What was QUAD about?

Mar 16, 2021

China is a challenge that must be met, but not with Trumpian belligerence. By setting up working groups in areas such as innovation, climate change and health, Biden is obviously prepared to pay a high price in both time and effort to convince Beijing that he is serious about challenging and competing with China while avoiding confrontation.

It is just over a week since Joe Biden picked up the phone to congratulate scientists at NASA for their sheer perseverance in the successful landing of the Rover on Mars, 55 million kilometres away. This weekend, the United States president was engaged in another exercise in perseverance closer to home. In a different sense it was also a first small step for mankind.  His mission was to put flesh on the bare bones of the Quad – a quadu-lateral ‘talking shop’ for senior officials from Australia, India, Japan and the United States, formed in 2017.

Upgraded 18 months ago to be led by foreign ministers concerned about China’s military expansion in the Indian-Pacific region, the Quad trod with caution until the election of the Biden administration. Now top foreign policy officials – like Biden himself, all with hands-on involvement in president Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia – seek to restore American influence in the world’s fastest growing region.

On Thursday March 18, secretary of state Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet will in Anchorage with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and State Councillor Wang Yi. It will be the first person to person high-level meeting between the Biden administration and the Chinese government since the election. It takes place following Blinken’s first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea, key US allies.

In anticipation of that meeting, last week Biden called together the first ever leaders meeting of the Quad. It was held by video link from Washington and included Scott Morrison, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, and his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga. They signed off on a joint declaration supporting a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific region. It was clear that China was the elephant in the room, although there was no mention of the upcoming Anchorage meeting. The tone was set by the statement, “we strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”.

Until now, the Quad has operated – to the extent that it has operated at all – in the ambience of security and military strategy. There has been no suggestion of a binding alliance like ANZUS or military partnership, but plenty of thoughts about cooperation, including joint exercises.

When Biden called the summit there was some anxiety in Delhi and Tokyo that what the Americans had in mind might involve joint military action of some kind. Indeed, three daysbefore the meeting, Modi and Suga held a 40-minute phone conversation to agree their approach.  Suga expressed serious concerns about China’s actions in the area ranging from Hong Kong to East China Sea. After discussing a range of issues, including defence and security, economics and health, they appear to have reassured each other that their countries were not about to be drawn into an armed conflict with China.

They also happily signed up to the principal commitment from the Quad declaration – the provision of 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to be manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. Under the deal the vaccines would be manufactured in India, financed by Japan and the United States, with Australia providing the logistics to ensure distribution to where it was most needed, starting with South East Asia and the Pacific islands.

Sullivan, who had taken part in the meeting along with Blinken, said the four countries had taken the Quad to a new level, describing the summit as a “big deal” for President Biden and for the country.  Sullivan credited Kurt Campbell, the top White House official for the Indo-Pacific, and its point person with Australia, with developing the vaccine plan, which does not involve impinging on America’s own emergency roll-out.

It will be seen as a sensible if belated response to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s  announcement at Davos 2021 of a scheme to provide vaccines for developing countries, but it is nonetheless substantive evidence that the region’s large democracies can work together in a non-military sense, just as they did in 2004 when a Pacific tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia and the wider region.

Sullivan, whose early work in the White House was as national security and global affairs advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, later, on the Iran nuclear deal for deal for President Obama, tells us that Biden is keen that the Quad should also put together projects involving technology and climate change. Along with leaders from the other three countries, he insists that the administration is not building the organisation to be anti-China. ”Today was not fundamentally about China”,  he claimed after the meeting. India’s foreign secretary Vardhan Shringla agreed, telling reporters the Quad does not stand against something but rather “in the realm of doing things for others”.

The events of the last few days represent the most significant policy initiative of the Biden administration to date. They come after a rethink of the Democrats’ pre-election stated goals of restoring American leadership, rebuilding multilateralism, and creating a consensus of the democracies with shared values and adherence to a rules-based system. These goals remain in place, but the reality of the real world made a more nuanced approach essential. Being a global superpower has limitations, as Biden quickly discovered in dealing with Saudi Arabia.

China is a challenge that must be met, but not with Trumpian belligerence. By setting up working groups in areas such as innovation, climate change and health, Biden is obviously prepared to pay a high price in both time and effort to convince Beijing that he is serious about challenging and competing with China while avoiding confrontation.

But there’s the rub. The United States is not ready for a military confrontation. The Asian littoral is a long way from US bases like Guam, let alone the American West Coast. The US Navy may control the oceans, but there are sophisticated missiles on the Chinese mainland. The US is short of bases to service and replenish its warships, but also to house and train forward troops. The other nations of the QUAD can provide only limited help, but there is unlikely  to be any shortage of requests.

If the one billion promised jabs are injected into one billion arms on time, it’s likely the QUAD will go on to become the main feature of the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy. But it will be a long haul, one requiring focus and perseverance.

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