Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has inherited his predecessor's tough stance on China. Photo: Screengrab / BBC / Getty

On Monday, national leaders of Australia, India and the United States will arrive in Tokyo for the fourth Quad Leaders Summit. While China frowns at the frequency of Quad meetings these days – four in just 14 months – this one will be spiced up by the Ukraine crisis and political uncertainty in one of the four members, Australia.

That country holding a general election on Saturday that could well see Prime Minister Scott Morrison voted out of office just days before the summit. Speculation has been raging over who in that case should represent Australia in Tokyo on Monday, the outgoing PM or his incoming replacement, Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine rages on, and the Quad leaders have not been on the same page on that issue, especially when it comes to sanctions against Russia. And, as always, China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region will be the major backdrop.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs urges that Quad leaders “must adapt to fast-moving crises such as regional military conflicts and natural disasters, and manage expectations … [and] do more to deliver on its core security goals.” But are the Quad leaders listening?

Australian elections

The most immediate challenge for this summit is the Australian federal election this Saturday. With opinion polls suggesting that the Labor Party will form the next government, opposition leader Anthony Albanese addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday claiming that he will be the one to be sworn in on Sunday or Monday and will attend the Quad summit.

Under Australian law, if Scott Morrison loses the election, he will have to submit his resignation immediately to Governor General David Hurley to allow Albanese to be sworn in. 

Morrison, who has been Australia’s caretaker prime minister since April 10 when the elections were called, has not clarified this point beyond saying that there are “conventions in place” that are being interpreted differently by both sides.

It could even transpire that the elections result in a hung parliament.

While some support continuity and suggest that if he loses the election, Morrison should join the summit using “observer status,” others believe he should withdraw from the summit or quickly make space for the next elected leader to join.

To reinforce this quandary, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong has also been claiming she intends to join the Quad summit. 

Australian power transitions have historically taken longer than 48 hours. The 2010 elections left the two major parties, Labor and Liberal, with 72 seats each in the lower house, four short of the 76 needed for a majority. It took Julia Gillard, of the same Labor Party that is in opposition now, as much as 17 days to muster enough support from Independent lawmakers to form a majority government.

With Morrison defending his one-seat majority and opinion polls showing a shrinking gap between the two major parties, Independent candidates are expected to hold the key.

All this adds interesting spice and spin for other Quad leaders scheduling bilateral meetings at Monday’s summit.

China’s challenge

To begin with, Albanese has been critical of Morrison’s leaking of information on submarine negotiations with France in the run-up to the launch of AUKUS, and more recently on the prime minister’s failure to redress China signing a military pact with neighboring Solomon Islands. Both of these indicate China staying as the centerpiece of Albanese’s foreign policy if he becomes PM. 

But in spite of media proddings, Albanese has avoided answering questions on China, calling it just “a challenging” relationship. Compared with this rollercoaster electioneering, the Quad remains subtle in addressing its China challenge, saying only that it is not targeting any third country.

For its part, Beijing has continued its blitzkrieg against Quad meetings. For example, on the Quad being revived in November 2017, Foreign Minister Wang Yi denounced it as a “headline grabbing” idea that would “dissipate like sea foam.” Later, Wang called it an “Indo-Pacific NATO” that has severely undermined regional security. 

Last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the Quad a group “steeped in the obsolete Cold War and zero-sum mentality [that] reeks of military confrontation” that “runs counter to the trend of [the] times and is doomed to be rejected.” 

The same sentiment was expressed in February by China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, who, while speaking at the Security Council debate on the Ukraine crisis, accused the US of being the “one country that refuses to renounce the Cold War mentality” and “creating trilateral and quadrilateral small cliques” in the Asia-Pacific region that he said were “bent on provoking confrontation.”

Ukraine crisis

While restraining China’s unprecedented rise was the Quad’s original mandate, China’s support to Russia will be another immediate worry for the Monday summit. US President Joe Biden would like to achieve a unanimous denunciation of Russia, which is unlikely. 

While the United States has been steadfast in its anti-Russia campaign – providing relief and defense materials to Ukraine and slapping harsh sanctions on Moscow – attitudes in Australia, Japan and India, in that order, have varied widely from Washington’s.

While it is not clear who will represent Australia at the summit, the attitude of host Japan makes an interesting read. Japan first appeared cautious on anti-Russia sanctions and unwelcoming to Ukrainian refugees.

And while the continued death and destruction in Ukraine has seen a clear change in Japan’s policy, it remains driven by its own domestic yearnings for assertive posturing and aligning with allies, largely a byproduct of its seeking autonomy from its biggest ally, the United States.

In a number of opinion polls recently, from Nikkei’s 61% to Yomiuri’s 80%, respondents supported this policy of assertive posturing. As a result. Japan has imposed sanctions on Russia and is now urging China to “play a responsible role” in the Ukraine crisis – but this again shifts the focus from Ukraine to China.

Among the four Quad partners, India’s posture of neutrality has so far been the most challenging for Washington. Variance in the response of America’s European allies has facilitated India asserting its autonomy.

But taking advantage of this situation, America’s peer competitor Beijing has been busy publicizing how China and India share a posture of neutrality – seeking immediate cessation of violence and immediate initiatives of direct apex-level dialogue – on the Ukrainian crisis.

But here again, the continuing Ukraine crisis has seen India evolving its strategy from showing concern to calling for independent investigations. India may have increased imports of oil, coal and other commodities from Russia, yet it has kept this increase within the anticipated limits of US tolerance.

Meanwhile, the US has continued with its nudging of New Delhi, and the continuing death and destruction in Ukraine have created added pressures for India.

All in all, the Quad’s deliveries have been piecemeal compared with its lofty objectives, and its US tilt needs to be rectified to ensure efficacy of its initiatives.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.