Today President Biden held a teleconference meeting with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. This group, known as the Quad, is an old idea which was revived a few years ago by President Trump. The first instance of the Quad started after the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. These four nations teemed up to provide relief after the disaster which killed nearly a quarter million people. A few years later Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested forming a more formal group but China’s reaction quickly killed it off:
A flurry of discussion led to some progress in 2007 as the nascent Quad held one military drill and round of dialogue. But after China sharply criticized the group’s formation, Australia (and also India, some say) got cold feet and withdrew from the four-nation team in order to maintain good relations with China.
Jump forward ten years and President Trump was looking for a way to counter China’s influence.
In November 2017, the Trump administration revived the Quad idea with their foreign counterparts. The four nations said they’d work together to patrol regional waterways where China was acting aggressively, such as in the South China Sea. That led some commentators and Chinese officials to speculate they were witnessing the embryonic stages of an “Asian NATO,” a reference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which began as a military alliance to counter the Soviet Union in Europe.
The Quad’s members shut down any talk of that nature, releasing public statements that never cited China’s rise for the Quad’s return. “The discussions focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region that they share with each other and with other partners,” a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs read at the time.
In the wake of China’s recent squabbles with Australia and India, neither country is backing away from the Quad this time. Today, the group took it’s biggest step yet by having a meeting of the four leaders. You could say that Biden has fully embraced Trump’s revival of the group. Today they committed to a major vaccine distribution effort:
The four counties made a commitment Friday to deliver up to 1 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Indo-Pacific countries by the end of 2022 using Indian manufacturing, U.S. and Japanese funding and Australian logistics, national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at a White House briefing.
That effort is a direct response to China’s own vaccine diplomacy efforts, i.e. using the distribution of the vaccine as a way to gain favor around the world. Despite this, the Quad is doing it’s best to maintain that it isn’t primarily about countering China:
“It was established not to counter one single threat or to focus on one single issue,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday, but “to showcase what democracies can deliver together, both for our own populations and for the broader world.”
Despite these protestations, the alliance is widely viewed as an effort to combat Beijing’s growing military and economic power.
“It’s a group of countries all concerned about China, and all trying to hold the line for an open, democratic non-Chinese way forward,” author and China analyst Bill Hayton told NBC News.
Remember all those stories about China trying to impress the world with its control of the outbreak? The ultimate goal here is about convincing people the Chinese one-party-state with its “alternative model” of human rights and state power is superior to open democracy. So to the extent the Quad is countering that impression, it’s a worthwhile effort. Perhaps the best indication that the Quad is a good idea is that fact that China clearly doesn’t like it:
Asked about the Quad meeting at a news conference in Beijing on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said international exchanges and cooperation should promote understanding and trust “and should not target or harm the interests of third parties.”
“We hope relevant countries will follow the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results, refrain from forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity,” Zhao said.
So, yes, this was a good idea when President Trump revived it and it’s a good idea now that President Biden is embracing it and taking it even further. Personally, I like the idea that this could gradually develop into something even more significant over time, i.e. an Asian NATO alliance. China is the biggest threat to the U.S. and the world and having the U.S. coordinate with the leading democracies in the region is one way to respond to that threat.