Biden is saddling the group with a distracting global agenda
Can the Indo-Pacific region be America’s top priority if U.S. President Joe Biden is deepening commitments and resources for Europe and the Middle East?
This question is central to the future of the Quad, the strategic coalition of leading Indo-Pacific democracies comprising India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.
High-level Quad meetings, like last week’s senior officials’ gathering in New Delhi, are becoming more frequent. The group’s four national leaders alone have held four summit meetings since Biden took office in January 2021.
The accelerating tempo of meetings, though, can obscure the fact that the Quad faces important challenges, including establishing a clear strategic mission in the Indo-Pacific region, a sprawling area shaping up as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. The Quad may have been designed to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, but Biden has coaxed the group into adopting an expansive agenda.
To be sure, the Quad has steadily gained strength since it was resurrected in 2017 from a decadelong dormancy. 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 Oceans.” But China’s increasingly muscular policies have helped the Quad to build momentum.
The waters of the Indo-Pacific have become an arena of competition for resources and geopolitical influence, which explains the Quad’s emphasis on the maritime domain. Indeed, as underscored by current concerns over Taiwan and the East and South China Seas, future Indo-Pacific crises are likely to be triggered at sea.
The Quad has also been catalyzed by the threat of an illiberal hegemonic regional order, which would pose significant risks to international security and global markets. The free and open Indo-Pacific vision driving the Quad was originally set out by Shinzo Abe, the late Japanese prime minister, and has since become shorthand for a rules-based, liberal order.
The Quad’s future, however, is fundamentally tied to American policies. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June called America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region “the core organizing principle of American national-security policy.”
It is “our priority theater of operations,” “the heart of American grand strategy” and “our center of strategic gravity,” Austin declared.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing hybrid war effort led by the U.S. against Moscow are distracting America from growing Indo-Pacific challenges. America’s new strategic focus on Europe and force deployments there — along with the rise of a more robust NATO, which has named Russia as its primary adversary and China as just a “challenge” — make it harder for the U.S. to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
In fact, as the U.S. gets more deeply involved in a proxy conflict with Russia, including supplying offensive weapons and battlefield intelligence to Ukraine, the Quad faces new uncertainties. Biden is the third straight president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But Biden’s expressed belief that the Ukraine “war could continue for a long time” suggests that he too could fail, as Donald Trump and Barack Obama did.
The new cold war with Moscow, meanwhile, is constraining Biden from taking a tough line toward Beijing, lest it help cement the nascent China-Russia axis. China, with an economy 10 times larger than Russia’s, has the capacity to seriously undercut Western sanctions against Moscow and bail out the Russian economy. All this is reinforcing the more conciliatory approach toward Beijing that Biden has pursued since taking office.
Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that the Quad’s security agenda has begun to take a back seat.
In fact, Biden has saddled the Quad with an increasingly global agenda that dilutes its Indo-Pacific strategic focus. Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as unveiled in February, confirmed the Quad’s shift toward universal challenges, from global health security and climate change to cybersecurity, resilient supply chains and green shipping.
As a small group, the Quad is in no position to deal with global challenges. Yet having launched six separate working groups on climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity, infrastructure and space, the Quad is getting weighed down by an overly ambitious agenda, crimping its ability to produce results.
The danger of overcommitting and underdelivering has been highlighted by the difficulties encountered by the Quad in supplying 1 billion Indian-manufactured COVID-19 vaccine doses to the developing world by year-end as promised. Even with the support of all four members, the Quad is set to fall far short of its vaccine pledge.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. pours military resources into Europe and the Middle East, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where China is working quietly to eclipse America militarily and economically. The bulk of U.S. economic and military assistance still goes to the Middle East, even as the U.S. prioritizes NATO in order to dominate European security.
The paradox in this situation is that the Quad is becoming stronger through greater engagement among its leaders and senior officials, yet the group appears in danger of losing its strategic vision and purpose. Unless its member states imbue the Quad with a clear strategic direction and meaning, it could become a showpiece or a mere U.S. tool of leverage with Beijing.
Before critics pummel the Quad for being all bark and no bite, the group must refocus its attention on the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”