The leaders of the countries in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—met for the fourth time in Tokyo this week. Their joint statement pledged continuing cooperation, from a COVID-19 vaccine program to cybersecurity collaborations. The group has enjoyed significant momentum in recent years, in part because each member has seen relations with China fall to the lowest level in decades.
The joint statement mentioned a new initiative that bodes well for India: a program to monitor maritime challenges, from natural disasters to illegal fishing, that includes information- and resource-sharing centers in the Indian Ocean region, as well as Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. This shows the Quad has widened its geographic focus to areas of strategic interest to India, which is increasingly concerned about China's growing presence in the region. It also suggests the Quad is keen to do more in the areas that matter the most to all four members.
The Quad was launched in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance to Asian countries after an earthquake and tsunami that year hit the Indian Ocean region hard. However, much of the group's recent strategic focus has been on East and Southeast Asia—including affirming support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, expressing concerns about maritime challenges in the East and South China seas, and pledging assistance to the Pacific islands. The Quad's signature projects, such as its vaccine partnership, specifically target Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. But the new maritime initiative defines the Indo-Pacific as a geographic whole, placing equal emphasis on each part.
The Quad countries understandably worry about China's growing commercial ties with Southeast Asian states and its militarization of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The maritime monitoring initiative reflects concerns about Beijing's growing presence in the Indian Ocean region, too. China has ramped up infrastructure investments in Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Its fishing vessels appear all over the Indian Ocean, and India said last year that it had discovered a Chinese research ship near the Andaman Islands, where New Delhi has territorial possessions.
China is also expanding its military presence. It has established a military base in Djibouti, in East Africa. According to the Indian Navy, at any given time, six to eight Chinese naval warships are operating in the northern Indian Ocean. "Within a decade, China could position itself as the dominant naval power in the critical space stretching from the Malacca Strait to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait," South Asia security scholar Sameer Lalwani wrote recently.
Until now, some Quad members have not given the Indian Ocean region the strategic importance it deserves. For example, Australian strategy documents define Australia's immediate region as extending only to the northeastern parts of the Indian Ocean. The United States does not have a formal Indian Ocean strategy. But there are indications of change on this front: US officials have recently highlighted the Indian Ocean region in discussions on the Indo-Pacific as a whole.
The Quad's new maritime initiative raises the possibility that two of the group's fundamental goals—promoting stability and providing public goods—will extend more fully into the Indian Ocean region and the states that straddle it.
Michael Kugelman, the writer of Foreign Policy's weekly South Asia Brief.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.