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Long Road Ahead for Quad

Mar 24, 2021
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

U.S. President Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan — countries together known as the Quad — met in a virtual summit on March 12. In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the leaders announced an ambitious vaccine cooperation project designed to deliver a billion doses to countries in Southeast Asia by the end of 2022.

The summit was the second substantive action taken by the Quad since their security dialogue restarted in 2017, the first being the Malabar military exercise in 2020. In between, the four nations held several rounds of working-level consultations and three meetings at the foreign minister level. Each of the meetings, however, was followed by a news release or spokesperson’s statement from each side, with neither a joint statement nor any initiative. Why?

When it restarted the Quad framework, the Donald Trump administration wanted to build it into “an Asian NATO,” in the words of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. However, Japan, Australia and India haven’t reached agreement with the United States on this issue, because each of them has an axe to grind. At a ministerial meeting in Tokyo in October, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made bitter accusations against China and the Communist Party of China, urging the other three countries to join forces with the United States to curtail the rise of China. But his remarks received no response and the host, Katsunobu Kato, chief cabinet secretary of Japan, had to announced at a briefing that “This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind.” This is the fundamental reason for the failure of the U.S. campaign for institutionalizing the Quad Security Dialogue.

Since taking office, Biden has repeatedly said that U.S. cooperation with its regional allies is a central focus in his strategy responding to China’s growing economic clout and military muscle. To climb out of the stalemate in the quadrilateral dialogue, the administration is now taking a different approach: It’s calling for setting aside disputes while expanding common ground and setting a cooperative agenda.

In this way, it aims to mitigate differences through cooperation, downplay structural conflicts through functional cooperation and cooperate with others on vaccine production, key technologies and climate change.

The March 12 summit, held less than two months after Biden took office, sends an important message to the world: The administration will deliver on its promise to confront China by mobilizing its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

Then what are the characteristics of U.S.-led cooperation within the Quad framework?

First, it is well-targeted. In the five-pronged joint statement marked with tired formulas, there is not a single mention of China. But in fact, actions implied by the text do target China. For example, as an important outcome of the summit, the provision of a billion doses of vaccines to Southeast Asian countries by the end 2022 is widely reported by international media as part of the Quad’s strategy to counter China’s influence in the region.

Second, cooperation is exclusive. The United States has been building its own cliques, and its international cooperation has been reduced to a tool in the service of its foreign policy. All Quad countries are members of COVAX, launched by the World Health Organization, but the United States has now bypassed the WHO and developed a parallel program for the sole purpose of serving its foreign policy.

Third, cooperation is not reciprocal. For it to be sustainable, all sides involved need access to the gains. According to the joint statement, the United States, Japan and Australia invest in the manufacturing of vaccines, and India is responsible for beefing up its domestic production capacity. So, ultimately, India is the biggest winner.

This pattern of cooperation is only sustainable in the short term, and can’t be replicated in other cooperation programs. In urging its allies and partners to confront China in the name of democracy, the United States aims to leverage their roles as multipliers and to share in the gains without taking concrete action. Which country would be foolish enough to engage in this kind of cooperation in the world today?

Fourth, the cooperation is negative. The many countries in the Indo-Pacific region have different historical and cultural backgrounds and are at different development stages, but peaceful coexistence and shared development are the underlying trends of the region. And the conclusion of the RCEP deal demonstrates Asian countries’ strong commitment to enhanced cooperation. In building its clique, the United States is dividing Asian countries, not uniting them, which may lead to confrontation and undermine stability across the region. As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with the BBC, “Asian countries don’t want to be forced to choose between the United States and China.”

The Quad Security Dialogue, which has been elevated from a ministerial meeting to a summit of leaders, retains its unofficial nature and doesn’t help address the structural differences of the four countries. Notably, in a news briefing after the March 12 summit, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan denied claims that the Quad is a military alliance or “an Asian NATO.” Instead, he stressed that the four countries will “work as a group, and also with other countries, on fundamental issues of economics, technology, climate and security.” The Biden administration seems intent on bringing China to its knees through cooperation with its allies and partners, but a long road of uncertainty lies ahead because of four factors.

First, Japan, Australia and India have a two-sided policy toward China. In building an alliance with the United States, they hope to counteract the growing influence of China and increase their bargaining chips in negotiations with Beijing. On the other hand, these countries are unlikely to work as pawns of Washington in its rivalry with Beijing, given their close trade and economic ties with China and the potential damage to their own interests. They are dependent on the United States, but at the same time retain autonomy on certain issues. The key to striking a balance lies in a key determinant: national interest.

Second, U.S.-led cooperation within the Quad framework is restricted to certain issues. For Japan, Australia and India, cooperation with the United States is premised on the basis of safeguarding their own interests, and cooperation will cease once their interests are compromised.

Third, China today is stronger in terms of shaping international relations. Japan, Australia and India are China’s either close neighbors or major countries in China’s periphery. Essentially, China poses no threat to them; they are highly complementary on many fronts, with tremendous potential to be tapped in bilateral relations. There are many reasons why China can build friendly, cooperative and stable relations with these countries.

Despite its border conflict with India last year, China ensured a pullback of forces on both sides thanks to its effective response. Bilateral economic and trade ties remain largely intact, and China remains the largest trading partner of India. This story is relevant to China-Japan relations and China-Australia relations as well. China’s stable relations with the three countries can produce a positive impact for cooperation within the Quad framework.

In conclusion, the Quad Security Dialogue will not get far. The probability is that it will focus more on form than content, on symbolism over substance, and it will do little to shape a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

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