ISSN 2330-717X

First Quad Leaders Meeting: An Agenda Beyond Security – Analysis

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Besides vaccine diplomacy, this Quad meeting deliberated on matters like climate change, and critical and emerging technologies.

By Premesha Saha

In a first, a virtual meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral (Quad) was held on 12 March 2021, which highlighted the need for cooperation among the member countries to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through joint partnership on vaccines and also stressed on the need for ensuring an ‘open’ and ‘free’ Indo-Pacific region. This meeting was significant not only given that this was the first ‘Quad leaders meeting,’ but also because this meeting was very crucial for the current Biden administration to show that the United States (US) will remain committed to the idea of ensuring a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ region. Right after President Biden assumed office, there were speculations that the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ will not form the predominant pillar in the US’ foreign policy henceforth, like it did under the Trump administration.

As has been presumed by many, the current US administration would be more occupied with issues at home and foreign policy in general and the Indo-Pacific concept in particular would take a back seat. But soon after assuming office, a senior US official had noted that, “The Biden administration views Quad — as having essential momentum and important potential.” President Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd had telephonic conversations with their counterparts in India, Australia, and Japan soon after as well and in these conversations the Indo-Pacific had figured prominently.

The third Quad ministerial meeting and the first under the Biden administration was also held virtually on 18 February 2021, where External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi reiterated their common vision for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Even the idea of the leaders meeting was proposed by the US within the first weeks of the Biden administration taking over. Therefore, continued efforts can be clearly seen from the US’ end to assure its partners and allies in the region that the maintenance of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ and, thereby, the Quad too will remain a serious matter for this administration.

This meeting marks a significant milestone as the first Quad meeting in 2007 in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami started as a tentative grouping of officials from the four countries. Quad 2.0 also kicked off as a senior officials meeting at the level of joint secretaries in 2017, and there were doubts if this grouping would emerge as something substantial in the upcoming years.

This meeting also witnessed the release of a Quad leaders joint statement — “The Spirit of the Quad” — which is also a big step forward considering the release of separate statements by the four countries’ foreign ministries after the previous Quad gatherings, which had been the point of criticism frequently raised by the Quad sceptics. The Quad 2.0, even if it has gradually indeed evolved or “come of age,” it is important that such a grouping ensure that the Indo-Pacific region is not “dominated by any one country” and that this has been realised by the leadership of the four countries. 

Till now security concerns like Chinese encroachments in the South and the East China Seas, ensuring a rules-based global order, and a free and open Indo-Pacific formed the main crux of the discussions in these meetings. Furthermore, Australia joining the Malabar exercises last year alongside the Indian, Japanese, and the US navies, made the Quad more of a security architecture or grouping in the Indo-Pacific region.

While maritime issues in the South China Sea, the North Korea nuclear issue, and upholding the democratic values, especially in light of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, were discussed and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted, “Leaders of the US, India, Australia, and Japan did discuss the “challenge” posed by China during the first meeting of the Quad, and they made clear that none of them have any “illusions” about Beijing.” This meeting also saw the coverage of issues which are plaguing the world — COVID-19, climate change, cyber threats, and concrete solutions being proposed to deal with the same as well.

The most noteworthy outcome of the meeting has been the four countries pledging to “deliver a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine throughout the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022 in what is widely seen as a bid to counter China’s influence in the region.” US, Japan, and Australia have pledged to give at least US$ 600 million to support the roll-out of vaccines throughout the Indo-Pacific, including “last-mile” vaccine delivery. The countries will also work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and COVAX facility, in its global vaccine drive led by UNICEF.

According to a statement by Foreign Secretary, Harsh Shringla, “The four countries have agreed to a plan to pool their financial resources, manufacturing capabilities and capacities, and logistical strengths so as to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region.” Proposal to form a Quad Vaccine Experts Group comprising of top scientists and officials from all the four countries was also put forward. The vaccine diplomacy that is being planned to be undertaken by the four countries will witness the use of “shared tools and expertise.” This should be the basic premise on which any ‘issue-based alignments’ and groupings should rest on.

Besides vaccine diplomacy, this Quad meeting deliberated on matters like climate change, and critical and emerging technologies. The establishment of a new Quad Climate Working GroupCritical and Emerging Technology Working Group that will help set standards in key technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence (AI), and another on cyberspace that will help the four countries meet this growing threat were some other ideas which were laid out.

This Quad meeting appears to be the platform used by the Biden administration to attempt to take care and correct some of the issues which can be considered the legacy of the Trump administration — like withdrawing US support from multilateral organisations such as WHO and the Paris Agreement on climate change. In the “Spirit of the Quad” statement, US’ endeavour to work in close coordination with multilateral organisations including the WHO and COVAX, as well as the need for “transparent and results-oriented reform at the WHO” was pointed out. Additionally, the primary task of the Quad Climate Working Group is to ensure the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The Quad’s activities have always been seen as directed to counter a ‘rising China.’ With such varied issues being brought up at this meeting, the message that is being put across is besides the China factor, this grouping needs to ponder on other threat concerns which loom over the Indo-Pacific region. Under the helm of the Biden administration, the Quad now appears to be an architecture of the Indo-Pacific region for the four democracies to work as a group and with other countries on economics, technology, climate, and security. It had repeatedly been asserted by scholars and experts in the past that the Indo-Pacific cannot be viewed under the security lens alone, but it does provide a unique opportunity for like-minded countries to work in other areas of critical and mutual interests. Therefore, this Quad leaders meeting is a step in the right direction as it is not just in the security realm where the rise and advancement of China is noticeable; it is in the above-mentioned domains as well.

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