By Yuri M Yarmolinsky
Amid increasing recognition of the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) as the engine and centre of future global development and growth, it is important to highlight the historic event held on 12 March 2021—the high-level virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. The unofficial format of the Quad has been promoted by its participants since 2007, at the behest of Tokyo with varying degrees of activity, national involvement, and success.
The rapid analysis of the thematic publications of the leading Asian—mainly Indian—analytical centres suggest the following general conclusions. Predictably, the key narrative has been a cause-effect link between the increase in action of the Quad and China’s unilateral and expansionist actions in the region. In this regard, the new U.S. administration seeks to involve its regional partners in the confrontation with Beijing, including within the Indo-Pacific Region.
As the Quad approaches the intended institutionalisation, its participants seem determined to work more closely with key regional actors. Thus, to reassure the ASEAN member countries amidst the geopolitical turbulence, the leaders reaffirmed their strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality. However, many ASEAN countries do not want to openly take sides in the confrontation between the U.S. and China. Most of them welcome the U.S. presence in the region. Concurrently, they are aware of the benefits of cooperation with China, which will in any case remain the main trading partner.
Having regard to the plans of France, Great Britain, and Germany to deepen cooperation with the Indo-Pacific Region, experts do not rule out the future expansion of the Quad. While maritime safety dominated the summit agenda, the focus was on the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and human health, climate change, common challenges in cyberspace, critical technologies, counterterrorism, investment in quality infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. The Quad leaders agreed to launch a vaccine cooperation program for the Indo-Pacific Region, with a focus on Southeast Asia (ASEAN), which, if successful, could be replicated in other sectors. The stated goal of the initiative is to address a severe healthcare challenge by creating opportunities for rapid vaccination of a large number of people. Clearly, this initiative deserves approval and support. A closer look, however, reveals a latent attempt to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy—Health Silk Road— which already covers more than 60 countries around the world.
In many ways, the Quad’s decision to focus on fighting the pandemic marks a new approach to China. While the Biden administration continues to adhere to Trump’s methods on this issue, it also seeks to create the added value, especially in terms of building multilateralism and creating a complex challenge to Beijing.
On the eve of the summit, the Global Times—the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s paramount mouthpiece—had warned that an attempt to replicate NATO in Asia will not succeed. In turn, Russia has previously positioned the Quad as a new game of the West, designed to involve India in anti-Chinese strategies and undermine Indo-Russian relations. Given that rhetoric, the Quad member countries’ major task will be to balance economic ties in the region while simultaneously curbing the expansion of China. All Quad countries are heavily dependent on Chinese supply chains, and each country is more economically integrated with China than with one another. This applies in particular to India and Japan. China is their first or second largest trading partner. Therefore, a number of Indian analysts believe that New Delhi will be able to breathe life into the project becoming an alternative to the Chinese world factory.
India is certainly considered an essential element of any strategy in the region. But so far, New Delhi has not dared either to directly align itself with the U.S. to contain China or add an outright anti-Chinese dimension to its participation in the quartet. Meanwhile, the growing gap in national power, the long-term border confrontation, and other related factors might well push Indian strategists to a certain revision of the policy of strategic autonomy and make the U.S. the main security donor, as in the case of Australia and Japan.
The Quad can set the framework for a global governance model in a post-pandemic world, but it is unlikely to become a NATO-like formal security alliance. Its evolution will be determined by its ability to mix global challenges in the interests of a wider range of countries. On the other hand, whatever form it eventually takes, the March summit will have an impact on the region’s geopolitics. In theory, such dynamics may push Beijing to institutionalise the Himalayan Quad project involving China, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as a counterweight to the Quad. The pandemic turbulence, which has exposed China-centric vulnerabilities and dependencies, has already spurred India, Japan, and Australia to launch a separate global Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), which involves their realignment away from China. For many countries in Asia and Oceania, the Chinese factor is the main driver of large-scale arms imports. According to recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this particular region was marked as the largest importer of conventional weapons in 2020, accounting for 42 percent of world trade. All while the main importers were India, Australia, China, South Korea, and Pakistan.
Indian analysts use a figure of speech noting that the APR becomes the jackpot in the planet’s geo-strategic sweepstakes and the centre-stage on which the new edition of the great game is being enacted. Also, it is difficult to argue that the region belongs to the geopolitical space where the celestial empire—China—challenges both the United States and the Asian status quo in an effort to pursue the Chinese dream and gain a status of a great world power.
Thus, the seemingly inevitable and obvious trend of shifting the centre of the world’s geopolitics and geoeconomics to APR suggests that the coming “Asian Century” will be eventful and hardly anybody can remain unaffected. This specifically refers to those enthusiasts who will be able to timely and accurately see its hidden potential and benefits from the point of view of national interests and formulate the outlines of their own unique strategy for the Asian manoeuvre.