COVID-19 Opens up Pressures and Opportunities for Quad
Aayush Mohanty

Before the Indian Government initiated a nationwide lockdown from March 25, 2020, the Foreign Secretary of India participated in a telephonic discussion with representatives of some countries of the Indo-Pacific. Issues related to countering the COVID-19 crisis were discussed. Participating countries included the United States, Australia, and Japan (also members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), and were joined by South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam. The telephonic conference has opened up avenues for thoughts on the expansion of the grouping. It also leads to possibilities for the members of the grouping to discuss both traditional and non-traditional global security threats in the future. But the worldwide crisis as a result of COVID-19 has affected the countries of the Quad negatively, even as the multiple challenges posed by China continue to grow.

Chinese Military Manoeuvres amidst the Pandemic

Three days before the Indian Government declared an unprecedented nationwide lockdown, it was reported1 that China had deployed drones along with oceanic research ships in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The purpose of these drones is for surveys that are undertaken for deep-sea mining and other commercial activities. This particular report was not confirmed by the Indian Navy, but it continues to track Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 2 K.M Pannikar one of India distinguished diplomats and academician was of the opinion that India’s development, growth and political structures are dependent on Indian Ocean being free and its shores protected.3

Meanwhile, U.S-China conflict in the South China Sea has intensified as the Chinese Navy forced a U.S frontline Naval Vessel out of the disputed territory recently, which Beijing claims as its own.4 Beijing has been assertive in the disputed region as COVID-19 has eased on the mainland and has been sabre-rattling around the South China Sea and Taiwan. China has been sending regular flying patrols near Taiwan leading to the U.S Air Force sorties over East China Sea citing it as “freedom of navigation operations”. The flight came soon after China opposed “foreign powers bolstering their naval presence in the South China Sea”. The escalation in the region has prompted Indonesia to call for restraint amid the pandemic.5

Always be vigilant to avoid being encircled or deceived by others is one of the nine principles of China’s Hundred-Year Marathon. This principle exposes China’s deep sense of insecurities and is inspired by the Chinese board game of wei qi. In wei qi it is imperative to avoid being encircled by the opponent to win the game. China’s demarche to New Delhi and Canberra in 2007 during Quad’s first run and the consistent criticism of Quad since its rebirth in 2017 is deeply rooted in its history, specifically the Warring States period. Quad, still in its nascent stage, is seen as encirclement by many Chinese strategic thinkers, especially the hawks, as they operate on the belief that rival states are out to encircle one another.6

China’s early recovery from COVID-19 has presented them with the opportunity to break through Quad (which they perceive as encirclement). The pandemic has led to certain bonhomie between Japan and China wherein the Japanese Government, while providing monetary packages for companies to resettle their production base to Japan from China, cited business distress as the reason. The pandemic was not given as the reason to avoid the appropriation of the blame on China.7 The U.S-China military incident in the South China Sea mentioned above was used by China to make a statement against the U.S handling of COVID-19.8 China has threatened cutting imports from Australia as the Australian Government called for a transparent investigation into the origin of COVID-19.9 China has also accused India of discriminatory practices as the Department of Promotion of Industry, and Internal Trade (DPIIT) changed FDI rules for countries and their respective entities who share a land border with India.10 The greatest Chinese strategic fear is of being encircled.11 A collective approach by Quad to push China to be accountable about the virus, along with keeping in check their Navy’s movements in the IOR would aggravate its insecurities and could lead to China taking a step back as they won’t take risk any reckless action, especially as the Chinese Communist Party is to celebrate its centenary in 2021.

Quad’s members are liberal democracies, based on the theory that democratic peace is the closest thing to the law in international politics12. Between the members of Quad, the U.S is the only permanent member of the UNSC, while India and Japan advocate for expanding the UNSC. U.S actions in the current worldwide crisis put its commitments to multilateral institutions and alliances and groupings like Quad in question. China has placed its top party officials in at least four of the fifteen specialised agencies of the U.N while the U.S leads one. If the U.S continues to look inward, then it will dilute liberal values in the Indo-Pacific, and the U.N system while ceding ground to China.13

Building Military Cooperation within Quad

Indian armed forces were instructed by the Department of Military Affairs in the last week of April to halt all capital acquisitions in light of COVID-19. The pandemic will severely impact India’s military modernisation programme, and anticipated budget cuts would lead to delay modernisation efforts.14 Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) personnel according to their Defence Minister has not ruled out pulling out troops from their sole overseas base in Djibouti as the virus spreads there.15 Five of Australia’s defence personnel in the Middle East caught COVID-19.16

Compared to the other members of the Quad, the U.S seems to be in a more complicated position as active-duty military personnel along with large numbers of contractors, dependents, and civilians in the Department of Defence have been diagnosed with COVID-19.17 The pandemic is an addition to the pile of problems the U.S military faces as it engages in what the Trump administration calls “strategic competition” with China. The problems include cost overruns of lead and follow-on ships, along with upgradation of naval shipyards, which are impacting the operational capability of the U.S Navy.18 As the U.S continues to see a climb in COVID-19 related cases in its military and with its aircraft carriers sidelined (a major symbol of American military might) the options are limited for now.19

Quad’s revival is perceived as a China containment mechanism by the Chinese. But the Quad is not a military alliance. Three of its members –the US, Japan and Australia are formal allies, but India is not. In the coming months and years, given China’s rising military manoeuvres, base building and naval presence in the Indian Ocean, we could, however, see India enhancing its military cooperation with the other three, including an expansion of the Malabar and other Exercises, defence industrial cooperation, and intelligence sharing.

As mentioned earlier, China reportedly deploying underwater drones in the IOR and the Liaoning Carrier Strike Group transiting through the Taiwan Strait20 aggravates the already heightened US-China tensions due to the pandemic and China’s persistent territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Members of the Quad in the future may have to consider interoperability between their armed forces, especially their naval arms, to counter Chinese expansionism and revisionism in the region.


Notwithstanding India’s complex relationship with China it should strengthen its foreign policy outreach with the other Quad members to challenge China’s strategic revisionist stance. However, the spread of COVID-19 and the mounting toll on lives and domestic economies add to the multiple challenges to the group’s potential to expand cooperation to redesign the China-centred regional supply chains, help the region’s economic recovery and restrain China’s aggressive military ambitions.

Quad has the prospects to go beyond discussions on traditional security threats between member states. COVID-19’s outbreak has put pressure on multilateralism and globalisation. The Quad plus can play an increasingly important role in the region’s post-pandemic revival. Unfortunately, the grouping is yet to be fully institutionalised to effectively deal with the rising challenges in the Indo-Pacific and make it a relevant and robust cooperative organisation.

  1. Pandit, Rajat. “India on Alert as 'China Deploys Dozen Underwater Drones in IOR': India News - Times of India.” The Times of India. TOI, March 24, 2020.
  2. Ibid
  3. Joshi, Yogesh. “Whither Non-Alignment? Indian Ocean Zone of Peace and New Delhi’s Selective Alignment with Great Powers during the Cold War, 1964–1979.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 30, no. 1 (February 2019): 26–49.
  4. Patranobis, Sutirtho. “Beijing Scrambles Jets and Ships to Expel US Warship in South China Sea: PLA.” Hindustan Times, April 29, 2020.
  5. Pinandita, Apriza. “Indonesia Calls for Parties to Exercise Self-Restraint in South China Sea amid Pandemic.” The Jakarta Post, May 7, 2020.
  6. Pillsbury, Michael. The Hundred-Year Marathon: Chinas Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2016. Pg.142
  7. Mishra, Sandip Kumar. “Strange Bedfellows: COVID-19 and the New Japan-China Camaraderie.” IPCS, April 30, 2020.
  8. Patranobis, Sutirtho. “Beijing Scrambles Jets and Ships to Expel US Warship in South China Sea: PLA.” Hindustan Times, April 29, 2020.
  9. “Tensions Flare up between Australia, China over Covid-19 Probe - Times of India.” The Times of India, April 29, 2020.
  10. Roche, Elizabeth. “Beijing Calls New Delhi's Move to Amend FDI Norms Discriminatory.” Livemint, April 20, 2020.
  11. Pillsbury, Michael. The Hundred-Year Marathon: Chinas Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2016. pp. 85-87
  12. Chellaney, Brahma. “'Quad Initiative': an Inharmonious Concert of Democracies.” The Japan Times, July 19, 2007.
  13. Lee, Kristine. “Coming Soon to the United Nations: Chinese Leadership and Authoritarian Values.” Foreign Affairs, September 20, 2019.
  14. Negi, Manjeet Singh. “Halt All Acquisitions, Armed Forces Told as Covid-19 Threatens Budget.” India Today, April 23, 2020.
  15. Takahashi, Kosuke. “Covid-19: Kono Says Japan May Withdraw JSDF Troops from Djibouti Base over Coronavirus.” Jane, April 8, 2020.
  16. Ledwidge , Angus. “Australian Defence Force Struck by Cluster of COVID Cases.”, April 30, 2020.
  17. Shinkman, Paul D. “1,500 Troops Have Tested Positive for COVID-19 as Military Struggles with Virus' Spread.” U.S. News & World Report, April 7, 2020.
  18. Mohanty, Aayush. “The US-China Naval Balance in East Asia.” Vivekananda International Foundation, December 10, 2019. .
  19. Hennigan, W.J., and John Walcott. “U.S. Adversaries Take Advantage as Coronavirus Hits Military.” Time, April 16, 2020.
  20. Patranobis, Sutirtho. “Beijing Scrambles Jets and Ships to Expel US Warship in South China Sea: PLA.” Hindustan Times, April 29, 2020.

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