The “Quad,” as its recent virtual summit underscored, has come a long way in cementing a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region. Comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, it has gradually sharpened its edges since 2019 in response to China’s aggressive expansionism.
Yet, when Joe Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether the new U.S. president would carry forward his predecessor’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy based on the concept authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s presidential campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
Only after being sworn in as president, Biden began speaking about a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” He then took the initiative for the first-ever Quad summit. This is a testament to the fact that the Biden administration inherited a coherent and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
The surprise from the March 12 summit was that — unlike the past Quad foreign ministers’ meetings — it yielded a joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” the statement declared.
But make no mistake: Without real action and sustained resolve, dialogues and joint statements will not be enough to make a difference in the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened China, after tasting consecutive successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, could make Taiwan its next direct target. It has stepped up its expansionist activities in the Himalayan borderlands and the East China Sea.
Despite China’s lengthening shadow, the summit, however, offered little in terms of concrete strategic counteraction. If anything, its vaccine initiative illustrated how, with the media’s help, a public relations gimmick can be spun into a major summit success.
The summit’s “breakthrough” deal centered on helping India’s Biological E firm to produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the firm has confirmed that it already can produce more than 1 billion vaccine doses a year. It signed a preliminary co-production agreement with Johnson & Johnson last August.
The Quad vaccine initiative has done little more than obscure America’s refusal to do something now, including releasing the vaccines it has been hoarding and permitting a temporary intellectual-property waiver so as to give poorer nations access to generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. India and South Africa are leading the international push for such a temporary waiver.
Given its relative decline, the U.S. needs its allies more than ever so that, in seeking to address the China challenge and other global problems, its power is augmented by that of its allies and strategic partners.
Yet, under Biden, it is sadly sending a wrong message with its vaccine hoarding, which denies its European allies much-needed supplies to combat COVID-19. This is likely to raise an important question among all allies, from Japan to Poland and Canada: If the U.S. will not share its vaccine stockpile with its closest allies during a horrendous pandemic, how can its leadership be trusted in a security contingency?
In fact, by invoking the 1950 U.S. Defense Production Act, the Biden administration is also hoarding vaccine components. America’s export restriction is creating a global supply chain problem: With not enough critical raw materials to go around, vaccine production is coming under pressure in other manufacturing centers, including India, which boasts the world’s largest vaccine-making capacity. Does Biden want other nations to learn hard lessons during the current pandemic about both China-reliant and U.S.-dependent supply chains?
Instead of persisting with a self-centered vaccine policy, the U.S. would do well to grasp the urgency of developing an actionable and durable American-led approach to China, which is becoming increasingly assertive, expansionist and authoritarian. In fact, the Quad’s unifying theme is opposing China’s aggressive expansionism.
Biden, however, has still to firm up his China policy. In fact, after his calls to Quad leaders, Biden telephoned China’s leader Xi Jinping on Feb. 10 and held a two-hour-long tete-a-tete. Then this month, the Quad summit and America’s “2 plus 2” dialogues in Tokyo and Seoul were followed by the high-level U.S.-China discussions in Anchorage, Alaska.
The parallel U.S. effort to reset ties with Beijing may explain why the two recent online Quad meetings — first between the foreign ministers and then the summit — focused less on the China challenge to a rules-based order and more on global issues like the pandemic and climate change. Vaccine diplomacy — as by India, which has donated more than eight million free COVID-19 vaccines — may aid projection of soft power. But the Quad, as a security coalition, has no need to project soft power.
If the Quad persists with prioritizing global issues over Indo-Pacific security challenges, it would blur its focus and encourage China to step up its coercive diplomacy through heavy-handed use of military and economic power.
The White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released this month says “we welcome the Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, global health security, arms control and nonproliferation where our national fates are intertwined.” However, Biden’s effort to reset ties with China appears doomed, largely because Xi sees the change of the U.S. administration as offering him greater space to pursue his hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream.”
To be sure, Xi’s aggressive policies will ensure that the Quad continues to solidify and actively work toward establishing a new multilateral Indo-Pacific security structure. Even distant powers like France, Germany and Canada now view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security.
They are strengthening maritime collaboration with the Quad states. Last November’s “Malabar” naval war games — the first-ever Quad military drills — have been followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise in January that involved Quad members and Canada, and the scheduling of another Quad-plus naval exercise, the “La Perouse” drills with France, from April 4.
As Biden develops strategic clarity on China, the Quad is likely to become the central dynamic of his Indo-Pacific policy. Xi’s renegade expansionism could even help build a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”