Appearing remotely, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries on March 12, 2021, at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP / Alex Wong / Getty Images/

On March 12, US President Joe Biden chaired a videoconference of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States). The meeting took place less than a month after the third summit of Quad foreign ministers (February 18), also initiated by the US. 

Reaffirmation of values

In addition to reaffirming traditional guidelines such as democratic values, a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), enhanced security cooperation, rules-based settlement of maritime disputes, and ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad committed to providing a billion vaccine doses for the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific by the end of 2022.

The partners also expressed interest in combating climate change and developing common standards in emerging technologies. All parties emphasized the urgency of restoring democracy in Myanmar. 

Notably, India agreed to participate in the Leaders’ Summit. India has traditionally avoided any form of alignment. 

Concrete outcomes

Two concrete outcomes of the Leaders’ Summit were the first joint statement (“The Spirit of the Quad“), as well as the “FactSheet: Quad Summit,” describing the establishment of Quad working groups concerning Covid-19, climate change, and emerging technologies. The leaders also confirmed their interest in holding annual foreign-minister summits and holding a face-to-face leaders’ meeting by the end of 2021. 

Changes in American leadership

US President Joe Biden initiated the Leaders’ Summit. This points to at least two changes in Asia. 

First, it demonstrates the return of American leadership in the Indo-Pacific region. Biden is surrounded by a team of experienced Asia-Pacific experts. Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden is experienced in foreign policy and his steps are therefore more coherent and less erratic. We can expect a more pragmatic foreign policy instead of bombastic rhetoric.

Biden’s administration-to-administration approach, rather than leader-to-leader, is also yielding benefits in the form of summit outcomes. Indeed, even the frosty meeting in Alaska on March 18 with Chinese diplomats identified areas of cooperation on climate change. This low-hanging fruit should have been harvested long ago. 

Second, Biden’s rejection of Trumpian unilateralism was underscored when US officials met first with allies and close partners in Asia and after that with Chinese officials in Alaska.

Biden’s “diplomatic offensive” began with introductory phone calls to Quad partners. It was followed by a Quad foreign ministers’ teleconference, the Leaders’ Summit, and subsequent visits by the US secretaries of state and defense to Japan and South Korea in the 2+2 format, as well as a separate visit to India by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Biden’s emphasis on alliances was practically demonstrated by troop-hosting agreements with Japan and Korea. 

Whither China?

The joint statement of the March 12 Quad meeting titled “The Spirit of the Quad” intentionally avoids explicitly mentioning China. However, the statement makes clear in the first paragraph: “We are striving for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values ​​and unrestricted by coercion.” 

Speaking to the media, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the “four leaders discussed the challenge posed by China and made it clear that none of them had any illusions about China.”

Sullivan also noted that Quad leaders agreed to expand supply chains in their countries so that they are less dependent on China. Further, Quad members will cooperate in the procurement of rare-earth elements, which are key in the production of advanced and green technologies. 

Japan

The March 16 2+2 meeting in Japan was more focused on security. This is unsurprising given the increased intensity of China Coast Guard (CCG) intrusions into Japanese territorial waters and recent adoption of the CCG law.  

In Japan, the primary discussion topic was regional policy, with a focus on China. Prior to the 2+2 meeting, the US State Department released a factsheet (Reaffirming the Unbreakable US-Japan Alliance), which began with a commitment to strengthen the alliance, stating that this relationship “serves as a cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world for more than six decades.”

This document is similar in content to the subsequent text of the joint statement (March 16) after the 2+2 meeting. 

Covid-19 assistance

A clear positive outcome of the first Quad Leaders’ Summit is the interest of all members in developing the Quad Vaccine Partnership. The partnership is a coordinated effort to address China’s “vaccine diplomacy” through expanded public health assistance and efficient distribution of up to a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to Asian and Pacific countries.

This partnership complements existing Quad mechanisms and capacities – internationally certified US vaccination technologies; Indian vaccine production capacities; US, Japanese and Australian funding mechanisms; and Australian vaccine distribution capacities in cooperation with established World Health Organization and COVAX (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) mechanisms. 

Praise for the Quad

The Quad leaders were effusive in self-praise. President Biden argued that the “Quad is going to be a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the group’s agenda covering vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies make the Quad “a force for global good.” Modi also said: “Today’s summit meeting shows that Quad has come of age. It will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.” 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in his opening remarks, called the March 12 meeting “a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific.… As we emerge from this global pandemic and the global recession, let us together create a different future.… It is the Indo-Pacific that will now shape the destiny of our world in the 21st century.” 

The Quad Leaders’ Summit can also be seen as a significant success from the point of view of Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed the view that the meeting helped the four countries reach a “new stage” in their relations. 

In addition to the maritime security dimension, the Joint Summit Joint Declaration explicitly concludes: “We reaffirm our commitment to the full denuclearization of North Korea in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and the need to address the abducted Japanese people immediately.” 

Suga plans to visit the United States on April 16. He could become the first foreign leader to meet with the new US president in person. This honor is usually reserved for the prime minister of the UK. With this gesture, the Biden administration points to the importance of the Japanese-American alliance and the importance of US allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Headwinds

The Quad is also facing headwinds. Biden’s team is trying to repair fences neglected by the Trump administration, especially the frosty relations between Tokyo and Seoul. This was demonstrated in joint statements with both countries during the 2+2 meetings emphasizing the trilateral cooperation with Washington. 

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to improve relations between China and India. The language of US Defense Secretary Austin during his visit to India was diplomatic; nevertheless, worries about Indian purchases of Russian military hardware remain, with a possible purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system on the horizon. 

Tradewinds

With regard to international trade agreements, the US administration has recently said that there would be no return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which former president Trump removed the US. This was followed by an ambiguous statement that the US would engage in other multilateral fora. 

Trade and any regional economic architecture present perhaps the greatest challenges for Quad. Here, the group is beset by conflicting national interests and an inability to cooperate. 

Australia and Japan are both members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. However, the US has not reversed its withdrawal from the CPTPP’s predecessor and India has refused to join the RCEP. 

If the Quad is serious about acting as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region, the member states must stop underwriting Chinese aggression by supporting its regional economic vision. Instead, Quad members should act in concert within the CPTPP, even if it has to be modified to represent middle-class domestic constituencies better in all four states.

Michael Tkacik

Michael Tkacik holds a PhD from the University of Maryland and a JD from Duke University. He has published articles in a variety of journals. Tkacik’s current research interests include the implications of China’s rise, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and nuclear-weapons policy across Asia. He is a professor of government and director of the School of Honors at Stephen F Austin State University in Texas.

Erik Lenhart

Erik Lenhart holds an MA in political science from Charles University and is a former research assistant at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He has been active as an Asia analyst and published several articles related to Chinese geopolitical thought.