The Quad’s Strategic Infrastructure Play

President Biden hosted the first in-person Quad leaders’ summit at the White House on Friday. The four countries—Australia, Japan, India, and the United States—announced progress on commitments made during a virtual summit in March and expanded cooperation into several areas. Strategically, infrastructure is now squarely on the Quad’s agenda, which includes a new dedicated coordination group.

The elevation of infrastructure as a priority area makes economic and political sense. It’s what the world wants, especially developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region. It strengthens the Quad’s reputation for concentrating on tangible solutions to collective challenges. And the focus on “high-standards infrastructure” provides an implicit contrast to China’s Belt and Road. But rather than bashing China’s initiative, the Quad leaders wisely focused on what they want to offer. That message is more likely to resonate across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

It’s also a smart move for operational reasons. All four countries are already active providers, having collectively delivered thousands of projects and more than $48 billion in official finance for infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific since 2015. “Quality infrastructure investment” was mentioned among the Quad’s common goals in March, and infrastructure touches two of the Quad’s original three working groups (climate and critical technologies). But previously, there was no mechanism identified for deepening cooperation in this important area. The creation of a dedicated coordination group will help ensure these efforts are complementary.

Now the hard work of delivering projects continues. Close observers will recall that the United States, Japan, and Australia have been working together for three years through a trilateral infrastructure partnership. The pandemic, leadership changes, and operational challenges slowed their progress. So far, only a single project, a subsea cable spur to Palau, has attracted financing from all three countries. Adding a fourth partner, India, could make coordination even more complex.

But the Quad has a mission and momentum that could deliver results. A challenge when developing quality infrastructure projects is that too many requirements are added and projects become too slow, too expensive, or both. The good-enough is quickly overlooked in a well-intentioned but plodding search for the best. India’s inclusion could provide a helpful dose of empathy for other developing economies and the urgency they feel. The Quad’s spirit of emphasizing the practical over the perfect could help as well.

What should quadrilateral cooperation look like in practice? Flexibility will be key. Only in very rare cases will an infrastructure project have direct involvement (e.g., financing, design, construction, and operation) from all four countries. Instead, even a single partner pursuing a project that advances the Quad’s common goals and reflects the G20 principles for quality infrastructure investment should qualify. Cooperation can also occur through sharing information, providing technical assistance, and building partner capacity.

Most importantly, as Friday’s leaders’ summit demonstrates, the Quad enjoys the highest levels of political support. That support is crucial for getting anything done, but especially infrastructure projects, which often involve coordinating among a myriad of agencies within each country, let alone among four countries. The need to demonstrate progress at the next summit will help catalyze action. Friday’s announcement should be celebrated, and the work continues today.

Jonathan E. Hillman is director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and author of The Digital Silk Road: China’s Quest to Wire the World and Win the Future.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jonathan E. Hillman