By holding a meeting with leaders of other Quad Countries (Japan, Australia and India) less than two months into office, Biden has indicated that his administration will not just take forward but give a strong fillip to the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ vision.
- US President Biden attended his first Quad Summit with critical Asian allies Japan, India and Australia.
- The Quad has increasingly come under criticism for too much pessimism and a lack of clear intent apart from countering China.
- Biden’s first summit tried to tackle these criticisms, identifying several areas of cooperation including a joint vaccine project.
- In the backdrop of the Summit, the itineraries of Biden Administration’s top officials highlight the growing prominence of Asian allies.
The Quad has consistently faced criticism for lacking any binding glue and clear vision except for targeting Beijing. A story in the Global Times ‘Quad cannot replicate NATO, given internal division and China’s rise’ repeated the same criticism. Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian while commenting on Quad hours before the Summit, stated that cooperation between countries should not: target or damage interests of a third party” and countries should not “pursue exclusive blocs”.
The criticism of Quad not having a clear vision comes not only from China. Many within Quad countries also believe that the grouping should not be reactive, but instead should have a positive agenda. The second weakness of Quad according to some observers is that member countries have close economic ties with China. This will be one of the major stumbling blocks. This point has also been made repeatedly in the Chinese media.
Watch: Can the ‘Quad’ effectively counter China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific?
Importance of the Quad Leaders’ Summit
President Biden met Quad counterparts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for the first time on Friday, March 12, 2021. Commenting on the Quad Leaders’ Summit (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), US President Joe Biden stated that: ‘It (Quad summit) went very well. Everyone seemed to like it…’
Biden’s first Quad Summit tried to address the criticism in a number of ways. The first step in this direction was identification of a gamut of areas for cooperation; the decision of Quad countries to supply 1 billion vaccines to Asia by 2022 was the highlight. India will manufacture US vaccines, and the initiative would be financed by the US International Development Finance Corporation and Japan Bank for International cooperation. It was decided to set up a working group not just for the vaccine initiative, but even for cooperation for other areas such as climate change and to promote cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future.
US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan emphatically stated that the Quad was not just aimed at China. Sullivan iterated, “The Quad is not a military alliance. It is not a new NATO, despite some of the propaganda that is out there.”
The joint statement emanating from the White House also makes an interesting point about common goals. But there’s also a realization of the point that absolute convergence was not possible.
In a Multipolar World, there’s no black or white
As for Quad countries having economic relations with China is concerned, it is true that this point cannot be dismissed. At the same time, we live in a multipolar complex world – close strategic ties need not translate into strong economic ties and vice-versa. Many countries close to China also have robust economic relations with Quad members. For instance, Bangladesh has strong economic ties with India and Japan. Even Cambodia has robust economic ties with Japan.
The Biden Administration itself has also made it clear that it will explore cooperation with China in areas that are mutually beneficial. There is no better example of the attempts to balance between US allies in Asia and China than the itinerary of senior officials of the Biden Administration.
US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken and US Defence Secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III visited Japan and South Korea to engage with leaders of both countries on a gamut of issues, days after the Quad Leaders’ Summit. Blinken on his return from South Korea joined Jack Sullivan in Anchorage Alaska, where they met with Chinese officials in an explosive interaction. Austin also visited India.
Issues which the Quad needs to address
Firstly, the Quad needs to be flexible. If it does expand, it needs to understand that stakeholders could have divergences – especially relations with India. Secondly, the economic component within the Quad grouping needs to be given a push. Many have suggested the idea of a trade grouping within Quad – while issues like vaccines, technology and even supply chains are important, there needs to be more of an economic glue to hold the grouping together. Thirdly, it is important to give a strong message, that the Quad is not restricted to existing bilateral initiatives. Instead it should seek to come up with new projects which are inclusive in nature. Finally, if Quad is driven by liberal values and democratic principles, it is important to have a firm commitment to both not just overseas, but also at home.
In conclusion, it is important to have realistic expectations from Quad. While there may be strong synergies, this should not be confused with congruence on all issues. The grouping also has a lot to do as far as having an economic vision is concerned. Excessive pessimism and over-the-top optimism tend to overlook the ground realities.