By: Arslan suleymanov
Can We Consider the Quad Group as an "Asian NATO"?
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In April 2007, off the coast of Okinawa, 27 vessels performed maritime patrolling and air defense drills. The fleets of five nations engaged in Exercise Malabar, one of the largest naval exercises since the Cold War. Conducted routinely since 1992 between India and the United States, the 2007 drills marked a significant departure as they were held outside the Indian Ocean for the first time. Moreover, they involved all participants of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly referred to as the "Quad”. The expanded character of the maneuvers has instigated concerns over the Quad’s potential to become an anti-Chinese coalition or the “Asian NATO” (Lee, 2018). The subsequent cessation of the Dialogue in 2008 over Australia’s decision to halt cooperation in a minilateral format under diplomatic pressure by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) further hinted at a potentially securitized nature of the Quad. Yet, the current evidence suggests that the labeling of Quad as “Asian NATO” would be ill-considered.
The primary argument against equating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lies in the fundamental structural disparities between the two, as well as the distinct historical and political landscapes in which they were established. NATO is a formalized collective security alliance wherein member states, as signatories to the founding treaty, commit to coordinated defense measures to ensure collective security within the Euro-Atlantic area. The Quad, conversely, functions as an intergovernmental dialogue and forum where participants are not bound by mutual obligations. Although both frameworks were ostensibly created to counter collective national security threats—whether from the USSR, Russia, or the PRC—their foundational differences render a direct comparison between Quad and NATO inappropriate.
Firstly, During NATO's establishment in 1949, the signatory states were grappling with the aftermath of war, with their economic and defense mechanisms heavily reliant on the United States. The threat to territorial integrity and national security was palpable. Conversely, the Quad nations (Australia, India, USA, and Japan) have enjoyed steady economic growth and military expansion in the decades leading up to the creation of the forum in 2007. As a result, the threat landscape has been markedly different.
Secondly, immediately before and during the Cold War, NATO nations were perceived by the United States to be facing immediate threats to their territorial integrity and political stability, exacerbated by the formidable Soviet military presence near their borders, coupled with the USSR’s strong hybrid capabilities. The potential for rapid military deployment and communist takeover was arguably not unfounded, necessitating a treaty like NATO (Sayle, 2019). The Quad nations, however, have not faced such existential danger. Chinese military buildups and provocations have been isolated and confined to territorial disputes without threatening the very existence of democratic nations. While China's Belt and Road Initiative may be seen as a hybrid power measure to leverage geopolitical influence, the Quad nations have resisted it, and clear evidence of any hidden exploitative agenda remains elusive.
Thirdly, unlike the rapid escalations in Soviet and Russian foreign policy that led to the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia, the 1961 Berlin Crisis, and the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, the PRC has shown restraint in materializing its territorial claims and has not been blamed for the involvement in regime change initiatives in the region. The assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy has not reached a level that threatens international peace and security in recent decades, in stark contrast to the actions of the Soviet Union and Russia, whose NATO has deterred.
This distinct political landscape has led to the fact that strategic cooperation between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan has historically been maintained through a functional framework of bilateral and multilateral agreements. This discourse of collaboration has been even more evident since the 2008 farewell of the Dialogue. In 2010, a diplomatic dispute occurred between Japan and the PRC, which involved a collision of military vessels in the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyudao Islands, culminating with the PRC’s proclamation of an air defense zone over the islands in 2013 (The European Parliament, 2021). China’s 2015 announcement to modernize its nuclear and conventional forces coincided with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the illegality of the PRC’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea. In 2017, India and the PRC were embroiled in a border standoff in the disputed Doklam/Donglang region (Miglani & Blanchard, 2017). Concurrently, the Obama Administration’s announcement of the Pivot to Asia Strategy coincided with the 2011 trilateral security summit between the US, India, and Japan. In 2015, Japan became a permanent participant in the Malabar Exercise and was also engaged in the Exercise Talisman Saber, a biennial military maneuver between Australia and the US, following a military reform that allowed the nation to use its armed forces overseas for collective self-defense. Concurrently, Australia and India launched AUSINDEX, a biennial naval exercise. In 2016, the US and Indian heads of defense signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. Such an increase in the regional security agreements, coupled with the revitalization of the Quad in 2017, may be seen as a step toward forming a collective deterrence framework, but it does not necessarily signify that the Quad is evolving into a collective security bloc akin to NATO.
First, the Dialogue still lacks a definitive agenda and an institutional framework of subordination and cooperation, and its participants do not hold any mutual, legally-binding obligations. This presents a stark contrast to NATO, whose members are still bound by the provisions stipulated in 1949. At present, there exists only limited political resolve to evolve the Quad into a comprehensive security alliance, in stark contrast to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was explicitly established as such from the inception of the Treaty. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty unambiguously stipulates that an attack on one member state is considered an assault against all, and Article 6 further clarifies this obligation by confining it to the geographic scope of the Euro-Atlantic area. The undefined geographic scope of the Quad, as evidenced by the nature of dialogue discussions and military maneuvers of participating states, indicates that drawing parallels between it and NATO would be inappropriate.
In a 2019 survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), policymakers from each of the four Quad nations were asked to assess their level of support for the idea of the Quad possessing an institutional character. The results revealed divergent attitudes towards the formalization of the Quad, with Indian policymakers expressing strong opposition to the idea, while policymakers from the other nations demonstrated only mild to moderate support for the concept (Buchan, Rimland, 2020). At present, only the United States of America has demonstrated its willingness to support the idea of institutionalization of Quad, with the Trump Administration officials making a series of statements in favor of the idea of unity against the increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy. However, this willingness is not steadfast and has not been long-standing, due to the rapidly fluctuating nature of the national interests of the United States. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy categorizes the Quad alongside the European Union, recognizing both as partners in sustainable development, energy infrastructure, and maritime security, without indicating any aspiration to institutionalize the former (NSS, 2022). Even if the institutionalization of the Quad is perceived as beneficial to the United States in the future, the durability of this view and its potential to garner bipartisan support within the United States remain questions to be answered.

Second, the temporary dissolution of the Quad in 2008 suggested that the Dialogue participants prioritize having positive diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. All four Quad members are engaged in beneficial relationships with the PRC, and access to the Chinese market is crucial for their economic growth (Lohman, 2019). This situation is unparalleled and hampers any attempt to equate the Quad with NATO, especially when considering the conditions that precipitated NATO's formation. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's foreign trade accounted for less than one percent of global trade on average, and even that was primarily associated with raw materials. This suggests that the countries opposed to the Soviet Union were not economically reliant on it to a significant degree. On the contrary, the PRC is the largest trading partner of both Australia and Japan, with a total value of exports surpassing AUD 180 billion in 2021-2022 (Austrade, 2023) and USD 144 billion (ITC, 2023), respectively. At the same time, the PRC is the largest exporter of goods to the United States, and it is also one of the largest export markets for American products and services, as well as the US Treasury bonds.
Any attempt to transform the Quad into a formalized and legally binding security alliance is likely to provoke a corresponding reaction from the PRC, similar to the responses that have ensued from individual decisions made by Quad nations that were not favorably received by the PRC. The PRC's decision to restrict imports of goods from Australia following Australia's 2020 calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 (Packham, 2020) has cost Australia AUD 20 billion per year (Armstrong, 2023). Simultaneously, India, with its historical non-aligned stance, maintains cooperative relations with China within the framework of BRICS and is unlikely to seek escalation akin to the Ladakh skirmishes of 2020-2021. Any action by India that is perceived as provocative by China could potentially increase its level of military support to Pakistan, India’s primary rival. Since the establishment of Quad, the total cumulative value of arms exports from China to Pakistan has surged from 8,000 trade indicator values (TIV) to 18,000 TIV in 2020 (ATD, 2023). Finally, the United States is unlikely to seek direct confrontation with the PRC, as such a course of action could lead to an escalation in Taiwan. This escalation would necessitate the United States to furnish increased military support to Taiwan to prevent its subjugation by China, in accordance with the provisions of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. As historical precedents and current interdependencies suggest, it seems improbable that the Quad nations would jeopardize their economic growth and national security by formalizing the Dialogue, especially when other significant security arrangements are already in place.
Thirdly, the Quad has functioned as a matrix and facilitator for various regional bilateral and minilateral agreements, significantly enhancing the path of cooperation observed from 2008 to 2017. Since 2017, the Quad nations have concluded separate arrangements focusing on defense and maritime security, such as the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement (India, Australia), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (India and the US), and AUKUS (Australia, UK, United States). This contrasts sharply with NATO, which has outweighed the feasibility of organizations like the European Defense Community and the Western European Union, Cold War-era entities bound by similar minilateral treaties within a larger framework. While the Euro-Atlantic nations of that era favored centralizing their collective security efforts, no evidence suggests that the Quad nations currently share this inclination. However, the establishment of the so-called Quad Plus framework in 2019, which included South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand, may hint at some similarities with NATO partnership frameworks, such as the Partnership for Peace. Yet, the NATO-affiliated frameworks have prioritized defense, political reforms, and civil-military cooperation, offering individual partnership solutions to nations. In contrast, the Quad Plus focuses on a broader scope of issues, emphasizing cross-institutional cooperation in areas like climate change, global health, and infrastructure, without currently indicating an intention to create a legally-binding, centralized, defense-focused framework (Híjar-Chiapa, 2021).
Moreover, the expansion of the Quad into the Quad Plus did not follow clearly assertive and aggressive actions by the PRC towards the new members, unlike the expansion of NATO, which has responded to a more assertive stance by Russia on nations like the NATO members in the Baltic region, and Georgia, Ukraine, which aspire to join the alliance.
Clearly, the Quad, lacking a formal policy framework and with all major collective defense agreements concluded independently, is not an “Asian NATO”. There is no apparent interest among its participants in formalizing the Dialogue, with defense arrangements made outside of its scope. However, as developments in 2007 – 2017 have shown, the increasing assertiveness of the PRC's foreign policy could keep the security aspect on the agenda. In a less likely scenario, if China were to resort to military means to fulfill its territorial claims, two outcomes are possible, depending on the aggression's severity. First, Quad nations could conclude even more bilateral and multilateral defense agreements. Second, all existing defense agreements could be deemed void and incorporated into an institutionalized Quad, which would signal its radical transformation. The prevailing scenario will be dictated by the dynamic national interests of the states involved.
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The opinions expressed in this article are of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.