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As foreign ministers from the Quadrilateral countries — Japan, the United States, Australia and India — met in Tokyo this week, speculation soared about the purpose of the group. It is alternatively a gathering of concerned countries to contain a revisionist China, a forum to promote a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region and even the cornerstone of a nascent regional security architecture. The “Quad” (as it is called) can be all those things but its future is uncertain, and its eventual form and content depend on how it is managed.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was launched in 2007 during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first term in office. It collapsed the following year when Australia withdrew amidst criticism from Chinese officials that the group was an anti-China bloc and as doubts grew over whether the participants shared aims and objectives.

Mounting concern about Chinese behavior prompted the four countries to try again. They resurrected the Quad in 2017 and it has met at various levels ever since. This week’s meeting was the second ministerial get-together; the first was last year in New York.

While all four governments are troubled by Chinese behavior, the United States has been the loudest critic. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke for his administration when he condemned China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion,” and characterized its actions as “bullying.” Japanese security planners agree, although they are unlikely to use such blunt language. China poses a territorial threat given the dispute over the Senkaku Islands and it is widely viewed as a revisionist power that seeks regional preeminence, which will come at a significant cost to Japan.

Meanwhile, Australia objects to Chinese island building in the South China Sea (as do the others), interference in its domestic politics and the sanctions imposed on exports to China after Canberra complained about that interference and called for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak. India has had decades of troubled relations with its neighbor to the north, culminating in armed clashes along their disputed border in the Himalayas a few weeks ago that lead to the deaths of dozens of troops.

While attention has focused on military exercises that underscore the Quad members’ aim to give their cooperation teeth, discussions are much more extensive, encompassing — among other topics — infrastructure, telecommunications systems (5G in particular), cybersecurity, intellectual property protections and responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. After this week’s meetings, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the Quad members agreed to meet regularly, discuss views of and cooperate on those issues and others. He also reportedly proposed that the Quad broaden its cooperation with other countries.

Expanding both the agenda and membership is a good idea, but it is still a long way from Pompeo’s suggestion earlier in the week that the group be “institutionalized” and then “build out to a true security framework,” with other countries joining “at the appropriate time.”

That won’t be for a while. Strategic coordination is one thing; a formal security mechanism is another. Japan has significantly strengthened security ties with Australia and India, but it faces legal constraints in making security commitments to other countries. All three countries — Japan, Australia and India — have issues with China but they also want to calibrate relations in ways that account for their geographic, economic and political realities. India’s refusal to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal is a reminder of Delhi’s reluctance to tie its hands in any formal way.

China will make it even harder. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned against “forming exclusive cliques” and “targeting third parties or undermining third parties’ interests,” and called for “open, inclusive and transparent” cooperation that is “conducive to mutual understanding and trust between regional countries.” Wang dismissed Pompeo’s plans to form a coalition as “nonsense,” adding “He won’t see that day. And his successors won’t see that day either, because that day will never, ever come.”

He may be right. China’s behavior remains worrying, however. The Quad nations, along with other regional governments, know that their best chance of moderating Beijing’s behavior is if they act together and speak in one voice. That does not mean that they must adopt identical policies: There is room for nuance and variegation as long as member governments are working toward the same goals and understand each other’s objectives and tactics.

Institutionalized cooperation serves another purpose: It forces the U.S. to engage the region too. The Quad provides a window on U.S. decision-making and offers partner governments the opportunity to influence Washington’s thinking on issues that are of vital concern to them.

While we share a commitment to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region, that concept remains elastic and our national commitments to realize that vision remain a work in progress. The only way to make it real is through steady and ongoing communication, cooperation and coordination. The Quad is a vital mechanism to do just that — whatever form it takes.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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