A Coalition for Peace and Security: The Power of the Quad in the United Nations

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, has become a pivotal “minilateral” mechanism in the Indo-Pacific. Bringing together Australia, India, Japan and the United States, the group has institutionalized a regular schedule of meetings and shaped a robust common agenda on critical challenges such as the pandemic and climate change. Jagannath Panda of the Manokhar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi argues that the Quad can be a strong coalition of influence within the United Nations that could, among other things, counter China’s growing weight in the international organization.

A Coalition for Peace and Security: The Power of the Quad in the United Nations

Foreign ministers of the Quad meet Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (center), February 11, 2022: A smart and targeted tool to respond to shared challenges that existing multilateral platforms in the region have failed to tackle (Credit: @MarisePayne on Twitter)

The Indo-Pacific region has become characterized by the rise of “minilaterals”, among which the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States – stands out as a pivotal strategic diamond. As a minilateral mechanism, the Quad is shaping up to be a smart and targeted tool to respond to shared challenges that existing multilateral platforms and organizations in the region somewhat failed to tackle due to a lack of consensus and stalled execution. Yet, despite the onset of an era of minilateralism, the international community is faced with critical global challenges – climate change, for example – that demand a multilateral solution. In other words, multilateralism remains a fundamental and enduring need of the hour, making the United Nations all that more critical a platform for dialogue and action on a global scale.

Against this backdrop, the resolute – even primary – focus of the Quad countries must be to present a united front and form a stronger coalition within the UN. Building on their shared perceptions, goals and visions, the Quad states can perhaps utilize the UN platform to build consensus on pressing global matters, thereby strengthening their Indo-Pacific narrative to preserve and protect a rules-based order. Stressing on the significance of the UN and its principles, aptly underscored in the latest joint statement issued by Quad foreign ministers on February 11, 2022, continues to be one of the priorities of the group. By banding together and strategically coordinating their stances and activities within the UN (and other multilateral platforms), the Quad states will be able to take advantage of their collective influence to carry forward their shared agenda – including long-awaited UN reforms such as the expansion of the UN Security Council (UNSC). 

But how far is it practically possible for Quad to stay united under the UN umbrella, and what strategic benefits can they cater in actuality? And is the Quad-UN cooperation really viable? 

Washington recommits to the UN

Over the past year, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the US has not only expedited engagement with the Quad but also sought to reassert American leadership globally via multilateral forums. On January 20, 2022, the US mission to the UN released a factsheet, “Restoring America’s Leadership at the United Nations in President Biden’s First Year”, which detailed its efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the UN system. On September 21 last year, in an address to the 76th UN General Assembly, Biden spoke about reinvigorating the UN’s “founding ethos” as enshrined in the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A few days later, leaders at Quad Summit in Washington reiterated this call and pledged to deepen cooperation in multilateral institutions including the UN to enhance “the resilience of the multilateral system itself”. 

The Biden administration has been making concerted efforts to re-engage with the UN system, reversing the previous administration’s disengagement. Declaring that the US is “back at the table in international forums”, the president has sought to restore Washington’s standing and influence within bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). He took the US back into the 2015 Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The US also rejoined the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) three years after it withdrew during the administration of Donald Trump. Biden says his aim is to spur multilateral action on shared challenges – an oblique reference to Washington’s intention to reassert global leadership in response to China’s efforts in recent years to raise its profile in the UN system. 

China in action at the United Nations Security Council, 2019 (Credit: Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China)

China in action at the United Nations Security Council, 2019 (Credit: Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China)

The US is thus using both security and diplomatic routes to balance and check China’s growing influence in international fora and Beijing’s strategic cooperation with other authoritarian regimes (mainly Russia and North Korea). In the Indo-Pacific, while the recently launched AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) partnership to supply Australia with a nuclear submarine program and to cooperate on strategic technologies has been framed as a military deterrent, the newly resurgent Quad has fast become a preferred non-military, plurilateral mechanism aimed at countering rising Chinese ambitions. This commitment was demonstrated when the UN envoys of the Quad countries met in New York to discuss shared interests prior to the first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit. Five months after the leaders met at the White House, the group’s foreign ministers conferred in Melbourne.

Shared visions and values

Amid such a growing focus by the US on reasserting its position within multilateral forums, the Quad can find room for greater cooperation within the UN. Since its revival in 2017, the Quad countries have doubled down on efforts at greater coordination and cooperation through enhanced bilateral and trilateral agreements and projects, as well as expanded partnerships outside the bloc through a “Quad Plus” concept that has not yet been formalized. The Quad is no longer just an occasional gathering but an institutionalized minilateral grouping with a set schedule of meetings and ambitious goals that cover a varied spectrum of issues including global health, infrastructure, climate, education, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity and space. 

Notably, the Quad’s shared goal to combat “21st-century challenges” include cooperation on Covid-19, the climate crisis, cyber threats, emerging cyberspace technologies, high-quality infrastructure, and next-generation talent. These areas of focus closely echo the priorities put forth by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in 2022 to douse the “five-alarm global fire” – the pandemic, climate, global finance, cyber, and peace and security – through “full mobilization of all countries”. Such convergence suggests that a united Quad cooperating strategically within the UN has the potential to emerge as an unexpected yet potentially powerful force shaping the future. 

One area where the Quad can take advantage of the UN platform is in sustaining a rule-based order by advancing liberal democratic values. The Quad leaders’ first joint statement “The Spirit of the Quad”, issued after the inaugural summit in March 2021, a virtual gathering convened by Biden, highlighted the need for “strengthening democratic resilience” by protecting and promoting international law, especially in the maritime domain through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This focus was surely driven by China’s aggressive advances in the South and East China Seas (especially towards Taiwan, Japan and the main Southeast Asian territorial claimants). Chinese grey-zone warfare in the region directly threatens Japanese (and the Quad’s) interests. Here, the Quad can use UN instruments (e.g. UNCLOS) to apply pressure on  Beijing to restrain its bellicosity, sustain peace and security in the Taiwan Strait (a key point featured in the Quad’s August 2021 Senior Officials Meeting), and perhaps even push for greater diplomatic recognition for Taipei. 

The Quad’s stance on North Korea, calling for substantive dialogue to achieve its complete denuclearization, aligns with the UNSC position, offering another opportunity for cooperation. As a compact, potentially more effective grouping, the Quad could for instance lead outreach efforts to Pyongyang. On Myanmar, the Quad democracies have called for an “early restoration of democracy” and supported urgent implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus. The UN, which has a Comprehensive Partnership with ASEAN, has backed the ten-member organization’s approach. 

The four of us have concerns…: India’s close strategic partnership with Russia could be useful in helping to defuse tensions over Ukraine (Credit: Mikhail Metzel/President of Russia)

The four of us have concerns…: India’s close strategic partnership with Russia could be useful in helping to defuse tensions over Ukraine (Credit: Mikhail Metzel/President of Russia)

Moving beyond the Indo-Pacific, the Quad could contribute significantly to the UN’s global peace and security mandate. As tensions on Ukraine rise amid the threat of a Russian invasion, the Quad could act as a second point of outreach to engage Moscow as its ties with US and Europe rapidly deteriorate. A comprehensive statement on the issue by the Quad could help deter conflict: Japan has already pledged to continue close coordination with the US on a strong response to any Russian attack. India, which has a close strategic partnership with Russia, could work to defuse tensions and caution Moscow against escalation. In 2014, India abstained in the UN General Assembly resolution the Russian annexation of Crimea. 

Enhancing outreach and promoting reform

In a congressional hearing in June 2021, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, stressed the need to invest in the UN, stating that China has been “aggressive and coercive” in wielding its power at the global body and that the US must push to rein in Beijing’s “malign influence”. As of 2022, China is the second largest contributor to the UN (15.25 percent) after the US (22.0 percent), with its share set to increase by 12 percent. Before August 2021, Chinese officials headed four of the 15 principal agencies of the UN. Two – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – as well as the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the UN think tank, remain under the leadership of Chinese. 

From the US perspective, China frequently colludes with Russia in the UNSC to block action. Beijing is also accused of using its influence to suppress criticism by the UNHRC of the abysmal Chinese human rights record. This behavior exemplifies China’s overbearing presence at the UN. In this context, the rise of China has only strengthened the notion of the UN as “toothless”. Through greater outreach, the Quad can help enhance the UN’s multilateral structure to challenge China’s more authoritarian and vindictive attitude, as demonstrated by its maneuvering in the UNHRC

There are areas of synergy for the Quad and the UN that would not be predicated on countering Chinese influence. The UN could be a strategic medium for the Quad to advance ambitious initiatives on vaccine distribution, climate change and critical technology. For India and Japan – emerging global powers who have taken a greater role in various dimensions of international security such as through contributions to UN peacekeeping operations – a united Quad in the UN can work collectively to garner support for UNSC reform that would see the two nations become permanent members. (Notably, China is the second biggest contributor of funds for UN peacekeeping operations after the US.) Beyond the UNSC, both countries, with the support of the other two Quad members, could push for greater Asian representation and voting power in the Bretton Woods institutions.

The benefits of cooperation would certainly be mutual. Greater collaboration with the Quad can be a way for the UN to advance its own outreach to the Indo-Pacific, not only by reinforcing rules-based multilateralism but also by enabling the UN to fulfil its role as guarantor and arbiter in maintaining global security. Enhanced outreach to Asia, particularly ASEAN, through the Quad could further help legitimize the UN’s commitment to peacemaking and conflict resolution. Deeper integration between Quad and the UN, in concert with other like-minded forums such as the Group of Four (G4) bidding for permanent UNSC seats (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan), could help push forward long overdue UN reforms and help revitalize the institution for the 21st century. 

Beyond the romanticism 

Quad-UN synergy cannot be romanticized. The UN is dominated by rich Western nations and the North-South divide within the forum is wide. A united Quad cannot be a proxy for the US (or the ‘West’) but must fairly reflect the interests of all four states in the Indo-Pacific. Some key areas where the Quad can effectively use its collective sway include limiting China’s undue influence as a permanent UNSC member, given the structural limitations on the diplomatic clout of India and Japan in the institution. In Quad’s core priority areas such as climate action and Covid-19 vaccines, the group can band together and utilize the UN platform to push forward their agenda for global good. 

Collective bargaining and coalition building within international organizations is not a new strategy. During the Korean War for instance, India brought together the small Commonwealth countries to play a constraining role by pushing through a resolution in 1952 in face of rising US-Soviet tensions. More recently, the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) banded together to exercise their “collective financial and monetary statecraft”, based on shared perceptions and objectives, in the pursuit of common foreign and economic policy goals. On a bilateral level, the Quad countries already cooperate in the UN (a key aspect of the India-Japan global partnership). Now, they must elevate such bilateral engagement to initiate Quad consultations on joint strategies that bolster their bargaining power and help advance shared interests.

Greater focus by the Quad on cooperating within the UN can have three important effects: It can help legitimize UN resolutions through greater outreach, give the Quad powers greater say over how disputes pan out, and imbue their collective diplomacy with legitimacy and authority.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda

Manokhar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and centre coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. Dr Panda is the series editor for the Routledge Studies on Think Asia.

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