Australian Outlook

The Quad and COVID-19

28 May 2020
By Kanchi Mathur
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo hosts a Quad Meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, at the Palace Hotel, in New York City, New York on September 26, 2019. Source: Ron Przysucha

The current pandemic is being increasingly viewed as generating geopolitical swings in an already dynamic Indo-Pacific region. The vast and non-discriminatory character of this disease has created a need for a coordinated response to ensure proper management and preparedness for the post-COVID-19 world.

Representing the Indo-Pacific’s four major and emerging powers, the Quadrilateral Security Initiative, or the “Quad,” was first established in 2007. The grouping traces its roots to the 2004-2005 Tsunami, wherein India, the US, Japan, and Australia coordinated their efforts to address the challenges posed by the crisis. The second instalment of the Quad grouping was formulated in 2017, as China’s rise and the region’s increasing economic and strategic progress compelled the four nations to rework their strategies to form a consultative forum. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been deeper cooperation among states of the Quad and other emerging powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

The geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region before the pandemic was largely focused on Chinese aggression and hard-balling with states like Vietnam and Indonesia in South China Sea. The growth of China’s economic, strategic, political, and diplomatic influence across the world has become an  important area of concern for other emerging and major powers of the Indo-Pacific, namely, India, the US, Japan, Australia, and even South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Apart from this, the economic and strategic importance of the sea lines of communication within the Indo-Pacific region has made it one of the most essential regions for trade and navigation. This means that the geopolitical dynamism of the region is important to track even during a pandemic.

In March 2020, officials from the Quad countries gathered to address the COVID-19 challenge. Soon after this meeting, the Quad grouping met along with South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand (prospective members of the Quad Plus) where they “shared their assessments of the current situation with respect to COVID-19.” As a consultative forum, the Quad provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, organises search and rescue missions, and counters non-traditional threats at sea. The COVID-19 crisis has presented the perfect opportunity for US and other emerging powers of the Indo-Pacific, through the Quad and Quad Plus frameworks, to reiterate the concept of  the Indo-Pacific region as a shared space which is free, open, and inclusive to all. In their second weekly conversation, the Quad Plus countries spoke on exploring ways to facilitate trade and share technology and people during this crisis.

The pandemic has presented the opportunity for greater technological and manpower transfers beyond medical aid, which undoubtedly is the current need of the hour. Some experts ambitiously argue that the pandemic provides the perfect opportunity for collaboration among the “economically free” Quad nations. Led by the United States, this level of collaboration can elevate the Quad from a diplomatic consultative forum to one that harbours the potential to help other developing powers recover from the anticipated post-COVID-19 economic recession. Representing 1.8 billion people, around a quarter of the world’s population, trade between the Quad economies topped $400 billion in 2018 and around $6 trillion with the rest of the world. Of course, this prospective plan is only possible if the Quad countries weather the economic challenges of COVID-19 largely unscathed.

The pandemic has also led to greater bilateral cooperation among members of the Quad, particularly between India and the US, and trilateral cooperation between Quad members and emerging powers of the Indo-Pacific region. In the case of India and US, the transfer of medical supplies and sale of drugs such as Hydroxychloroquine have accelerated an already growing India-US partnership. USAID has announced a $2.9 Million aid package for India. The two nations have also used this opportunity to enhance military cooperation. In May, US Senator Thom Tillis unveiled an 18-point plan to deepen military ties with regional allies like India, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This plan was developed in line with a belief that the Chinese government “maliciously covered up and enabled a global pandemic…” The plan also calls on Japan to “rebuild its military” and offers both Japan and South Korea sales of military equipment.

The US seems to be increasingly using the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to corner China within the Indo-Pacific region and thereby re-establish itself as the status-quo power that ensures stability within the region, even in times of a global pandemic. The US aims to achieve this with the help of its allies and partners, especially those in the Quad and Quad Plus groupings. The role of the Quad during and after the pandemic looks promising, as long as the nations continue to cooperate and are able to roll out a comprehensive and all-inclusive plan to deal with the current and future challenges.

One of the biggest hurdles for the Quad and Quad Plus to achieve a more active role in the Indo-Pacific, especially through the pandemic, is the individual responses of the member states and partners. For example, the US response to the pandemic is being largely questioned by domestic and global media outlets. The number of COVID-19 cases in the US and India is increasing. States like Japan and Australia, though they are not alarmingly affected, still show signs of struggling with the disease. Quad Plus members like South Korea and Vietnam have also seen sudden increases in the numbers of people infected.

Many of the Quad Plus members have increased trade with China for medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Therefore, the US’s attempts to completely isolate China and stop the country’s interaction with any other state in the Indo-Pacific might be too ambitious. Lastly, Quad members are yet to come up with one coherent policy or methodology to manage the COVID-19 crisis. Managing crises’ and disasters is the Quad’s bread and butter. A failure to launch in this domain might not be great for the credibility of the grouping.

Kanchi Mathur is a postgraduate student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Manipal, Karnataka, India.

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