum, particularly through AUKUS alongside the UK; Japan and India are deepening defence engagement including through joint exercises; and the US and Japan are gearing up to sign a new agreement on defence technology sharing. Most noteworthy of these relationships is the Australia-Japan alliance, which has proven to be central to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific in recent years, particularly in the face of uncertain US regional presence.

Bilateral defence ties between Australia and Japan are rapidly intensifying. Within the span of one year, the two countries have signed onto two major defence commitments. In January 2022, the landmark Reciprocal Access Agreement – the first of its kind Japan has signed with any country – came into action, followed by a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in October 2022.

And new opportunities for Australia-Japan regional leadership

Australia and Japan are emerging as important regional leaders and cornerstones of the Quad. Both countries are taking a more proactive approach to the region: Japan recently published its new National Security Strategy and Australia is in the concluding stages of undertaking its Defence Strategic Review. Given shared regional threats and priories, these new policies will likely create even more complementarities for pair to take defence and security partnership to the next level. Within the context of the Quad, deepened Australia-Japan cooperation can set an example of the “art of the possible” between member countries. In particular, the two countries are best placed to advocate for new and meaningful ways to expand cooperation with the US and India.
The crossed flags of Australia and Japan
India’s complex geopolitical position and anxieties about the Quad being perceived as an anti-China grouping complicate its willingness to formalise security cooperation within the Quad. However, recent years have seen the emergence of an Australia-Japan-India trilateral grouping that could help deepen cooperation between the three countries. Australia and Japan can meet India halfway to remind it of its indispensable importance despite its strategic reservations in the Quad.

For India, its priorities in the Indo-Pacific rest in its immediate neighbourhood – the Indian Ocean. Other Quad members have focused on the Pacific, limiting the potential of a truly comprehensive regional agenda. Australia is beginning to turn its attention to the ‘Indo’ side of the Indo-Pacific, and Japan appears to be following suit with clear interests in preserving freedom of navigation in the region. This was demonstrated by Australian Prime Minister Albanese’s recent hosting of and Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida in Perth, Australia’s strategically significant gateway to the Indian Ocean.

There is a window of opportunity to boost cooperation in the Indian Ocean between Australia, India and Japan to deter Chinese influence, as concerns over its regional presence grow. These overlapping interests and practical areas for cooperation are a powerful example of what can be accomplished through the Quad as a whole.

As the US seeks to redefine its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region through its new strategy of integrated deterrence, the US will not rely on its strength alone but implement a new framework for operating with allies in both conventional and non-conventional areas of conflict. This will be a long-term effort, requiring shared capabilities and interoperability among countries: an agenda Australia, Japan and India should embrace.

As regional leaders, Australia, Japan and India can utilise their established relationships and institutionalised cooperation to help the US redefine its role in the Indo-Pacific through more effective mini- and multilateral frameworks, as opposed to relying on the US as the region’s security guarantor.

Since the end of the Cold War, Indo-Pacific countries have depended on the US to set the regional security agenda. However, the strategic realities of the 21st century necessitate a greater leadership role by other countries, and Australia and Japan are well positioned to step up to the plate. The relationship between Australia, Japan and India facilitated by the Quad lays the groundwork for a closer strategic partnership in which the three countries lead the way to invite greater US regional engagement.

As Quad member countries work together outside of the grouping, the relationships build will only serve to bolster the groupings strength, effectiveness and collective trust.
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