The Quad needs an economic pillar to stand on

The Quad, a partnership of democracies that had once appeared more concept than reality, has been fortified. But it faces important challenges, including an expansive agenda that could dilute its focus and the absence of an economic pillar to lend support.

Joe Biden hosts a Quad leaders summit at the White House in September 2021: American, Australian, Indian and Japanese interests are not entirely congruent.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Resurrected in November 2017, the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad has come a long way toward cementing a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region.

But the question of where the Quad is headed has gained greater salience in the wake of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) taking effect with Japan and Australia included in it.

RCEP, billed as the world’s largest trade bloc, and the separate Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) seek to promote economic integration around China and Japan, even as Beijing pursues its neo-imperial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that has already ensnared some vulnerable states in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The U.S. and India were to be members of CPTPP and RCEP, respectively, but then both decided not to join.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” However, the Quad, anchored in the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, continues to gain in strength, largely in response to China’s muscular revisionism.Leaders of participating nations at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership meeting in Singapore, pictured in November 2018: the question of where the Quad is headed has gained greater salience in the wake of RCEP taking effect on Jan. 1.   © Reuters

The change of administrations in the U.S. and Japan in 2021 and in Australia in 2018, far from slowing momentum, has helped build continuity, making the Quad’s future more durable.

The past year will be remembered for the first-ever Quad leaders summits — a virtual summit in March, and then an in-person summit at the White House in September. The summits yielded the first-ever Quad joint statements, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. Until then, the pattern was for each state to issue its own statement at the end of a meeting of officials from the Quad countries.

To be sure, when U.S. President Joe Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether Biden would carry forward his predecessor’s FOIP strategy. Only after being sworn in did Biden embrace the FOIP concept and speak about the Quad.

There is a reason why the Quad remains central to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, despite the new, Biden-initiated AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain. The U.S., given its relative decline, needs its allies more than ever so that, in seeking to address international challenges, American power is augmented with that of its allies and strategic partners. Asian power equilibrium cannot be built without Japan, India and Australia.

In contrast to the AUKUS alliance’s security mission, the Quad now has an agenda extending to geoeconomic issues. While then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration helped give the Quad strategic meaning, the Biden administration has sought to reorient the group toward dealing with geoeconomic challenges.

The Quad initiatives since 2021 reflect this new focus. The initiative to build resilient supply chains, for example, extends from the technology and public-health sectors to semiconductors and clean energy. It draws strength from the hard lessons many economies have learned about China-dependent supply chains.

The Quad is also seeking to deliver transparent, high-standard infrastructure by coordinating technical assistance and capacity-building efforts with regional states. The objective is to set up public-private partnership projects that are properly planned and financially and environmentally sustainable, in contrast to China’s BRI projects, many of which have also faced allegations of corruption and malpractice.

The Quad Vaccine Partnership, the most-visible initiative, is aimed at fostering equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in the quartet and by donating vaccines to other countries. Vaccine donations collectively by the quartet already rank the largest in the world.

Such initiatives show that the Quad, although catalyzed into action by China’s aggressive actions and irascible behavior, has become more directed toward larger geoeconomic issues.

A partnership of democracies that had once appeared more concept than reality has been fortified, with its leaders pledging to promote a rules-based Indo-Pacific that is “undaunted by coercion.”

However, the Quad’s new attention on global issues, from climate change — Biden’s pet concern — to cybersecurity and the pandemic, risks diluting the group’s Indo-Pacific focus. Its expansive geoeconomic agenda could also weigh it down.

Furthermore, American, Australian, Indian and Japanese interests are not entirely congruent. For example, India, facing the China-Pakistan strategic axis, maintains a land-based defense posture, whereas Australia, Japan and the U.S. are all focused on the maritime domain. And while America’s main objective regarding China is nonmilitary — to counter its geopolitical, ideological and economic challenge to U.S. preeminence — Japan and India confront a direct Chinese threat.

According to Chinese state media commentary, Japan and Australia’s participation in RCEP has taken “the wind out of the Quad’s anti-Chinese sails.” Australia and Japan have consistently refused to bend to Chinese pressure. But they have been lured by the billions of additional dollars that they will likely earn from RCEP’s boosting of regional trade, even as China gains a greater say in shaping trade rules in the Indo-Pacific.

Arrangements like RCEP, CPTPP and BRI, in fact, underscore the imperative for an economic pillar for the FOIP vision in order to give the Quad more comprehensive meaning. The Biden administration says it will unveil an economic framework that will go beyond these arrangements.

The Quad’s security role needs to be complemented with a concretized Indo-Pacific economic dimension so that security and economic interests are fused. Otherwise, if its members pick economic interests over security interests, the Quad’s relevance will erode.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”