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‘Quad-Plus’: Seoul Should Consider Selective Participation

Jae Jeok Park(Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

Quad in the Spotlight since Biden Inauguration


The Biden Administration is strengthening the ‘Quad’ security consultation among the US, Japan, Australia and India, which was resumed during the Trump Administration. Amid a deluge of comments emphasizing the importance of the Quad from many high-ranking US officials in the foreign policy and security community, virtual Quad summit was held on March 12, 2021. As the United Kingdom, the host of the G7 this year, had already invited Australia, India and South Korea to this year’s G7 summit, all four Quad members will be present at the G7+3 to be held in June. If the ‘Summit for Democracy’ proposed by President Biden materializes, the Quad members will become major players along with the states of the advanced Western democracies.

China is concerned about an anti-Chinese front formed with ‘G7+3’ and the ‘Summit for Democracy’. In the keynote speech at the World Economic Forum on January 25, President Xi criticized the US-backed multilateral initiatives for being ‘selective.’


Expanding the Quad: Stepping Stone for Forming Effective Multilateral Cooperation vs. China Hedging


The US and Japan initiated the Quad in 2007, but it was derailed within a year due to the reluctance of Australia and India, which were wary of China’s position. However, when President Trump declared on his Asian tour in November 2017 that he would pursue an Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad was reactivated.

The Quad is a prime example of minilateral security cooperation developed through the layering of various bilateral or trilateral security cooperative arrangements within the US-led security network. All six possible bilateral combinations among the four Quad countries have 2+2 ministerial level dialogues. In the case of trilateral cooperation, the US, Japan and Australia upgraded their security dialogue, initiated in 2001, to a ministerial level strategic dialogue in 2006. The US, Japan and India initiated a trilateral policy dialogue in 2011 and elevated it to the deputy ministerial level in 2015. Japan, India and Australia have also been holding deputy ministerial level dialogues since 2015. Thus, the Quad was not suddenly revived after a ten-year hiatus but was reactivated on the foundation of the various instances of bilateral and trilateral cooperation among the four states over the last 10 years.

The Quad is becoming solidified through the members having met more than ten times since November 2017. In November 2020, Australia joined the US, India and Japan in the ‘Malabar’ naval exercise. Meanwhile, the Quad is trying to expand its scope. The media is closely watching France and the UK as potential participants. France, which has most of its EEZ in the Indo-Pacific Ocean due to its colonial legacy, played a major role in launching a high-level dialogue among France, Australia and India in September 2020. After Brexit, the UK is more actively involved in the US-led ‘Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea.’

From the perspective of the Indo-Pacific regional security order, there are two contrasting views about the expansion of the Quad. One is the view that it is an experiment to promote efficient multilateral cooperation in the region. Existing security cooperation schemes such as EAS and ARF have shaped the institutional framework, and then attempted to promote security cooperation among the member states within that framework. Compared with Europe, where multilateral security cooperation is functioning efficiently, however, such cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region is relatively stagnant. Thus, the US is trying to implement various instances of small scale yet flexible security cooperation and, by closely connecting them, to develop larger scale multilateral cooperation. The US intention is ultimately to create a NATO-like multilateral security system in the Indo-Pacific region by layering a number of small-scale arrangements of security cooperation such as the Quad.

The other view concerning the expansion of the Quad approaches the matter from the context of geo-political competition between the US and China. For instance, if the Quad could be closely tied to NATO members such as the UK or France, it could be a foundation for building America’s global security network. NATO is comprised of 30 member countries. The official NATO position for now is not to get involved in the security issues of the Indo-Pacific region, as Europe’s hands are full dealing with numerous traditional and non-traditional security issues of its own. If the UK and France were to join the Quad, however, it is possible that America’s Indo-Pacific security network and NATO could eventually become connected.


‘Quad Plus’ is Plural not Singular


As its nickname ‘democratic security diamond’ suggests, the Quad can be characterized as a security association targeting a non-democratic China. Unlike the US and Japan, which took leadership roles in the Quad, however, Australia and India are not comfortable with being perceived as part of a containment of China. Although the perception of a China threat in these two countries is running at its highest level, there are voices advocating for an ‘exit strategy’ to restore their relationship with China, given the economic interests at stake. Also, non-Quad states in the region do not want to see it becoming a means to contain China, as such a situation would force them to face the dilemma of choosing between the US and China. Therefore, even if the Quad is indeed a tool to keep China in check, such an image should be toned down in order to avoid repeating the failure of 2007 and to remain sustainable. Despite this ‘Quad dilemma,’ the reason for maintaining the Quad is obvious. Even if the Quad functions with a focus mainly on non-traditional security matters, it could accumulate experience of cooperation and trust among the four countries and could quickly shift to cooperation in a traditional security agenda when necessary.

The Quad is already coordinating the four participants’ policies regarding such non-traditional security issues as investment in infrastructure building, maritime capacity-building, maritime security, health and disease prevention. Thus, Quad Plus is also likely to function in a complex manner in various issue areas. If Quad Plus is formed with a declared goal of dealing with a non-traditional security agenda, those countries considering joining the Quad may find membership less burdensome.

Quad Plus does not mean just other countries participating in the grouping of all the four countries, but it also means some Quad members and other countries cooperating in issue areas of the Quad. For instance, if some country participates in ‘the trilateral infrastructure investment fund’ that was formed by the US, Japan and Australia in 2018, this could be seen as Quad Plus even without the participation of India. Given the variety of issues and possible combinations of participants, Quad Plus will not be singular but plural. It is wrong to describe Quad Plus as joining the Quad meeting as a fifth member.


Selective Participation in various Quad Plus groups


The possibility of South Korea joining Quad Plus is drawing attention as discussion concerning its expansion becomes more concrete. For instance, since March 2020 the South Korean government has been participating in deputy ministerial level online consultation with the Quad members plus Vietnam and New Zealand regarding measures against COVID-19. In August 2020, the then US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun consciously called it Quad Plus. However, South Korea’s position is to regard it as one of the many international consultations in which South Korea has engaged to counter the spread of COVID-19 and not as something done with the intent of joining the Quad Plus. Seoul has been reluctant to participate in Quad Plus for fear of being seen as part of an anti-China front.

Seoul needs to be cautious about committing to Quad Plus groupings such as expanding Malabar participants or adopting the Indo-Pacific Charter, which can be clearly construed as targeting China. Most countries in the region will hesitate to participate in Quad Plus of such a nature. Rather than being proactive, Seoul would be wise to watch other countries’ moves and be strategic about deciding its participation in Quad Plus actions of a military nature.

Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, Quad Plus is multi-faceted. Quad Plus that coordinates infrastructure investment or promotes regional maritime capacity-building can bring economic benefit. South Korea, as a middle power in the region, can justify itself getting actively involved in a Quad Plus that deals with non-traditional security issues. Unless Quad Plus becomes exclusionary in nature, it would be desirable to participate without being too concerned about China. The Quad or Quad Plus is just one of the many mechanisms of regional security. China is also engaged in trilateral dialogue with Russia and India and is exploring the possibility of trilateral cooperation with Russia and Iran. South Korea is involved in ASEAN+3 where China is a participant, but the US is not. There is no reason why South Korea should feel compelled to shun Quad Plus simply because China is not present. Neither does Seoul have to avoid calling some action in which it takes part Quad Plus as such while it is, in fact, participating in one.


[1] This piece is an updated and translated version of Jae Jeok Park, “Seoul at a Cross-road: Quad-plus Participation Needs an Issue-based Approach,” Donga Ilbo, 19 February 2021