The Quad: alliance or alignment?


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WITH the third meeting within a year of the quadrilateral security dialogue, or ‘Quad’, between officials from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, bullish analysis suggests the Quad is a formation that is evolving but enduring. After weathering turbulent geopolitical (and American political) headwinds over the past two years, the Quad will likely remain an important part of the geopolitical rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific region, but one that likely lags (and possibly drags) independent balancing efforts.

The Quad’s current prominence belies its humbler beginnings. It was conceived after the 2004 Tsunami relief efforts, consummated in 2007, collapsed quickly thereafter, and then following a decade of advocacy, track-two fora, and scholarship, revived in 2017 as a ‘natural’1 multilateral engagement of states with a set of purportedly converging interests in a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ region, with China as the unnamed challenger. Although the Quad has not yet defined its functions or a set of action items beyond dialogue, tangible steps suggested by the four countries include interoperability to respond to humanitarian disasters, protecting freedom of navigation, and coordination in infrastructure and connectivity projects.

A previously reluctant India seemed to be embracing the Quad grouping in 2017 after a months-long militarized border stand-off with China. However, by spring 2018, there was rampant speculation that India had already begun to retreat from the Quad’s confrontational approach to China after the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit. Since then, India has been chastised as the weakest link in the Quad. The brief but turbulent history of the Quad, and India’s place in it, raises two interrelated questions. First, since a concrete agenda of the Quad continues to have infinite potential but elusive specifics, what is the purpose of the Quad? Second, given several fits and starts and mutual suspicions, how natural can this partnership really be?

While acknowledging that the Quad is in its infancy, there are a range of possible trajectories with varying levels of commitment and scope that could upgrade the multilateral arrangement to anything from an alliance to a ‘mini-lateral’ dialogue forum. The second section of this essay lays out a plausible typology of alignments. The third section explores the U.S. preferences for the Quad and what alignment ‘type’ best fits its vision and ambitions. The fourth section of the paper considers in what ways India’s preferences diverge from the U.S. and other Quad members. The fifth section offers four plausible and interlinked reasons for this divergence: material capability, geography, relative position and strategic preferences. The sixth section offers some qualifications and conclusions.


First we need to clarify what type of security grouping the Quad intends to be. One way to categorize this spectrum of alignment – from a formal alliance to a loose security community – is along two continuous vectors: the scope of the challenge to which the alignment is dedicated and the depth of commitments. The scope might vary in terms of whether the grouping focuses on a broad and diffuse or narrow and concentrated challenge. The depth of commitments could vary based on the degree of contributions, be they material, financial, political, or organizational, and whether they are voluntary or binding.

A specific and costly alignment might be a military alliance with mutual defence commitments to provide resources and come to the aid of a partner (e.g. NATO). A specific yet shallow term-limited alignment might look more like a coalition (e.g. counter-ISIS coalition). A deep commitment to a broader set of security challenges rather than a specific adversary might look more like a security community or security regime (e.g. ASEAN). Finally, a flexible alignment seeking some sort of strategic convergence, but with broad scope to a variety of security or geopolitical challenges and with low voluntary commitments, might be classified as a ‘mini-lateral’ (e.g. BRICS) or a ‘strategic partnership’ if bilateral. Of course the real world is messy and security groupings may actually fall between these ideal types.


Nevertheless, these distinctions are important when analyzing the Quad’s prospects. If the purpose is for deterrence as many analysts and practitioners have suggested, then only a small subset of alliances – itself a small segment of all alignments – is likely to prove effective at this. If the objective is to harmonize norms and shared preferences amongst a community of actors, then a security regime might be more appropriate. Based on statements, actions, and resources, we can start to make sense of where the U.S. and India fall in terms of their conceptualization of the Quad, and therefore where they diverge.

Based on official and unofficial rhetoric, the United States’s view of the Quad is closer to an alliance than to any other type of alignment. The Quad, as part of a larger Indo-Pacific strategy, is focused on a specific Chinese challenger to the status quo rather than some diffuse threat, and requires a great depth of commitment (capable, interoperable military power) to defend the rules-based status quo order.

First, the U.S. views the Quad’s main purpose as a form of external balancing. The Quad is a central feature of declared U.S. strategy to balance an increasingly competitive Asia and protect the status quo. The current administration describes it as the anchor of its Indo-Pacific strategy to manage the shifting balance of power in Asia. This is reflected in critical U.S. grand strategy documents like the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS).

Second, U.S. attention on the Indo-Pacific in general and the Quad in particular are undoubtedly China-centric in their orientation. The NSS casts China as a hostile, revisionist actor threatening a status quo order, while the NDS seeks to activate all types of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific including the Quad to deter Chinese aggression.

Third, though several officials have emphasized the role of principles and values as the organizing glue of the Quad, the U.S. vision requires a demanding level of military capability and collaboration to defend those values. Despite nominal flexibility, some research suggests only alliances involving mutual defence pacts credibly deter conflict.2 Any challenges to freedom of commerce, navigation, overflight, or efforts to resolve disputes through coercion and conflict will not be deterred or denied merely with multilateral strategic dialogues or even periodic military-to-military engagements, but only by a network that can and will coordinate and aggregate combat capabilities. Moreover, the renaming of a combatant command to INDOPACOM signals the very competitive, military component of the Indo-Pacific strategy.


Given U.S. perceptions of the Quad’s role in grand strategy, its China focus, and its demanding military commitments, it’s no surprise that members of the U.S. foreign policy community (including former officials) at times intentionally or accidently refer to the Quad as an Indo-Pacific alliance.


In contrast to the United States, India prefers the Quad to be one of many mini-lateral consultative forums. Indian analysts and policymakers diverge from the U.S. strategic community on the Quad’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific, focus on China, and degree of military orientation, and thus prefer it not take on the properties of an alliance.

First, India does not see the Quad as the fulcrum of balancing in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Instead, India prefers that ASEAN be the centre of its Indo-Pacific strategy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out in his keynote speech at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue. Both Indian and American analysts noted that Modi’s deliberate non-mention of the Quad spoke volumes. When questioned about the Quad, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs consistently offers vague platitudes about engaging in a plurality of forums on a variety of issues to advance Indian interests.

Second, India prefers broad issue sets like natural disasters and non-state threats to avoid singling out China as the focus of the Quad. At Shangri La, Modi demurred from attributing the region’s challenges to China, instead calling for the principle of ‘inclusion’. Some read the emphasis on inclusiveness sought to signal to China that it was welcome to join the security architecture, while – rightly or wrongly – the U.S. has taken a much more exclusionary approach. It is also plausible India shares some regional views with Beijing, as India has long been skeptical of U.S. primacy, and its views on foreign militaries within its exclusive economic zone bear semblance to China’s.

Third, India has openly challenged the notion of the Quad as a military oriented partnership. It continues to explicitly reject Australia’s request to join the Malabar naval exercise (for a fourth year in a row), which would have made this the first exercise with all four Quad navies. New Delhi likely fears a security dilemma where defensive mobilization will be perceived as offensive, and trigger a competitive arms race, counter-alliances and conflict spirals, which nets the country less security. In fact, India may eschew competitive strategies altogether. At Shangri La Modi expressed a preference for cooperation over competition and soon after India decided not to join the U.S.-Japan-Australia effort to forge a political-economic counter to China’s BRI.


Both on and off the record, Indian officials have instead chosen to equate the Quad with another mini-lateral such as the Russia-India-China grouping. One explanation – that India holding the militarization of the Quad in reserve to counter future Chinese escalation – might imply India believes a militarized Quad’s deterrent value stems from its nominal existence, not its actual level of operationalization and effectiveness. Given this, India may be more inclined to bargain away the Quad than its other partners.

Despite three official Quad meetings, the absence of any joint statement suggests divergent visions, particularly between the U.S. and India. Given their different approaches to the purpose, scope and commitments of the Quad, it is no surprise that the U.S. conceives of it as a proto-alliance while India envisions it as a forum in service of dialogue and information exchange.

The four major variables which can account for a lot of this divergence on what type of alignment the Quad ought to be are: absolute capabilities, geography, relative position and strategic preferences, all of which shape or derive from threat perceptions.


With regards to absolute capabilities, general Indian capability gaps make it less able and willing to make deep commitments and contribute scarce resources to a militarized Quad mission. While size, demography and geography certainly give India heft, developed countries are able to leverage surplus wealth, technological infrastructure and efficient production to generate more effective fighting forces, such as investing in better equipment and more skilled fighters. Compared to other Quad members, India is notably lacking in capitalization of its forces (spending per soldier) and an industrial base to generate advanced conventional combat platforms.

Even as India has begun to internally balance China with growing procurement of military hardware, there are also doubts that India has the national security ‘software’ to translate this into military effectiveness. Despite emerging as the world’s largest arms importer, India still struggles to convert these imports into military power due to shortfalls in major force transformations, jointness of its services and unreformed national security architectures.

Further, though India aspires for greater power projection, its actual capabilities betray a more limited and regional focus. The Indian Navy, crucial to greater power projection in the Indo-Pacific, is the Indian military’s weakest service. India also maintains significant deficiencies in amphibious platforms, land-attack capabilities for sustained strikes on shore and the accompanying anti-submarine warfare, air defence and airborne early warning capabilities. In short, India’s still developing economy and national security software, as well as its limitations on power projection hinder its ability (and possibly its ambitions) to fulfil the U.S. vision for its role in the Quad.


In addition to its capabilities, India’s distinct geography also contributes to a different scoping of its challenges and strategy in the Indo-Pacific, resulting from a westward focus orientation, a distinct set of vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean, and a continental orientation. First, while India aligns with the Quad in seeking to prevent disruption of a stable, secure, and open maritime commons, which its economy depends on, it departs in that its economic interests are directionally oriented as much if not more westward to the Middle East, Africa and Europe – where the U.S. definition of the Indo-Pacific does not reach. India is more vulnerable to disruptions in the western IOR than any of its Quad partners, particularly given its dependence on it for exports, critical energy resources, migrant workers and remittances – much of which concentrates around the Arabian peninsula.

Unlike the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, the ‘open geography’ of the Indian Ocean, India’s chief preoccupation, subjects it to distinct vulnerabilities requiring different strategies. The Indian Ocean has few if any controllable choke points, rendering it more of a ‘trading highway than a battle space.’3 Congruent with this approach, developments in the Indian Navy over the past 20 years indicate India primarily aims to protect sea lanes.

Finally, India’s long borders with rivals Pakistan and China and internal security threats, ensure India remains a continental power. This diverges from all the other Quad maritime partners that tend to prioritize naval capabilities for sea denial or to conduct punitive strikes, raids, or blockades against their rivals. By contrast, continental powers invest primarily in ground forces to defend their borders or expand their territory. Over the past decade, Indian land forces as a share of total defence spending have increased, while the air force and navy shares of the defence budget have declined. Aside from its capabilities and geography, India’s relative position in the international system offers another explanation for its divergence from the Quad. India, as a rising power – as opposed to a system hegemon – has unique incentives for both procrastination and buck-passing.


India’s rising power status differs from other Quad members who are declining (U.S.), tethered to the decliner (Japan), or unlikely to ever be a pole in the system (Australia), and predisposes India to fundamentally different incentives for competition or cooperation. Risers tend to employ patience and cooperation rather than premature confrontation because they wish to avoid exposing their intentions and jeopardizing their own increasing enrichment.4

India’s position in the international system may also make it prone to ‘buck-passing’ where it seeks others to take on the responsibility of confronting the aggressor and defending the existing international order.5 India has every incentive to not only buck-pass and free-ride, but by remaining a perpetual ‘swing state’ perhaps even stands to benefit as both China and the U.S. and its allies pay the costs of an unproductive confrontation. These mechanisms suggest that India is least likely amongst the Quad members to seriously commit to a hard balancing alliance or alignment versus China in the near future.


Beyond Delhi’s material limitations, India’s strategic preference of autonomy does not allow it to narrowly scope its challenges, a prerequisite for a deepening alliance between Quad members. This preference leaves the door open to a raft of other partners – Iran, Russia, and China – to avoid dependency on just one, all of which have been identified by the United States as competitors if not outright adversaries. The result of India’s preference for diverse partners and non-alignment is that India not only lacks habits of military cooperation and remains unfamiliar with the type of interoperable coalition warfare envisioned in strategies of ‘federated defence’, but also remains deeply suspicious of it.

To summarize, the United States and India diverge in their conceptualization of the Quad’s scope of issues and depth of commitments, with the United States favouring some form of quasi-military alliance against China and India pursuing the Quad as one of many multilateral groupings in its Indo-Pacific strategy. India’s combination of distinct capabilities, geography, system position and strategic preferences cultivate rather different threat perceptions and incentives than those exhibited by the United States and its Japanese and Australian allies.

These structural features not only explain why India diverges from its partners on the Quad today – whether in terms of its centrality, focus, or level of commitments – but also why this is likely to persist, hampering the Quad’s cohesion and effectiveness. Consequently, divergent priorities and unrealized capabilities will continue to limit India’s contribution to and integration with a quadrilateral security structure in both the medium and long-term. Despite India’s professed interests, costly actions will always send a more meaningful and powerful signal than cheap talk.

Nevertheless, the contours of the Quad are likely to persist even if it is never fleshed out. Its origins date back over two decades when U.S. liberal hegemonists sought an ‘alliance of democracies’ to counteract the intransigence of institutions like the UN Security Council. India is still seen as the rising ‘swing state’ prize whose combination of size, demographics, cohesion and geography make it consequential while its lack of a fixed ideology renders it up for grabs.

Though the picture painted here appears skeptical of India’s deepening role in the Quad, strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are constantly evolving, as are the commitments of all Quad members. It is conceivable that some structural obstacles may dissipate as India’s material capabilities increase, its interests and reach expand beyond its traditional geography and its continuously updating strategic preferences converge with its Quad partners.

What is unlikely to change still is the critical but discounted element of rising India’s time horizon for convergence. Will India be able to develop, convert its latent potential into actual capability, expand its preferences closer to its western partners, and risk projecting its power, all before the status quo order is revised and a new Asian equilibrium stemming from China’s rapid rise achieves some lock-in? Most observers recognize India’s relations with the U.S. and the Quad are deepening and may converge in the long run, but by then it may be too late.



1. United States, Office of the Spokesperson, ‘Briefing by Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Alice G. Wells’, Department of State, 27 October 2017, https://www.state. gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/10/275157.htm

2. Brett Ashley Leeds, ‘Do Alliances Deter Aggression? The Influence of Military Alliances on the Initiation of Militarized Interstate Disputes’, American Journal of Political Science 47(3), July 2003, pp. 427-439.

3. Shivshankar Menon, ‘Security Strategies for India as an Emerging Regional Power’, 34th National Security Lecture, United Services Institute, 5 December 2018.

4. David Edelstein, Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 2017, p. 24.

5. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2001, pp. 157-158.