Joe Biden’s decision to pull out of the Quad summit in Australia highlights the weakness in a partnership still yet to find its purpose, writes James Laurenceson of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Summit, Tokyo, May 2022: The Quad gathering in Sydney was cancelled after US President Biden decided not to attend so he could return home early to deal with domestic politics and engage in wrangling with his opposition in Congress over the US debt ceiling (Credit: PTI)
On the eve his departure for Asia, American President Joe Biden decided to stick with attending the meeting in Japan of the G7, no longer the premier forum for addressing global economic challenges, but to prioritize domestic politics and wrangling with his opposition over the US debt ceiling over attending the Quad summit that was to follow in Sydney. (Host Australia promptly cancelled the event, but later convened an abbreviated evening gathering of the four leaders on the G7 sidelines in Hiroshima.) Biden's cutting the Quad out of his itinerary highlights one of the group’s limitations – doubts about its relevance .
The novel framework attracts attention because it brings together four of the world’s key democracies – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – to contain and counter what they regard as the threat posed by an increasingly uncompromising China. At the first ministerial-level meeting of what is known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2019, then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo set out this raison d'être: “We’ve reconvened ‘the Quad’…This will prove very important in the efforts ahead, ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.”
Since winning election last May, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has embraced the Quad. His first act as prime minister was to attend last year’s leaders’ summit in Tokyo and when announcing that Sydney would be the host this year, he said he was “honored” and that “leveraging our collective strengths helps Australia advance its interests”.
Yet at the same time, Canberra has also been able not just to “stabilize” but also modestly improve Australia’s relationship with China. Squaring that circle owes much to the Quad having left its original billing as a “security dialogue” behind, even if the excited commentariat has not quite caught up with that twist in the narrative.
In 2020, at another meeting of Quad foreign ministers, Pompeo was still insistent its purpose was to “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us”. But none of Pompeo’s counterparts even mentioned China in their opening remarks. Australia’s then-foreign minister, Marise Payne instead homed in on the Quad’s “positive agenda” and described it as a “diplomatic network”. A Japanese government spokesperson allowed that he was not sure what Pompeo had meant.
By the time of the first Quad leaders meeting in March 2021, and with the Biden’s predecessor and geopolitical disruptor Donald Trump out of office in the US, it was clear where the new consensus position lay. The “Spirit of the Quad”, the four leaders said in a statement, involved supplying a “positive vision” for the region. The website of the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade describes the Quad as having a “positive, practical agenda to respond to the region’s most pressing challenges.” These include, “Covid-19 vaccines, climate change, infrastructure, critical and emerging technology, cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, space, maritime security, countering disinformation, and counter-terrorism.”
Some of Beijing’s uncompromising behavior is seen in these areas, but the agenda is a far cry from the hard-edged Quad that China hawks saw as shaping up just a few years ago and which some still hope the group will become.
Several factors explain the demise of the hard-edged Quad. India’s increasing self-assuredness could be perhaps the most significant. Despite having its own acute challenges to manage with Beijing, New Delhi appears not to feel the need to fall into line with Washington or Tokyo – and certainly not Canberra.
Consider New Delhi’s different-drummer response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Not condemning Moscow’s actions was just the start. Six months after the war began, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and while stating that “today’s era is not an era of war”, nonetheless described the two countries as having an “unbreakable friendship” (a declaration not dissimilar to Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s assertion of a partnership with “no limits” on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar then visited Moscow and said that in recent years the two sides “have been finding ways of expanding this relationship”, while describing India-Russia bilateral ties as among the “steadiest” of major global powers.
This year, New Delhi opted out of discussions on the trade pillar of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), despite its aim for non-binding arrangements. But India has confirmed that it is conducting “advanced negotiations” with Moscow over a bilateral free trade agreement.
The preferences of China hawks aside, there is nothing wrong with Quad having a “positive agenda”. It does, however, set up the challenge of delivering on that agenda – a tall order given it is so dizzyingly expansive. The early signs have not been encouraging.
In March 2021 the Quad governments announced a “Vaccine Partnership” that would provide “at least one billion [Covid-19] doses…by the end of 2022”. The idea was to draw on US technology, Japanese financing and Indian manufacturing. Therein lies the first problem: Australia had little to offer, being relegated to a brief mention – that it was contributing “US$77 million for the provision of vaccines and ‘last-mile’ delivery support”.
The next issue was speed. The first Quad vaccine shipment was not made until April 2022, to Cambodia, and this was only 325,000 doses. Just as the “partnership” was announced, India was struck with a viral wave and New Delhi responded by imposing an export ban on vaccines to prioritize domestic availability. The ban was not lifted for seven months.
Quad governments had also bet on a single vaccine formulated by a single US company to be produced at a single facility in Hyderabad. This was understandable given that bureaucrats had been tasked with orchestrating a supply chain with which they had no experience. But it was a failure-in-waiting from a project planning and risk management perspective. Their bet inevitably hit a bump when the US Food and Drug Administration restricted use of the vaccine over concerns it could cause blood clots and the Indian government refused to sign a liability waiver.
The Quad’s eventual inaugural donation to Cambodia was made via a channel different from what had been originally planned. By then, doses had become so plentiful an Indian expert told The Hindu the problem was that, “donors are trying to find willing recipients”.
This should have been a learning experience for the Quad leaders: lay off chasing headlines and spinning narratives and stick to where real value can be added.
One proposal floated at last year’s Quad summit, a maritime domain awareness initiative, has genuine appeal because the region is prone to natural disasters and smaller states often lack the capacity to combat scourges like illegal fishing. Others, such as ploughing resources into cooperating on critical and emerging technologies, should be approached with similar skepticism as with the vaccines.
Of course, harnessing the potential of these technologies and managing the associated risks are important. But setting technology standards, for example, cannot just be the business of four players. And in some technologies, the global leader is not even among the quartet. In clean-energy supply chains, for example, the essential partner is China.
This is why, whenever and wherever the next Quad leaders meeting does happen, take with a grain of salt any claims of it being anything other than an innovative diplomatic achievement.
This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.
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Patil, Kapil. (March 31, 2022) “Misreading Strategic Intent: The Border Stand-Off and China-India Relations”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
University of Technology Sydney (UTS)