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Faux-Alliances: AUKUS and the Quad are No Asian NATO

22 Mar 2024
By David M. Andrews
President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia hold a joint press conference, Wednesday, October 25, 2023, in the White House Rose Garden. Source: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz /

Despite the often-repeated assertion that the Quad and AUKUS are alliances, and the prospective progenitors of a future Asian NATO, the truth is much more benign. While they have important roles to play in Australia’s regional strategy, they both fall short of the alliance standard and show no sign of that changing.

Multilateral institutions, organisations, and alliances are key pillars of the international system, but there can be a tendency to view these through a “Cold War mindset.” Consequently, and as more groups have been established over the past decade, there has been a pattern of describing every such institution in Asia as a new “alliance,” or the latent equivalent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The two most glaring examples of this trend are the Quad and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement.

China has, unsurprisingly, been consistently vocal in its opposition to both. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for example, has argued that the “real goal for the [United States’] Indo-Pacific strategy is to establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO,” and accused them of “taking a string of actions to piece together small blocs to suppress China.”

Regrettably, similar accusations have also been made lately by the associate foreign affairs spokesperson for New Zealand’s Labour Party, Phil Twyford, who declared that AUKUS constitutes an “offensive warfighting alliance against China” that risks dragging New Zealand into a war in the South China Sea. This is not only inaccurate, but it gives AUKUS far too much credit.

Simply put, neither the Quad nor AUKUS are, in any meaningful way, alliances. Nor have they shown any likelihood of successfully evolving into such arrangements.

It’s important to state at the outset that the members of these groups have been clear in rejecting claims that they are seeking to build an alliance in the Indo-Pacific. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have both flatly denied that they are looking to establish an Asian NATO. Likewise, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is quick to stress that the Quad is a diplomatic, not security, institution. Further, recently at the Raisina Dialogue Quad Think Tank Forum, Indian Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar declared that the Quad is, in fact, “‘post-alliance’.”

Of course, we need to go beyond official statements and declarations, and examine the substance of these claims. There are established criteria against which we can judge alliances. To meet that standard requires meeting several key conditions, none of which are present in the Quad or AUKUS.

To paraphrase Canadian scholar Alexander Lanoszka, an alliance involves the coordination of military policy between two or more states in pursuit of a common goal, typically articulated by a treaty. An associated principle is that of mutual, or collective, defence, whereby an attack on one party to the alliance is considered an attack on all.

This is most famously articulated in NATO’s Article V and is also present (albeit less explicitly) in the United States’ other treaty alliances. For example, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) —Australia’s only alliance — states that the parties would “consult together” in response to a threat to their security, and “act to meet the common danger in accordance with [their] constitutional processes.” Near-identical clauses underpin the United States’ treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

If we treat these conditions as the baseline for an alliance, then neither the Quad nor AUKUS qualify. They do not require their members to come to the others’ aid in the event of external security threats. They do not possess founding agreements that set out mutual expectations and obligations. There are no central headquarters or secretariats to coordinate policy. To the extent that they coordinate military policy and strategy, it is done at a bilateral level, and even then, mostly as a function of existing US-led alliances.

Should that rationale seem too academic and procedural, it also helps to look at exactly what these two groups are in practice, and what actions they are taking.

Fundamentally, AUKUS is a technology-sharing and co-development partnership. It is divided into two streams of effort, namely the establishment of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine capability (“Pillar 1”), and the joint development of a wide array of advanced capabilities, including in relation to artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and electronic warfare (“Pillar 2”). It is in “Pillar 2” of the agreement where other participants, such as Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and South Korea, have been mentioned as potential future members. AUKUS is supported by a formal trilateral agreement, but this is focused on setting the conditions for the exchange of nuclear propulsion technology along with the associated requirements concerning information and personnel security.

Should the program be successfully delivered as envisioned, it would certainly be a transformational agreement for Australia, but it is no alliance. Its impact is more centred on industrial policy, and science and technology research than changing the underlying foundations of Australia’s defence and strategic policies. Australia and the United Kingdom are already allies of the United States, so there is no practical benefit in the parties seeking to expand the scope of AUKUS to take on alliance responsibilities. As an historical aside, both Australia and New Zealand rebuffed British attempts to join ANZUS in 1953. There is no reason to think that would change now. There appears to be a degree of nominative determinism at play, wherein AUKUS is perceived to be an alliance simply because it is an acronym.

As for the Quad, the Australian government considers it to be “a key pillar of Australia’s foreign policy that “complements” existing relationships across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. For all the significance that this affords the Quad, there is a glaring, qualifying absence for an alliance: there is no central agreement or declared purpose and objectives. While its lack of fixed structure and bureaucracy may offer a degree of agility in how to respond to regional threats and challenges, it also gives the impression of inconsistency and discord.

There have been regular joint statements issued at the ministerial and leaders’ level throughout the Quad’s history, but its first “vision statement” was only released in May 2023. Even then, this statement focuses mostly on the partners’ aspirations for the region and how they commit to conduct themselves. It does not, however, speak to what the Quad fundamentally is.

If the Quad truly was, or desired to be, an alliance, this would be a key obstacle to overcome. However, in seeking to address this shortcoming, the Quad would need to face up to a more fundamental problem. That is, despite a shared perception among the four members that China is the most pressing strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific, there is no shared understanding of where that threat is most pressing, and in what form.

For example, India and China are still engaged in an ongoing border conflict in the Himalayas, while China is also progressively seizing territory from neighbouring Bhutan, as well as building its influence in other states throughout the Indian Ocean region. Japanese and Chinese vessels continue to face off in the East China Sea over competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Australia is grappling with the increased Chinese influence in the South Pacific, including via a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, as well as the enduring challenge posed by political interference.

This is a very different scenario to what faced the European nations that formed the core of NATO in 1949. In this case, there is no common front to defend, or shared continental history to build upon. The bilateral, trilateral, and ultimately quadrilateral ties between Quad states are strengthening over time, but the members are still geographically isolated from each other across the expanse of two oceans and maintain unique national priorities in three non-contiguous sub-regions. It is Southeast Asia which is the dominant shared area of interest.

Ultimately, a close inspection of the composition, actions, and architecture of the Quad and AUKUS demonstrates that neither institution meets the standard to qualify as an alliance. What is more, the evidence does not indicate that either group has the intention, let alone capacity, to pivot in that direction. There is much that both the Quad and AUKUS must improve on to ensure they deliver on their ambitions, but it’s time we put the “alliance” critiques to bed.

David M. Andrews is a Senior Policy Advisor at the ANU National Security College and a PhD candidate in International Relations at La Trobe University, studying the factors which contribute to the persistence or decline of multilateral security organisations. He can be found on Twitter and Bluesky.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.