The Squad: Adding an ‘S’ for Security

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The Squad: Adding an ‘S’ for Security

The Philippines is not replacing India in the Quad, but India’s hesitancy on the security agenda in the region in hopes of not triggering China dilutes the Quad’s focus.

The Squad: Adding an ‘S’ for Security

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles, Japanese Minister of Defense Kihara Minoru, and Secretary of National Defense of Philippines Gilbert Teodoro conduct a multilateral press briefing at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, May 2, 2024.

Credit: DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders

Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and the potential for conflict over Taiwan, the U.S. Department of Defense has been ramping up its diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s escalating regional threats and ambitions. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting with his counterparts from Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, dubbed the new “Squad” defense partnership.

This quadrilateral alliance is just one of several regional partnerships the United States has forged to counter China’s assertiveness in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Other notable partnerships include the Quad – consisting of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan – as well as AUKUS, a defense pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. Together these illustrate the larger “minilateral” foreign policy of the Biden administration in the Indo-Pacific region, all geared to keep the pressure high on Chinese belligerence. 

China views the newly formed “Squad” as another attempt by the U.S. to contain China as part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Beijing warns of a “Ukrainization” of the Philippines – essentially casting the country as a pawn under U.S. influence in the “Great Power Game.”

The “Squad” defense chiefs met for the first time in June 2023 on the sidelines of the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore. And in April 2024, the four countries conducted joint maritime patrols within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone amid ongoing tensions between the Philippines and China. The Squad grouping aims to counter coercion across Asia and ensures interoperability of defense capabilities among the four nations, paving the way for effective cooperation during conflicts.

From a tactical standpoint, creating this new coalition with military dimensions would allow for a more concentrated and precise security strategy in addressing concerns related to China. This coalition bears similarities to the Quad but with added efficacy due to the participation of Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, all of whom are established allies of the United States. While India is already a member of the Quad, it is not a U.S. ally. Consequently, the newly-established “Squad” boasts a greater sense of direction and is better equipped to meet the security needs of the United States when it comes to managing the situation in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

India’s reluctance to form alliances stems from its long-standing policy of “non-alignment,” now essentially translated as “strategic autonomy” or “multi-alignment.” Such foreign policy posturing affords flexibility and balance in several bilateral, as well as multilateral, relationships. This has often led India to avoid adding overt security and militarized dimensions to informal groupings like the Quad, despite the grouping’s full name being “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” and the conduct of the Malabar military exercises by the Quad members.

Previously also, both India and Australia have been apprehensive about adding greater security elements to the Quad to avoid antagonizing China, given Chinese concerns over the formation of an “Asia-Pacific NATO.” India had justifiable reasons not to do so on account of China being its direct continental neighbor with continuing border disputes, unlike the other Quad states. 

Yet, rising Chinese belligerence in the Galwan Valley, for India, coupled with mounting tensions between Australia and China during the pandemic years led both to reconsider a more enhanced role in the Quad and other trilateral/multilateral initiatives like the Supply-Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI – comprising Japan, Australia, India), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF – consisting of Quad states along with other Asian states) and so on. AUKUS was formed in a similar vein. 

Nevertheless, the Quad continues to remain open-ended with a focus on several issues like vaccine diplomacy, health security, climate change, critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief among many others. Recent announcements of a Quad fellowship also lead to an ever-widening and fluid agenda being set by Quad states in the region in order to portray the grouping as not “anti-China.” Such measures welcome a more nuanced understanding of the Indo-Pacific regional cooperation and eliminate antagonistic, exclusionary undertones in the geopolitical dynamics of the region. But such unrestricted efforts without major security and hard power underpinnings reduce their relevance, direction, and application in terms of realpolitik and high politics.  

The “Squad” essentially adds an “S” for security in the Indo-Pacific architecture of “minilateral” cooperation, this time including the Philippines. This is something the Quad is unable to do given India’s hesitancy toward hard-alliance formation. The continuous postponement of the 2024 Quad Summit also adds merit to this argument, even if there are legitimate scheduling reasons given due to elections in the United States and India.

There is, however, no need for paranoia among the Indian strategic community, and there is certainly none shown by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs yet on the Quad losing relevance with the formation of Squad.

Instead, India has been supportive of the current efforts by the Philippines in the South China Sea to combat Chinese transgressions and uphold its sovereignty in the region. During the March 2024 meeting between the foreign ministers of both states, they had substantive discussions on strengthening bilateral defense ties through capacity building, joint exercises, information exchange, and defense industrial collaboration. India’s Look East (now Act East) Policy essentially aims to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines. As the two nations mark 75 years of diplomatic relations, they are building new cooperation opportunities amid geopolitical change. Their shared developmental paths and maritime security concerns have led to joint naval exercises, capacity-building programs, regular dialogues, and trade in advanced military technology.

The Marcos Jr. administration seeks to work with Japan, India, and France to counter Chinese aggression in what it calls the West Philippine Sea. There is great potential for further engagement in the area of maritime security and defense industry cooperation. India also delivered its the first batch of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines in April 2024. A robust India-Philippines maritime security partnership is already in the offing as both states have suffered Chinese gray-zone warfare tactics, which the Philippines now call as “ICAD” – illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive. 

The claims of discarding the Quad at the moment may be too presumptuous and early given India’s crucial geostrategic role in the Indian Ocean Region. India’s recent stationing of three naval ships in Singapore for operational deployment in the South China Sea reflects its desire for a greater role in the Indo-Pacific amid rising tensions and its aim to establish the image of itself as a “net security provider.”

The Quad as a mechanism also focuses on the very crucial aspect of maritime domain awareness (MDA) and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific – the Quad Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative (IPMDA) announcement at the Tokyo Quad Summit in 2023 is a case in point. Its aim is to “track ‘dark shipping’ and build a faster, wider, accurate maritime picture of near-real-time activities in partners’ waters” – thus critically integrating Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, and the Indian Ocean region. The Quad’s essential role in stability through maritime security and economic prosperity through resilient supply chains cannot be understated in the region.

In the end, the rebranding of the Asia-Pacific as the “Indo-Pacific” points to the continued significance of a greater Indian role in the region for freedom, openness, and inclusivity. However, India must build its techno-industrial complex and keep shedding its security coalition hesitancy of yesteryear to enhance the security aspects of the Quad partnership. Emphasizing these aspects in the partnership will not make the Quad a military alliance.

The “Squad” might not present itself as an overt “overtaking of the Quad;” however, the security focus of the Quad must not be diluted due to wavering agendas, postponed summits, and foreign policy dogmas. India is here to play the long game with its more assertive posturing in international affairs and must continue to do so with the help of a stronger and sustainable Indo-Pacific strategy.