Revival of Quad and the US-China rivalry
The QUAD forum was initially formed to coordinate relief efforts post 2004 tsunami, and then re mained mostly inactive for years.
It is an informal alliance as there is no firm agreement to help member countries in the security sphere.
In 2007, the officials of the four countries — US, India, Japan and Australia — met as part of a quadrilateral dialogue and did a military exercise together.
It was later revived as a hedge against China by Trump administration in November 2017, turning it into NATO-like security forum in Asia.
Quad is also expected to be a central pillar of Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy aimed at countering the influence of China.
So far, Biden Administration has not redefined the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept but rather lifted the Quad security group to a summitry level.
Members of the Quad post-Biden Administration takeover of the Whitehouse met for the first time as a group to put forward a structured agenda, apparently aiming to expand global vaccinations and counter China’s growing vaccination diplomacy in Southeast Asia and around the world.
The Quad Summit has announced the formation of three working groups with clearly defined missions.
One is to focus on all aspects of COVID-19 vaccine production, procurement, distribution and delivery – building up regional health security.
A second working group will focus on regional climate change programs: mitigation, adaptation, resilience, capacity-building and climate finance.
The third will coordinate and provide support to the region on critical and emerging technologies, including the development of equitable standards. This makes the ‘revitalized Quad’ appear to be more than a “talk shop.”
Interestingly, all of this comes as a response or perhaps as a reaction to Chinese ‘vaccine and mask diplomacy,’ where China is way ahead the western world in providing both.
As reported in the Foreign Affairs magazine, vaccines have had a place in diplomacy since the Cold War era.
The country that can manufacture and distribute life-saving injections to others less fortunate sees a return on its investment in the form of soft power: prestige, goodwill, perhaps a degree of indebtedness, even awe. COVID-19 pandemic has taken this to the next level.
Turning mask and vaccine diplomacy perhaps the most effective intervention, any country can make for global influence.
Today, the country moving fastest toward working on it is China, under President Xi, who proclaimed in May 2020 that Chinese-made vaccines against COVID-19 would become a “global public good.”
Since that time, top officials have promised many developing countries priority access to Chinese vaccines, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has announced that the country is providing free vaccines to 69 countries and commercially exporting them to 28 more.
China’s competitors including the members of Quad worry that where Beijing’s inoculations go, its influence will follow.
The latest Quad summit avoided any direct mention of China and its foreign policies in the region and focused instead on COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts.
The pro-quad sentiment in Western countries and India in the East says Biden does not frame China as an “evil empire” to be contained.
Instead, he is signalling the need to out compete China, by presenting appealing alternatives and offering practical help to the region.
The thrust of US wants to give to the Quad is now organized around what the four democracies believe is needed to sustain and nurture a secure and prosperous region.
It is not seeking to block distribution of China’s Sinovax vaccine to other countries.
It aims instead to make available as many as a billion doses of a high-quality, low-cost alternative.
Thus, perhaps a very positive development is at best healthy competition between China and the US, rather than hardcore confrontation.
Having this positive development in the backdrop, most analysts have suggested that the US efforts to shore up bilateral and multilateral alliances in the region are designed to counter China’s growing influence because the West sees Beijing as being increasingly aggressive in the East China Sea? and ?South China Sea in recent years.
Critics have called the Quad as being toothless — more hype than substance, particularly given the infrequency of meetings, the paucity of outcomes and the absence of follow-through.
Others have criticized its heavy focus on security and military cooperation as out of touch with the needs and priorities of most countries in the region.
In addition to shoring up alliances to potentially counter China, there are some specific bilateral issues as well to deal with, that it includes the presence of US troops in the region.
Blinken during his visit to Japan and South Korea post-Quad summit 2021, released a joint statement by Washington and Tokyo saying they were “committed to opposing [China’s] coercion and destabilizing behaviour towards others in the region” and expressed “serious concerns” about autonomy in Hong Kong and human rights in Xinjiang.
China’s state-run Global Times newspaper criticized the Quad summit as a US plot against Beijing, saying in an opinion piece that India — which has rapidly warming relations with the United States but is not a treaty-bound ally — should have taken a distance.
Despite the two opposing views, the reality on the ground is that the Indo-Pacific plays a much bigger role in the US foreign policy, with Asia being a top priority.
Angela Mancini said, Asia is the priority, because of which Quad meeting and overall diplomacy was revived by the Biden administration, the US is making it very clear that the Indo-Pacific region is important to Washington — compared to the previous administration’s transactional approach.
More importantly, the US and its allies almost fully engaged China in almost all Asia-Pacific regional institutions and forums till the early years of twenty-first century.
The mutual engagement processes made the post-Cold-War Asia-Pacific peaceful and orderly for three decades. However, this concert of the Asia-Pacific began to crumble in the 2010s.
While the US pursued its “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration, China simultaneously had its “March West”, which was the predecessor of today’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s 21st-century maritime Silk Road is its de facto pivot to the Indo-Pacific, but China does not use the term “Indo-Pacific” and has not defined the maritime Silk Road as its Indo-Pacific vision.
The key to the Asia-Pacific concert is in including rather than excluding China, which pursued “reform and opening up” and peaceful development after the end of the Cold War.
It is in everyone’s interest to build a new concert of Indo-Pacific powers based on the principle of great power multilateralism.
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.