It is crunch time for the Quad

Biden is the third straight U.S. leader unable to reorder Washington’s strategic priorities

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

U.S. President Joe Biden’s last-minute cancellation of his planned appearance at a Quad summit in Australia will strengthen the perception that the war of attrition in Ukraine is deflecting Washington’s attention from mounting security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Citing the imperative of cutting a deal with congressional leaders to avert a looming U.S. debt default, Biden also scrapped plans to stop in Papua New Guinea for what was to be the first visit by a U.S. president to a Pacific Island nation.

The dual cancellations will reinforce questions about America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, which is shaping up as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub.

If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of the international order, as many observers contend, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would usher in a new global order by ending America’s preeminence and irreparably damaging the U.S.-led alliance system. Yet the Biden administration remains overly focused on European security.

Biden’s planned Pacific tour next week had promised to put the international spotlight back on the Indo-Pacific and would have signaled that Washington had not taken its eye off the region despite America’s increasing involvement in the Ukraine war in terms of providing weapons, training and battlefield targeting data to Kyiv.

Only China can be pleased by Biden’s decision to simply return to the White House after the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Just as China is the sole country really benefiting from the conflict in Ukraine, Biden’s scrapped visits are likely to bolster Chinese ambitions in the Pacific while setting back Washington’s efforts to contain Beijing’s growing influence. Using its economic power and the world’s largest naval fleet, China has been making rapid inroads among Pacific island nations.

The last thing Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, wants is an end to the Ukraine war because that would leave the U.S. free to focus on the Indo-Pacific.   © Reuters

Biden’s canceled visits serve as a fresh reminder that hyperpartisan politics and hardened polarization in the U.S. are crimping the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, America’s partisan divide has a direct bearing on its foreign policy priorities, with Republicans most concerned about China and Democrats about Russia, according to opinion polls.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to proceed without Biden to Papua New Guinea for a summit with Pacific island leaders, and then to go on to Australia.

India has been steadily expanding its outreach to strategically located Pacific nations, stepping up foreign aid and establishing the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation. Meanwhile, around 24,000 people have registered to welcome Modi to Stadium Australia in Sydney next Tuesday.

More broadly, the Quad summit’s cancellation could not come at a worse time for a grouping that is already at a crossroads.

The Quad was resurrected during U.S. President Donald Trump’s term but summits among its leaders began only after Biden took office in 2021. Despite this increased engagement, the Quad’s challenges have been growing due to the absence of a clearly defined strategic mission for the group.

Biden is the third straight U.S. president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But the deepening U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict, coupled with the possibility that the war could drag on for a long time, suggests that he, too, could fail to genuinely make a pivot.

As if that were not bad enough, Biden has saddled the Quad with an increasingly expansive agenda that dilutes its Indo-Pacific strategic focus.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, unveiled last year, underlined how the Quad has turned its attentions to everlasting universal challenges ranging from climate change and cybersecurity to global health and resilient supply chains. Such an ambitious agenda has little to do with the Quad’s original core objectives, including acting as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensuring a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

By pursuing a strategy to bleed Russia in Ukraine, Biden may be weakening a major adversary, but he is also sapping America’s strength.

The war is revealing Western military shortcomings, with weapons in short supply, critical munitions depleted, and U.S. capacity to restock insufficient. More fundamentally, it is distracting America from growing Indo-Pacific challenges.

The last thing Chinese President Xi Jinping wants is an end to the Ukraine war because that would leave the U.S. free to focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, before moving on Taiwan, Xi could seek to further deplete U.S. weapons arsenals through indirect arms shipments to Russia that could force the West to send more supplies to Ukraine. To a limited extent, Xi is already aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war by supplying drones, navigation equipment, jamming technology, fighter-jet parts and semiconductors to sanctioned Russian entities.

Against this backdrop, the Ukraine war is accentuating the Quad’s challenges, even while its leaders continue to regularly hold discussions, including an expected gathering on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima where Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will appear as special guests.

To acquire clear strategic direction and meaning, the Quad must focus on dealing with Indo-Pacific challenges, not global ones. Without a distinct strategic vision and agenda, the Quad will have little impact and just be an ineffective talking shop.

Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center 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.”