US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries March 12, 2021, at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images via AFP

The major Indo-Pacific powers of Australia, India, Japan and the United States concluded on Friday the first-ever summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as “Quad.”

The 90-minute event, conducted virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions, paves the way for a de facto “Asian NATO” amid growing concern over China’s increasingly assertive behavior in recent years.

US President Joe Biden, who strongly lobbied for the summit early in his term, was joined by his counterparts Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The summit promised an intensified degree of strategic cooperation among the four participants, cutting across traditional and non-traditional security realms.

Crucially, the Quad powers agreed to new initiatives such as the “Quad Vaccine Partnership” as part of a coordinated effort to counter China’s “vaccine diplomacy” through expanded public health assistance and distribution of as many as one billion Covid-19 vaccines to Asian nations. 

The Biden administration, however, has consciously downplayed charges that it’s building an anti-China coalition under the auspices of the Quad.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken hardly mentioned the Quad in his “first major foreign-policy speech.” Nor was the grouping prominently featured in the White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.

Ahead of the summit, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to portray the Quad gathering as a constructive platform for global cooperation since the four leaders will discuss “a [full] range of issues” rather than just focusing on China, including “the threat of Covid, to economic cooperation, and of course, to the climate crisis.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends the Quad meeting with US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Ryohei Moriya/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP

Similar to the Quad foreign ministers meeting last month, led by Blinken, the historic summit saw the four powers shun any direct mention of China in their joint statement.

The Biden administration’s cautious rhetoric is also reflective of the uncertain trajectory of the Quad grouping in the past two decades. The 2004 tsunami, which wreaked havoc across South and Southeast Asia, saw the first intimations of growing cooperation among the four Indo-Pacific powers.

But Australia and historically “non-aligned” India opted out of the grouping in the late-2000s, preferring instead to deepen economic ties with an ascendant China. The Quad, however, experienced a rebirth under the Trump administration, which actively pursued an anti-China alliance amid a raging “New Cold War” with Beijing.

Informal meetings of the leaders of the four Quad nations took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila in 2017. This was followed by two other ministerial-level meetings in New York (2019) and Tokyo (2020), as the rise of more hawkish leaders among Quad members coincided with deepening geopolitical tensions with China.

The Biden administration is picking up where its predecessor left off, conducting the third Quad ministerial and first summit-level meeting within a few months in office.

Appearing remotely, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R). Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan underscored the importance of the Quad as “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy”, while the White House admitted the urgent scheduling of Quad meetings reflected “the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”

In an influential op-ed, former US Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with two of his colleagues at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution where he is now a fellow, praised the Biden administration for “continu[ing] former US President Donald Trump’s move to reinvigorate the [Quad] group.”

Upgrading the Quad as a check on China’s ambitions, argued Mattis, is “[Biden’s] most important task in Asia but doing so requires a specific agenda that builds on shared goals.”

The Quad summit was tinged with ideological undertones, as the four democratically elected leaders hailed the event as an important step in preserving an Indo-Pacific order “anchored by democratic values.”

They also indirectly criticized China’s “aggression” and “coercion” against some of their members, including “[trade] coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku Islands, their aggression on the border with India.”

In their joint statement, the Quad leaders emphasized their commitment to “promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity.”

Suga, however, was more forthcoming, revealing on Twitter that the grouping shared “strong opposition to China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo,” especially vis-a-vis territorial and maritime disputes with neighbors including India and Japan.

The four powers are expected also to tighten coordination against China’s perceived as predatory investment practices as well as regularize their joint naval drills from the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

A trilateral exercise between the US Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, however, made it clear that “The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China,” but that the summit “was not fundamentally about China.”

Eager to show that the Quad is more than just a talk shop or a military alliance, Biden and his counterparts pushed for a series of global initiatives, including on the need for a “transparent and results-oriented reform” of the World Health Organization, a new vaccine production and distribution partnership and growing coordination on combating climate change.

The Quad leaders agreed to the establishment of “complex financing vehicles” involving the US International Development Finance Corporation and its counterparts in Japan, Australia and India along with the WHO to ramp up vaccine distribution globally, especially to developing countries in Southeast Asia, a major theater of geopolitical competition with China.

Eager to pushback against Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy”, the Quad powers said they are considering to donate one billion doses to regional states before the end of 2022. The COVAX facility, a global mechanism for distribution of up to two billion doses of vaccines to 94 lower and middle-income countries, as well as the Serum Institute of India, a major vaccine producer, will be major elements of the Quad’s vaccine initiative.

Australia has committed up to $100 million for vaccine distribution in Southeast Asia, with the Quad assembling an experts’ group to facilitate its regional public health initiative. 

Climate change was also atop Quad’s agenda. With the Biden administration restoring American commitment to the Paris Agreement and advocating its own “Green New Deal” to create a carbon-neutral economy by the middle of the century, there is growing pressure on Australia and India also to reduce their carbon emissions in coming decades.

The four powers  agreed to deepen cooperation in mitigating climate change by “keep[ing] a Paris-aligned temperature limit within reach”, referring to the aim of preventing global temperatures rising by more than two degrees Centigrade by the end of the century.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP

Earlier, Biden’s climate czar John Kerry publicly acknowledged differences with Australia on the urgency of reducing emission levels to combat climate change, just as major Asian economies, including still-developing China, move towards carbon-neutral economies in the coming decades.

Despite the summit’s focus on non-traditional security threats and the Biden administration’s emphasis on the grouping’s constructive agenda, Beijing has remained deeply skeptical. Perturbed by deepening cooperation among its rivals, China has characterized the Quad as a “mini-NATO” and a disruptive form of “selective multilateralism.”

“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,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said shortly after the Quad summit was concluded.