Biden’s empty Taiwan rhetoric reveals Quad’s core weakness
Nearly five years after it was resurrected from a decadelong dormancy, and then integrated as a strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies, the Quad is struggling to make a difference in a region whose rising economic and geopolitical heft promises to reshape the international order.
Amid the deepening global fallout from the Ukraine war and the NATO-Russia proxy coflict, this week’s Quad summit in Tokyo showed that the group comprising the U.S., India, Japan and Australia has its work cut out if it is to make a meaningful impact, which will be measured in terms of deliverables, rather than the number of times its leaders get together and make promises.
While the Quad is trying to get its act together, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where the world’s fastest economic growth is incongruously juxtaposed with fast-rising naval capabilities and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.
Intended to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas, the Quad has done little to rein in China’s unilateral moves to alter the regional status quo, with Beijing’s wide-ranging security accord with the Solomon Islands just the latest example.
In Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden stole the summit’s thunder with various pre-summit announcements or assertions, including unveiling his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its 13 member-states on global issues such as supply chains, clean energy and digital rules, but without reducing trade barriers or tariffs.
Biden’s indication that the U.S. would use force to defend Taiwan grabbed global headlines, yet, paradoxically, Biden has gradually been easing pressure on China. Examples include letting China off the hook over the COVID-19 origins, dropping U.S. fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of China’s Huawei Technologies, and allowing Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with Washington.
Further, Biden revealed in Tokyo that he was considering rolling back trade tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.
Not once, not twice, but three times Biden has said in recent months that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. A day after sowing international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters, “My policy has not changed at all.”
Lost was the exclusion of Taiwan from Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, with the White House offering no explanation for omitting the global semiconductor hub.
The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for Indo-Pacific security, given that three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions. Beijing’s swallowing of Hong Kong also has essentially been cost-free.
All of this has renewed questions about the Quad’s strategic direction and mission. While it remains integral to the U.S. strategy of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Biden’s September 2021 launch of the AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain signaled the Anglosphere is back and confirmed a shift in the Quad’s focus under him to everlasting universal challenges, from climate change and cybersecurity to global health and resilient supply chains.
Biden, after taking office in January last year, initiated the practice of Quad leaders holding summit meetings, with the Tokyo meeting representing the fourth such summit in just 14 months. But under Biden’s leadership, the group has also taken on an expansive agenda.
Given its small size, the Quad is in no position to deal with larger international challenges. Yet the first Quad summit in March 2021, held virtually, launched working groups on climate change, vaccines and critical and emerging technologies.
When the Quad leaders met in person at the White House last September, three more working groups were established on cybersecurity, infrastructure and space. With the Quad unable to meet its own target of delivering one billion Indian-manufactured doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world by the end of this year, this raises the danger that the group will underdeliver on other core promises.
This week’s summit in Tokyo was a reminder that a very broad and ambitious agenda not only dilutes the Quad’s Indo-Pacific focus but also makes it more difficult to produce results.
The leaders’ joint statement was heavy with pious declarations about cooperating on issues extending from peace and security to climate, space, global health security and cybersecurity, but light on concrete plans, including on combating what it acknowledged were “coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the region.
The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived. The group today faces a clear choice: start translating its rhetoric into action by leveraging its members’ strengths, or risk becoming a mere talking shop. Given that the Quad is now more integrated than ever, it ought to focus on deliverables to help underscore its strategic value.
Unless the Quad gets cracking, an illiberal hegemonic order in Asia could emerge, creating significant risks for international security and global markets.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”