What does an emerging Squad in the Indo-Pacific mean for India?

In the past decade, the US, Philippines, Japan, and Australia lacked a collective and homogenous strategic vision vis-a-vis the region.
In the past decade, the US, Philippines, Japan, and Australia lacked a collective and homogenous strategic vision vis-a-vis the region.


  • There was the Quad. Now there’ll be a Squad. This new mini-lateral grouping of the US and three of its Asian allies—Australia, Japan and the Philippines—could coordinate actions with the Quad for regional stability in the face of threats from China.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Australian, Filipino and Japanese counterparts to institutionalize and launch the ‘Squad’ as a new four-way security arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. The Squad has become an essential addition to the series of security ‘mini-lateral’ groupings in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, Aukus, the US-Philippines-Japan trilateral and the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral.

The Philippines, Japan and Australia are not treaty allies; however, each of these countries shares a bilateral treaty alliance with the US. Thus, the idea behind the Squad centres on the desire of all four democracies to deepen their level of integration beyond the hub-and-spokes format at a time when China has been militarizing the South China Sea at the expense of the rules-based order of the Indo-Pacific.

The seeds for the Squad’s creation were already planted in 2023 through the efforts of the four countries to enhance their strategic collaboration in the South China Sea. Manila has broadened its alliance with the US and is currently negotiating a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) with Japan to enhance troop deployments between both countries. 

This also complements the existing Visiting Forces of Agreement (VFA) that the Philippines has with the US and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Manila and Canberra. In June 2023, the defence chiefs of all four countries met for the first time on the sidelines of the Shangri La security dialogue in Singapore. Moreover, in April this year, the US, Japan, the Philippines and Australia conducted their first-ever multilateral maritime exercise in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Though the creation of the Squad may have seemed quite natural, due to the loose and informal nature of mini-laterals, their development relies on the convergence of political will and the intersection of shared interests and threat perceptions among its potential members. Consequently, the degree of collective participation among all four democracies only began to heighten in 2023.

In the past decade, the US, Philippines, Japan, and Australia lacked a collective and homogenous strategic vision vis-a-vis the region. While Washington was initially preoccupied with Europe and the Middle East during the latter years of the Obama administration, the Trump presidency sought to reconfigure US commitments towards its alliances based on a greater level of transactionalism. 

On the other hand, while Japan and Australia recognized the challenges posed by China in the South China Sea, there were still limitations in their abilities to project a more military and defence-driven approach in the geographic space. Moreover, the absence of a resident Southeast Asian anchor further constrained the ability of the US and its two treaty allies to play a more robust role in securing the South China Sea collectively.

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While the Philippines seemed like the most practical Southeast Asian partner then, given its treaty alliance with the US, its close strategic ties with Japan and its defence relations with Australia, the former administration of Rodrigo Duterte significantly reoriented Philippine foreign and security policy. 

In the hope of gaining economic concessions from Beijing by appeasement, Manila refrained from taking direct action against China through the US alliance network. This policy shift limited the Philippines’ participation in security arrangements to secure the South China Sea.

However, this strategic dynamic significantly changed in 2022. While still heavily engaged in Europe and the Middle East, Washington recognized more clearly that China is the only major power with the material capacity and ambition to dismantle the established rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. 

Similarly, with China showing no sign of managing its expansionist and belligerent activities in the Western Pacific, Japan has recognized the need to play a more robust defence role in the Indo-Pacific. This reorientation has its roots in Tokyo’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released on 16 December 2022, which encompasses several notable objectives, including expediting Japan’s military modernization and enhancing its military forces based on the acute traditional security challenges in the region. 

Also read: India seeks bigger role in Indo-Pacific as China continues on aggressive path

Importantly, the NSS also highlights the need for Tokyo to enhance the capabilities of friendly regional countries to attain a genuinely free and open Indo-Pacific. Australia has also been showing greater interest in playing a more prominent role as a security and development partner in Southeast Asia.

Since Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office in June 2022, Manila has taken a more proactive role in safeguarding its EEZ against Chinese expansionism by strengthening its partnerships to improve its maritime security capabilities and ability to exercise its sovereignty. 

This shift opened doors for the Philippines to participate more actively in the emerging network of like-minded democracies of the Indo-Pacific. By playing the anchor’s role in Southeast Asia, the country has positioned itself as the Squad’s fulcrum.

The proliferation of informal strategic arrangements suggests that Indo-Pacific security will be underpinned by flexible, area-specific and practical elements of cooperation, rather than traditional and rigid alliances. At the heart of these developments lie concerns of a potential challenge posed by China to the stability of the established regional order. 

All four members of the Squad must consistently engage with one another and explore new means of collective capacity building. Moreover, the Squad needs to coordinate with other existing mini-laterals (like the Quad) to achieve a more robust network-based cooperative framework of like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific.

It is in the very nature of the Indo-Pacific that mini-laterals will proliferate and the nature of security threats in the region demand that they coordinate their actions closely.

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