Theorizing the Quad: A Structural Realist Perspective

Ambar Kumar Ghosh
December 15, 2019


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The narrative of structural realism espoused by political scientist Kenneth Waltz consolidated the idea that the structural forces have been the most formidable determinant in shaping the trajectory of the world order. This proposition, undeniably a compelling one, probably undermines the transformative potential of the personalities of the state actors in complementing, or in some instance, challenging these structural determinants in crafting the course that the trajectory of the world politics would embark upon. The centrality of the leading factor in making a concerted effort in determining the international political dynamics along with the contextual parameters can be linked to the formation and future potential of the Quad. The political formation which is ostensibly perceived as a platform for informal strategic dialogue comprising the countries United States, Australia, Japan, and India in order to act as an “alliance of democracies” to balance the growing ascendency of China in the Asia-pacific region, is not only a product of circumstantial compulsions but also of varying perceptions of its political actors. 


Contextualizing the Structure-Agency Collusion

Looking at the Quad, it is interesting to see how the economical-structural imperative, as well as the political agency of the state actors within it, has worked in tandem towards the consolidation of this dialogue platform, in some ways as a counterpoise to the increasing dominance of China. It is a no-brainer that the bludgeoning economic prowess of China and the growing threat of Chinese political, diplomatic, military, and economic influence is the most formidable structural impetus that has expedited the need for an alternative security bloc as a strategic balancer in the region. However, history bears testimony to the fact that it is not only the objective structural factors but also the agency and perception of the highest political leadership and ruling regimes of these respective countries, which have been instrumental in the conceptualization and operationalization of the quad. The viability and prioritization of the Quad largely depend on the perception of the political leadership of the Quad in one crucial aspect; how the political actors of the Quad have viewed China in terms of their own national interest over time which played a crucial role in developing the organization as a coherent security dialogue forum. 

Locating the Political Agency 

The logic behind the establishment of the Quad and its subsequent resurrection is largely premised upon the perceptions that their constituent political actors hold at any given point of time regarding China. Right at the point of inception, it was categorically the personal initiative of the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who pioneered the idea of coming together of the “arch of democracies” way back in 2007 to uphold and safeguard a “free and open” Indo Pacific. The apparent consolidation of political forces in the wake of seeming threats that could emanate from China’s growing rise in the region was conspicuous. Hence, the unanimous view on the underlying Chinese threats held by the highest leadership of the other three countries- India’s Prime Minister Dr. Singh, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and US Vice President Dick Cheney, along with Abe paved the foundation of this security mechanism. Immediately after, with the change of regime in Australia, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd found that the idea of the Quad, which is largely perceived as against China and lacks a long-term constructive vision for cooperation, was not conducive to the Australian interests. So, Australia under the new regime stepped down from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as its perception of China varied from its predecessor. But contrary to the domineering view, it is not only the regime change in Australia that created a setback for the Quad. Shortly after the inception of the Quad under Abe’s initiative, the Abe regime was also replaced by Yasuo Fukuda, who countenanced a lack of enthusiasm for the Quad. Instead, the benign attitude of Fukuda government towards China was reflected in its rapprochement policy towards China. Hence, the change in the highest political leadership both in Japan and Australia harboured views on China which were different from their predecessors, sealed the faith of the Quad in its first avatar. In case of India, it was the same political regime led by PM Dr. Manmohan Singh who once enthusiastically supported the Quad, seemed to adopt a measured approach towards it subsequently. Shortly after the announcement of the Quad, Dr. Singh during his visit to China in January 2008, stated that he would not be party to any initiative aimed at containing China and also that the India-China relationship was for him a matter of the first “priority,”. Interestingly, the idea of the Quad once again resurfaced strongly in December 2012 when Shinzo Abe, upon his return to power in Japan, talked about “Asia’s democratic security diamond”, reinforcing the instrumentality of the regime’s vision of China policy in determining the fate of the Quad. 

The Resurgence of the Structural Imperatives

It took some more time for the structural dynamics of the Indo-pacific to catapult the political actors of the Quad to rejuvenate the security dialogue platform. These structural factors, mainly comprising the growing economic prowess of China and China’s increasing muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, seem to have resurfaced yet again and have moulded the political agency to rejuvenate the Quad. However, the second stint of the the Quad has been further shrouded in ambiguity in terms of its long-term vision and purpose as all the political actors have taken an ambivalent position on the nature of the Quad. The US President Donald Trump, who has displayed adequate volatility, rather an indifference regarding the US’s role in Asia, at the same time has committed to the idea of the Quad as a counterpoise to China. However, Trump’s high octane trade war against China has also been tempered by his incoherent stance on China. For Japan, despite Abe’s single-minded advocacy of the Quad, Japan’s changing stance on BRI and economic engagements with China have compelled Japan to pursue the anti-China rhetoric of the Quad with caution. For the different regimes in Australia and India, high economic stakes with China and the imperatives of peace has now led the political leadership, despite instances of confrontation with China in India’s case, to pursue the security dimension of the Quad with caution as displayed in their schizophrenic stance on China. However, the new Australian PM’s explicit thrust on the Quad might make the unfolding of dynamics on the Quad further interesting. Hence, despite the agency of the political leadership and their varying perceptions of China being a pivotal factor in the shaping of the Quad, it has been intermittently complemented by the circumstantial compulsion of the context in which the geopolitics of the region unfolded.

Hence, it is crucial to delve into the proposition that the Quad has not only been the handiwork of the international geostrategic imperatives of the growth of China and its aggressive demeanor in the region. Rather, the Quad’s changing political leaderships’ perception of China has equally impacted the shaping of the Quad and would continue to shape the narrative around the Quad in tandem with the structural imperatives of the Indo-pacific. 

The author acknowledges the contribution of Sohini Bose, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata for her valuable inputs in the article.

*** The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. Ambar is presently working as a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. He is currently working on the project, “Understanding Public Perceptions: India and China”. He has been a former Guest Faculty at the Department of Political Science, Siliguri College (University of North Bengal) and alumni of Vision India Foundation. ***