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The First Summit Quad Meeting Reaffirms a Free, Open, and Secure Indo-Pacific

19 Mar 2021
By Dr Ashok Sharma
President Joe Biden. Source: The White House

Amid continued Chinese aggression, the Quad’s significance has increased further.  The summit-level meeting ascertains that the Quad is not only here to stay but will be a powerful stabilising force in the Indo-Pacific. 

In a first of its kind, the 12 March 2021 virtual summit-level meeting of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) was joined by President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. While a range of issues were discussed, including management of the COVID-19 outbreak, the summit meeting left no ambiguity regarding its position on China’s military assertion and geopolitical intent in the Indo-Pacific. Increasingly, the shifts of global power in the Indo-Pacific have seen it emerge as both the world’s most contested region, and the region most significant for global prosperity in the 21st century. Previously, the informal alliance of maritime democracies had struggled due to differing political and economic links to China. However, the Quad is now emerging as the most stabilising force against China’s economic and military aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

The Emergence of the Quad as a Powerful Indo-Pacific Strategy

As a security coalition, the Quad emerged when the four maritime democracies – the US, India, Japan, and Australia – conducted a Malabar naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in 2007. However, soon after, Quad was put on the backburner when China protested they had formed the Quad as an anti-China coalition. The bilateral trade dependencies between Quad members and China superseded the benefits of the budding coalition of maritime democracies. As well, at this point, China’s rise was largely perceived as “peaceful,” with China being viewed as a “benign power.”

Over time, these notions were challenged as China began to flex its military muscle and build artificial islands in the South China Sea. Chinese aggression and military assertiveness kept the idea of Quad floating. However, opponents of the Quad and the Chinese government continued to question the Quad’s longevity, given that the nations’ ties with China and their economic precedence could have the potential to stall the four members’ ability to present a united front.

Despite this, the US and India continued their joint Malabar naval exercises which first began in 1992, and Japan joined in 2015. The continued Chinese military expansion in the Indo-Pacific led to the re-emergence of Quad in November 2017 and its extension to include South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand as Quad-Plus.  Since then, the Quad has been making progress through foreign secretary and foreign ministerial-level meetings.

Nevertheless, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, China’s attempt to exploit the coinciding humanitarian crisis has exposed its geopolitical intent. This aggravated concerns around the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific. Actions related to Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army’s military aggression on the India-China border, the Chinese navy flaunting its power in the South China Sea, and the Chinese Communist Party aggressively promoting its authoritarianism in the Indo-Pacific have only accelerated the the imperative of the Quad. The first major development was Australia joining the Malabar navy exercise in November 2020, and now the summit-level meeting in 2021.

From Security to Economy

With the COVID-19 outbreak in the early months of 2020, the extent of the world’s reliance on China began to be exposed. Furthermore, with Chinse military assertiveness continuing during the outbreak, a growing number of countries including the US, industrialised nations of G8, and Japan began to discuss strategies for diversifying global supply chains, which the world by default had let China dominate.  India, potentially the only match for China’s manufacturing scale, has since emerged as the biggest producer of the COVID-19 vaccine. The country has already approved two COVID-19 vaccines, and now the US-developed Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID-19 vaccine is going to be produced there. This is significant as this is the first such initiative taken by the Quad nations in the post-COVID-19 world.

The Quad vaccine project involves all the four Quad members, as the vaccine was developed by the US, financed by Japan and the US, will be manufactured in India, and transported to Southeast Asian and Pacific nations utilising Australia’s logistics capability. This is one of the first moves to transform the strategic convergence and trust developed among Quad members to the economic arena. The Quad’s vaccine diplomacy is a significant move to check China’s vaccine diplomacy in the countries of strategic significance in the Indo-Pacific, and opens the potential strategy to check China’s intent of world dominance through the Belt and Road Initiative that is also evident in the Indo-Pacific.

In addition to security, one of the main visions of Quad has been to ensure the free flow of goods and economic activities according to the rules-based order.  So far, the Quad had been more focused on security aspects of the Indo-Pacific. The notion of Quad heads of governments meeting in the post-COVID-19 world therefore become significant in overcoming over-reliance on China for global supply chains.

This formation could provide an opportunity to pave the road for a much-needed move to check the Chinese debt diplomacy program. Currently, the offering of a strong financial support program for the nations in the Indo-Pacific that are on brink of economic collapse is only enabling countries to be trapped by Chinese debt diplomacy. To ward off the Chinese design of exploiting the economic hardship of nations for its military dominance, Quad members will need to work on a comprehensive and assertive program of economic activities not only among the Quad members but also with the countries in the region who needs the assistance most.

The Biden Administration on the Quad and the Indo-Pacific

The summit-level Quad meeting, which was initiated by the new Biden administration, shows continuity in the importance of Indo-Pacific security strategy in Washington. The US position has evolved from President George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Barack Obama’s Pivot to Asia-Pacific, and Donald Trumps’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Now, President Biden’s first major foreign policy move in convening the summit-level meeting of the Quad, arguably the most powerful multilateral arrangement to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, leaves no ambiguity on the direction and concerns around the concept of a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

What is significant is not that China became the focus of the Quad meeting, but that the Biden administration’s intention is clear – that the US will pursue measures to confront Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific in a more intense manner. The Quad has come a long way. It is clear now that the Quad is not only here to stay, but also it is going to be the most potent Indo-Pacific strategy.

Dr Ashok Sharma is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs; a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra, and the Deputy Chair of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland Branch.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.