Examining the institutionalization of the Quad

Examining the institutionalization of the Quad


29 | 01 | 2024


Understanding a political and diplomatic phenomenon like the Quad should not be done through the lenses of outdated theories

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National flags of the US, Japan, India, and Australia

The 21st century is known by many geopolitical strategists and IR scholars as the Asian Century. The rise of Asia is an undeniable reality that will signify a new world order to be set up, possibly with China surpassing the US and proclaiming itself as a global hegemon. For this matter, growing interest in the Asian continent and the so-called Indo-Pacific region, especially from Western states and the US has resulted in different sets of tools and strategies including diplomacy and multilateral cooperation between State actors. Several states have published their own official Indo-Pacific strategies. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad also exemplifies these attempts. The objective of this essay is to examine the level of institutionalization that the Quad has achieved under the Indo-Pacific strategy.  To do this, the essay has been divided into parts.

The essay is structured into four sections. Section one will examine the definition of “institutionalization,” and what it means for something to be institutionalized in international relations. After narrowing down the definition of institutionalization, the second section of this essay will examine the evolution of the Quad. The third section of this essay will examine the Quad in the context of institutionalization and the fourth and last section of the essay will offer an overall assessment. 

At this stage, the Quad is just a meeting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States but the strategic implications and the results of these meetings have had tremendous effects on international relations and the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Quad is committed to supporting and flourishing an “open, stable and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region. In light of this, one must examine the extent of the institutionalization of the Quad. However, this exercise requires a clear understanding of the concept of institutionalization.

1. Literature of institutionalization

Defining an institution is not as simple as it may appear at first glance. The very definition of an institution has been a subject of much debate amongst many scholars from diverse study fields such as Political Science, Economics, Sociology, and International Relations. For this matter, there have been several attempts at formulating theories that aim at addressing the notion of institutionalization and seek to articulate a definition that encompasses the pivotal elements of institutions while adapting to reality. Consequently, the first section of this essay will focus on some of the different definitions and theories of institutionalization to establish a kind of parameter that serves as a tool for interpretation to examine if the Quad constitutes an institution.

There is a wide range of different theories which aim at defining institutions and the process of institutionalization with different criteria, that many times differ from one another. The first theory to be mentioned is Old Institutionalism as it was the most prevalent theory in political science during the 19th and 20th centuries. This theory conceives the idea of institutions as mainly political institutions, which amount to tangible realities. The central criteria for defining an institution under this theory is through the existence of formal structures and legal systems, such as governmental organizations. For some IR scholars such asMarch and Olsen,[1] Old Institutionalism understood institutions as law or bureaucracy, how political behaviour was embedded in an institutional structure of rules, norms, expectations, and traditions. Under this understanding, institutions connote an organized setting within which political actors act and are a process that results in structures and rules having a political impact. Following this line of thought. It can be argued that the main criteria for the Old Institutionalism to conceive an institution as such is by having a legislature, a legal system, and a formal structure.

Despite the very consolidated notion that old institutionalism offered; other theories in the late 20th century started to emerge that held a different idea of what constitutes an institution and the process of institutionalization. A clear example is the theory of new institutionalism. The term New Institutionalism was coined by IR scholars March and Olsen. This theory is an umbrella theory under which different sub-theories of institutionalization are encompassed. However, the common denominator of all these theories is that they do not conceive institutions through the rigid lenses that old institutionalism does; these theories do not view institutions as hard or formal, but they also accept the concept of soft institutions. For some IR Scholars such as Hall and Taylor “institutions are not just formal rules, but also symbol systems, moral templates and cognitive scripts.”[2] Moreover, for IR scholar Oran Young institutions can be understood as “Social practices consisting of easily recognized roles coupled with clusters of rules or conventions governing relations among the occupants of these roles.”[3] These definitions exemplify that the understanding of an institution is not reduced to the existence of material structures or legal regimes but rather to informal rules and the ability to transform realities and create tangible change in the social systems in which these institutions incorporate.

Furthermore, the IR school of Liberalism, more specifically the strand of Institutional liberalism, views international institutions as either an international organization (e.g. NATO, EU) or as a set of rules that governs states in specific areas, also known as ‘regimes.’[4]

Other schools of IR understand institutions in a different way, for example the International Society School of IR conceives that the international order is based on a series of institutions that are, fundamentally, a balance of power, war, and diplomacy. Under this theory,[5] institutions are understood as the state’s long-term practices instead of bureaucratic structures (organizations).

 After looking at the different theories of institutionalization, there are fundamentally two different understandings of institutions; the traditional one is more preoccupied with the structural and organic form of an institution. And the latter, which understands institutions more broadly, thus, giving more flexibility to the understanding of what constitutes an institution.

2. The forming of the Quad

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a diplomatic dialogue between four countries, namely: India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. 

The transformation of this partnership that today is known as the Quad vastly differs from the “Quad 1.0”. The Quad originally came to be in the framework of the Indian Ocean earthquake and Tsunami in 2004 which had very devastating effects on the region.[6] In this context, these four countries came together and formed the “Tsunami Core Group” which consisted of a joint response to afford humanitarian aid and coordinate assistance to the region during this catastrophe.

The Quad 1.0 met only once in 2007 before it “dissolved” in 2008. Despite the efforts made by the heads of state of all the member states, especially from Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to turn it into a permanent alliance, a lack of cohesion and political interest and their different visions for their countries’ foreign affairs resulted in the dissolution of the Quad. Although a series of reasons can be attributed to thislack of political unity,[7] without a doubt the main issue at stake was the bilateral relations of different countries with China. Due to the lack of clarity on the purposes and aims of the Quad, the Chinese government felt threatened by the Quad as it feared that it might become the Asian NATO. For this reason, the member states did not believe that it was worth aggravating and possibly antagonizing the role of China in the region for an alliance that did not have a defined projection. The final nail in the coffin for Quad 1.0 was the resignation of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the biggest supporter of this partnership.

Forward in time, in 2017, due to the growing military tensions and hostilities of China in the South China Sea, the Quad members decided to “revive” this alliance. This commitment was furthered by the Trump and Biden administrations and the proclamation of the “the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy.”[8] Moreover, Australia published its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in the third chapter of their “2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.”[9] Japan published its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2017 in its  “Diplomatic Bluebook” a “Special Feature:  Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”[10] Regarding India, it is yet to publish their own Indo-Pacific strategy. Although, the Prime Minister has made official statements and the government has shown compromise with the Quad. It has been argued that India is the weakest link in the alliance.[11] India seems interested, but it does not want to antagonize China in the region or further strain its diplomatic relationship with the country. India’s lack of  Indo-Pacific strategy without a doubt contributes to the difficulties of achieving the institutionalization of the Quad and it may hint that not all members are on the same page in terms of their vision of the Quad.[12]

The Quad members held their first formal Quad leader’s summit in 2021 in March virtually and in September of the same year, they held the first in-person meeting. There has been a total of five Quad leader’s summits. the latest Quad leader’s summit was held in May 2023.

Regarding the Quad’s meetings and processes, since it is not a formal intergovernmental alliance but rather a diplomatic partnership, the vast majority of their interactions are through meetings/conversations held between leaders of the state's Foreign Ministers, senior officials, etc. But on an annual basis, Quad Leaders' Summits and Foreign Ministers’ Meetings take place.

There is a clear growing compromise among the states that make up the Quad, compared to the positions of these in 2007-2008 before the “dissolution” of the Quad.

3. The extent of the institutionalization of the Quad

To measure the extent of institutionalization that the Quad has achieved, regardless of the theory through which the institutionalization is measured, it is pivotal to look at how the Quad has structured and carried out its meetings, the outcomes of these meetings, and especially the tangible results of their efforts and cooperation.

Regarding meetings that have taken place and their different dynamics, without a doubt the most fundamental ones are the leaders’ summits which are held on an annual basis. These meetings have been hosted by the member states of the Quad, and the location changes every year. The first in-person meeting took place in 2021 in Washington D.C.;[13] the second meeting in March 2022 was held virtually; that same year in May the meeting was held in Tokyo. The latest meeting was held in May 2023 in Hiroshima, and the following meeting which is expected to take place in 2024 will be held in India. The reason attributed to this is that the Quad conceives itself as a diplomatic partnership, therefore, it does not consider it fundamental to create an organic structure or establish a headquarters. The outcomes of the leaders’ summits held annually are the so-called ‘Joint statements’ in which the heads of state of these four countries talk about their common goals, their political visions and hopes, as well as the future projection of the diplomatic alliance.

Their first ‘Joint Statement’ was published in March 2021 titled “The Spirit of the Quad.”[14] It can be argued that it is the closest thing to a charter that the Quad has formulated because, although it is not organically nor legally considered as a charter but rather a joint political statement, it sets out the skeleton of the purposes of the Quad and their short and long term aims and goals in the region. This joint statement establishes that these countries aim to “strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” and to “commit to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” But more concretely, the joint statement talks about the Covid-19 pandemic and the pledge that these countries have made to join their medical and scientific capabilities to offer aid with the sanitary crisis with the help of the World Health Organization and COVAX. This initiative showcases one of the most tangible and concrete successes that the Quad has had in the region. They were able to successfully deliver over 670 million Covid vaccine doses.[15]

The ‘Joint Statements’ made in the following years have talked about a wide range of topics including, for example, the stance regarding the Russian invasion on Ukraine and the efforts to afford humanitarian aid. But overall, these statements have been a continuing of the initial “Spirit of the Quad” in which the four countries have addressed their main focuses and preoccupations such as achieving peace and stability in the region, the emerging of technologies, cybersecurity, and their stance regarding the maritime conflict due to the growing tensions in the South China Sea.

After evaluating the key aspects of the Quad, it can be argued that the extent of its institutionalization is not insignificant.

If the possibility of the Quad being an institution or on its way of institutionalizing is seen through the lenses of a classic notion of old institutionalism theory, then the Quad does not comply with what is understood as an institution. It can be easily argued that the Quad is nowhere near being an institution as it lacks an official charter (legislature and legal system). Moreover, the Quad still constitutes the organic shape of a diplomatic partnership instead of an intergovernmental alliance, thus, it does not have a formal structure in place (no headquarters).

If the institutionalization of the Quad is measured through the criteria of the IR school of Liberalism, the Quad cannot be considered as an institution in the sense of an international organization, for the reasons already given above. Although the organic composition of the Quad aligns somewhat more with the concept of a regime, it is not an appropriate definition of the Quad. Thus, under Institutional Liberalism, the Quad cannot be regarded as an institution either.

Moreover, when looking at the definition given by the International Society School of IR, the Quad cannot be considered an institution because this theory has a very specific understanding of institutions. This theory conceives that the international order is based on several institutions namely, balance of power, war, and diplomacy. Therefore, under this theory institutions are not a type of organization or material institution but can be understood more as “values” that govern the international order. Although it can be strongly argued that the Quad serves the purpose in the Indo-Pacific to help maintain and strengthen these institutions, it is not per se an institution.

Despite the Quad not fitting the definition of an institution under the three theories mentioned above, it is evident that the Quad fits into the definition given by the new institutionalization theory when analyzing the results that this diplomatic alliance has had in the region. This is because the Quad aims at shaping the political and social environment of the Indo-Pacific region and has been able to achieve important results such as the Covid-19 vaccine pledge. Moreover, although the majority of their ‘Joint statements’ contain principles, values, and abstract ideas rather than concrete guidelines. Through these, they have started to change the notion of what is understood as the Indo-Pacific region which at the end of the day is not a geographical tangible reality.

There is no precise territorial delimitation of what the Indo-Pacific region is, but it is understood as fundamentally encompassing the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the Central and Western Pacific Ocean, and the seas that connect both oceans. The Indo-Pacific region pretends to categorize the Pacific and Indian Ocean as a single entity. Moreover, the term Indo-Pacific is of very recent usage; although the first employment of this term was made by Karl Haushofer, a German geopolitician in the early 20th century, the term has gained transcendence and importance in the past two decades. In 2007 the term was employed by former Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo, who gave a speech before the Indian Parliament, and spoke about the “confluence of the Two Seas.”[16] Thus, the Indo-Pacific region as a concept is seen by many critics, including China,[17] as a sociological and socially constructed reality created by the United States and its allies in the Asian region to counterbalance the growing domination and hegemony of China in the region, instead of a real geographical body. But despite the criticism and challenges that the establishment of the Indo-Pacific region has encountered, the Quad has been a key player and without a doubt will continue to play a pivotal role in the region.

4. Overall assessment of the Quad and its institutionalization

Globalization has single-handedly transformed the world in which we live today; these changes can be observed in every single level of our society, from the bottom up. How people, state actors, and politics relate to one another has changed and this transformation will continue. For this reason, it is fundamental that the different systems, models, and theories that have been set up to understand phenomena evolve. As this essay has exemplified, institutionalization is one of the models that has experienced such transformation. For this matter, understanding a political and diplomatic phenomenon like the Quad should not be done through the lenses of an outdated theory (Old Institutionalism), which is unable to adapt to the needs of the 21st century, but should rather be seen through the lenses of a theory that is more flexible and able to adapt to the constant changes that are taking place worldwide (New Institutionalism).

The Quad is a powerful diplomatic alliance that is in fact an institution and will continue to further institutionalize and become stronger and will play a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific region. It will be a key player in the 21st century, which will also be the Asian century.


[1] Bodnieks, Valerijs. “The New Institutionalism: A Tool for Analysing Defence and Security Institutions.” Security and Defence Quarterly 32, no. 5 (December 15, 2020): 83–94. https://doi.org/10.35467/sdq/130903.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Young, Oran R. “Review: International Regimes: Toward a New Theory of Institutions on JSTOR.” Www.Jstor.Org 39, no. 1 (October 1986).  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2010300?seq=4.

[4] Keohane, Robert O. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, Princeton University Press, 1984

[5] Bodnieks, Valerijs. Op. cit.

[6] Fraser, Dominique. “The Quad: A Backgrounder.” Asia Society, May 16, 2023. https://asiasociety.org/policy-institute/quad-backgrounder.

[7] Buchan, Patrick Gerard, and Benjamin Rimland. “Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” October 28, 2022. https://www.csis.org/analysis/defining-diamond-past-present-and-future-quadrilateral-security-dialogue.

[8] The White House. “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” US Presidency, February 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf.

[9] Australian Government. “2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.” Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, November 23, 2017. https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/2017-foreign-policy-white-paper.pdf.

[10] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “Diplomatic Bluebook,” 2017. https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/other/bluebook/2017/html/chapter1/c0102.html#sf03.

[11] Sullivan De Estrada, Kate. “India and the Quad: When a ‘Weak Link’ Is Powerful - The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).” The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), October 30, 2023. https://www.nbr.org/publication/india-and-the-quad-when-a-weak-link-is-powerful/#footnote1.

[12] Lee, Lavina. “Assessing the Quad: Prospects and Limitations of Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests.” Lowy Institute, May 20, 2020. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/assessing-quad-prospects-limitations-quadrilateral-cooperation-advancing-australia-s.

[13] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “The Quad.” Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, n.d. https://www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/quad.

[14] Archived Website - Trove. “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’” March 13, 2021. https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20210603073337/https://www.pm.gov.au/media/quad-leaders-joint-statement-spirit-quad.

[15] Indo-pacific Centre for Health Security. “Quad Vaccine Partnership,” n.d. https://indopacifichealthsecurity.dfat.gov.au/covid-19-vaccine-access/quad-vaccine-partnership.

[16] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, at the Parliament of the Republic of India ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ (August 22, 2007),” August 22, 2007. https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html.

[17] Jaknanihan, Arrizal Anugerah. “Beyond Inclusion: Explaining China’s Rejection on the Indo-Pacific Regional Construct.” Global: Jurnal Politik Internasional 24, no. 1 (July 2022). https://scholarhub.ui.ac.id/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1230&context=global