US President Joe Biden holds first face-to-face meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as “Quad,” an informal strategic forum of the United States, Australia, Japan and India – all democratic countries with a vested interest in countering China’s rise in Asia.
Biden will be joined in Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian leader Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to discuss “promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to the White House.
The meeting comes at a time of great change for US policy in Asia. As the Biden administration prepares to strengthen its diplomatic partnerships in the region, Japan is adopting an increasingly hawkish view of China’s military build-up. At the same time, Australia’s AUKUS defense pact with the United States and the United Kingdom has strengthened Washington’s commitment to Asia while putting some important Southeast Asian partners in trouble. comfortable.
At this critical point, what the Quad chooses to do next is more important than ever. Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis said that compared to its early roots under the George W. Bush administration, the Quad has grown from a “low-profile political and economic dialogue” to an actor. very important in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Quad was originally offered in 2007, but was put on hold for a decade until it was revived under former US President Donald Trump amid China’s rise as an economic and military superpower. .
The diplomatic environment in Asia has changed considerably since this revival in 2017, and the Quad has taken on greater importance.
In April 2020, relations between Australia and China saw a major slowdown after Australian Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Beijing has retaliated by imposing punitive restrictions on Australian goods and the relationship has yet to be mended.
Meanwhile, relations between Washington and Beijing that have deteriorated under Trump have weakened further under Biden as the United States solidifies its diplomatic partnerships in Asia in a bid to contain China.
The new US approach was greeted with enthusiasm in Australia and earlier this month the two governments joined the UK to announce AUKUS, a deal whereby the three countries would exchange military information and technology to form a closer defense partnership in Asia.
Japan also welcomed greater US involvement in the region. After trying to pursue a warmer Chinese policy in the first years of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure, Japan has grown increasingly suspicious of Beijing over the past year.
In an unusually direct interview with CNN in September, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Japan would “resolutely defend” its territory in the East China Sea “against Chinese action.”
Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund in the United States, said India is now the most cautious member of the Quad and the extent to which the group is willing to push for defense cooperation and to oppose China might depend on Delhi.
Following a border clash between India and China in mid-2020, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers, experts said Delhi was reluctant to oppose Beijing.
But writing in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs in early 2021, Amrita Jash, a researcher at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said India is still moving closer militarily to the United States, including new military exercises. and improved, weapons purchases and technology transfers.
Part of the cooperation involves improved tracking and targeting technology, Jash said. “(There is) an imperative need for India to closely monitor Chinese (military) movements along the Himalayan border and to map the growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean,” she said. added.
Glaser said there was another determining factor how far the Quad would be willing to go to oppose Beijing.
“Another factor is China’s own behavior. The more China is willing to threaten the interests of other countries, to threaten economic coercion… the more countries will be willing to back down, ”she said.
United in Taiwan
Taiwan will likely be one of the main talking points in Washington on Friday.
Over the past year, Beijing has stepped up military activities around the island, which has been ruled separately from mainland China since a civil war ended more than seven decades ago.
The Chinese Communist Party considers Taiwan – home to around 24 million people – an inseparable part of its territory, although it has never controlled it. President Xi also previously warned that Beijing would not rule out the use of force to “reunite” Taiwan with mainland China.
Under Trump and now Biden, the United States has strengthened its ties with Taiwan in recent years, accepting large arms sales and sending high-level diplomats to visit the island.
Australia has regularly joined the United States in expressing support for Taiwan and in July Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said in a speech reported by local media that Tokyo should partner with Washington. to defend the island against any invasion.
Then, in August, for the first time, a meeting of senior Quad officials issued a statement stressing “the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.”
Glaser said she believed the August statement might have precluded a reference to Taiwan at the Quad leaders’ meeting this week, which would be an unusually strong move by the Indian government.
“I think it will be a wake-up call (for Beijing). They heard it from Australia and Japan, but never from India, ”she said.
A Quad uni could help deter further aggression from the Chinese government on Taiwan, according to Ben Scott, director of the Australian’s Security and the Rules-based Order Project at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
However, he said nuance would be important in any post to avoid a spiral into a potential confrontation. “There is always a risk of going too far and falling into provocation,” he said.
Fallout from AUKUS
The Quad meeting could come at a useful time for the United States, Scott said – there has never been a better time for Washington to show that it is part of a large and cohesive community in Asia.
Scott said that while he thought the AUKUS deal was a positive step for US diplomacy in Asia, he also presented a very “Anglosphere” face to the region.
“It describes itself as a club of maritime democracies that automatically excludes most of Southeast Asia,” Scott said. “(And) the center of gravity of the (US-China) competition is in Southeast Asia. “
In a September 17 statement, Indonesia said it was “deeply concerned” about an Asia-Pacific arms race and called on Australia to respect international law and its commitment to peace and stability. . A day later, Malaysia said the AUKUS deal could spur other powers “to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
As part of a larger cooperation agreement with Japan and India, Scott said the United States can present a more diverse face to Southeast Asia, among other parts of the continent – a face that is not only focused on military art but also economic and political. Cooperation.
Beijing cited the AUKUS deal as an example of how Washington is focusing solely on military might in Asia, Scott said. By comparison, China formally asked this week to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade pact of 11 countries from which the United States withdrew under Trump.
Scott said it was important that the United States now use the Quad to focus on “positive and inclusive” deals in the Asia-Pacific, if it was to effectively counter Beijing.
“If you want to win hearts and minds in the (Asia-Pacific) region, the first priority is Covid and the second is broader economic stability and security,” he said.