The first-ever Quad leaders’ virtual summit was a milestone for the 16-year old informal cluster. Born of the desire to respond to a major calamity in 2004, the four member-club has come full circle as it sought to tackle a pressing global health crisis and the long-term threat of climate change. It also aimed to outline principles for cutting-edge technologies. But for it to prosper, Quad has to be both quick and enduring.
For the United States, the summit presages the importance of the grouping to America’s grand strategy toward Asia and the high priority placed in the critical Indo-Pacific theater as rivalry with China intensifies. The March 12 summit, the first multilateral meeting presided by U.S. President Joe Biden, signaled the quartet’s resolve to compete with China’s vaccine diplomacy, lead the climate change agenda, and push back against Chinese attempts to dominate the supply chain of critical minerals like rare earths. To pave the way for the debut summit, a similar virtual Quad foreign ministers meeting was held last month.
Hitting the iron while its hot, the leaders’ summit was quickly followed by the inaugural visits of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea for “2+2” meetings with their counterparts. These visits suggest that Washington is consulting key Asian allies ahead of the meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska. All these taking place barely two months into office show how the Biden administration is keen in pursuing its vision for the region.
But the Quad has to put its act together fast and hold on to it. China’s medical outreach already made major strides and continue to break new ground even as it has yet to inoculate enough people at home to achieve herd immunity. As of early March, China already donated or pledged to donate over eight million doses to 30 countries worldwide. This display of sacrifice has tremendous appeal especially as it stands in stark contrast to Western countries cornering the vaccine market to prioritize their own constituencies before making commitments abroad. While commendable, pledging to donate a billion dose of Covid-19 vaccines by end of 2022 will be an apparent reiteration of the developed countries’ attitudes toward poor vulnerable countries in relation to vaccine access.
As the largest and fourth largest country donors to the global COVAX facility, the U.S. and Japan could do more than wait for end of next year before rolling out vaccine donations to countries in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and beyond. India, the only emerging country in the Quad, for instance, already donated over seven million doses to over 20 countries the world over. As with Beijing, New Delhi is doing this despite not having completed its own domestic mass vaccination. Although the dole-outs remain minuscule compared to the size of population of most recipient countries, these urgently needed jabs provide immediate protection to substantial numbers of medical workers and related frontliners vulnerable to coronavirus exposure in their daily grind. As China ramps up its own manufacturing capacity, delaying action until 2022 only provide greater window for China to win goodwill and influence for more than a full year. As countries with modest resources like Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and even Serbia undertake their own vaccine diplomacy, it will be a pity for the Quad to play too late the hero.
Furthermore, the Quad has to dispel notions that its pledges are but transient rhetorical or posturing devices that would not be backed by resources and sustained by political will from the four powers. The Blue Dot Network unveiled in 2019 involving the U.S., Japan and Australia—seen as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative—has yet to show up in the race to fund the burgeoning regional infrastructure demand. Likewise, not much was heard of the Economic Prosperity Network since it was pitched by the U.S. last March to dislodge China’s influence over critical global supply chains.
There is no shortage of proposal or desire to build coalitions—within or outside the Quad context—to oppose Chinese efforts to use economic statecraft or undermine established maritime rules of the road. Getting them off the ground and sticking to them remain the challenge. This is especially so as the four countries have their own bilateral dynamics with Beijing. Last month, both India and China, for one, pulled back from earlier positions they occupied after rounds of negotiations deescalating tensions in their disputed mountainous border in Ladakh. The U.S. and China had their first high-level talk in Anchorage, Alaska under Biden’s watch despite underwhelming expectations.
On the climate agenda, Washington’s re-commitment to the Paris covenant is a major step in restoring U.S. position on the table. But it’s hard to imagine making progress if the world’s largest and second largest greenhouse gas emitters—China and the U.S.—will not dance on the same tune. At most, the Quad’s collective pledge may pressure Beijing to make commensurate commitments.
On critical and emerging technologies, issues surrounding equity, cost, and accessibility—more than norm and standard setting—will garner support especially from developing countries. The Quad’s pushback against economic coercion will secure support—albeit privately for some—and the thought of alternative supply chains when non-market distortions occurred is relieving, if only they can endure.
Indeed, the Quad’s historic leaders’ summit made a big splash. But as the challenge posed by China is evergreen, insulating national commitments from policy shifts on account of domestic leadership change is imperative. Pushing back against Beijing while offering it spaces to retreat from counter-intuitive positions should also be central to the Quad’s play to sway a rival toward a more agreeable conduct.
This article was published at Analyzing War