Leaders of Quad — Australia, Japan, India and the United States (US) — made history recently with their first summit. They also made news with their plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific — made in India, the pharmacy of the world. But obscured by the big announcements was the formation of three working groups, which will keep the cooperation going between summits and meetings, potentially fostering over time a habit, an institution.

Quad was born as a habit. For nine days after a tsunami struck seven Indo-Pacific rim countries on December 26, 2004, a group of officials from Australia, Japan, India and the US had congregated on a conference call to coordinate their rescue and relief operations.

Called the Tsunami Core Group, they met at an appointed time every day for calls that lasted no more than 40 minutes, as recounted by Marc Grossman, the top US diplomat who chaired the group. One of their “primary objectives” was “putting itself out of business”.

The group was shut down on January 5, 2006. But it had sown, by then, seeds of a habit that would grow over a period of time to become the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Popularly called Quad now, its leaders joined hands for another leap of faith in the shadow of another global catastrophe.

This time, the group has no intention of “pushing itself out of business”. In fact, it wants to grow and that’s what the three groups will do. They are the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, the Quad Climate Working Group and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group.

The Covid-19 vaccine group has a use-by-date — the end of the year — to submit its recommendation and it will then phase itself out or will presumably fall into disuse once the pandemic has been brought under control.

The other two groups face no timelines, and can continue for a long time, forging that habit. The working group on climate won’t see its work wind down any time soon. Couched in non-enforceable terms of “cooperation”, “coordination” and “advancing”, the group’s brief is tied to the Paris Agreement. And consider this: Three of the Quad members are among the world’s 5 most-polluting countries — the US is at number 2, India at 3 and Japan at 5.

The group on critical and emerging technology has set an expansive agenda, which includes “coordination on technology standards development, including between our national technology standards bodies and working with a broad range of partners”.

That work cannot have an early wrap-up date, what with technology evolving continuously. Is it going to call it a day after dealing with 5G and Huawei, for instance?

Australia, Japan, India and the US do quite a lot bilaterally and trilaterally; three of them are treaty allies.

The three working groups, if taken seriously, can potentially set Quad on course to the kind of formalisation that some have said is its inescapable future, an Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).