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Thursday, November 30, 2023

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China, COVID And Coal On Quad Agenda

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The first in-person leaders meeting on the Quad will take place at the White House on Saturday AEST.

Originally conceived as a humanitarian response to the 2004 tsunami, the group – which comprises Australia, the United States, India and Japan – has become a security mechanism to manage China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific and establish broader cooperation among the four democracies on climate change, COVID-19 and infrastructure.

The first ever in-person meeting of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), set for tomorrow, has set tongues wagging across the world. For these Quad nations to move from a virtual summit into the offline realm within the space of six months is a major leap of faith. Before this, the foreign ministers of the Quad nations had met in Tokyo in October last year.

A virtual meeting of the heads of government of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was held in March this year. Since then, there have been many rapid developments across the world. Most notably, the fall of the elected government in Afghanistan, the takeover by the Taliban and the United States’ hasty withdrawal from that country has led to a lot of upheaval in Afghanistan and beyond. The Taliban have already termed China as their most valuable partner and opened channels of communication with Beijing.

All these four countries have common interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent signing of the AUKUS pact between the U.S., U.K., and Australia makes it clear that new alliances are being worked in the region. The United States still remains a potent force even after the pullout from Afghanistan. The in-person Quad summit shows that U.S. involvement in the Indo-Pacific region seems to be growing in many ways. This augurs well for the region.

There are also signs that a new security architecture is in the works in the region. This includes players like the U.K., which recently sent a carrier group to the region. The French have also been very active in the region.

For India, the emphasis on the Quad is a sign that the naval realm will be key as New Delhi seeks to blunt Beijing’s moves on land (last year saw deadly clashes between the two sides along their disputed border). During his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also have his first in-person meeting with his U.S. counterpart. It has been almost two years since he visited the United States during the administration of then-President Donald Trump, when Modi addressed a mammoth rally in Houston.

What is on the agenda for each leader:

Joe Biden: The US President is desperate for some good news following a grim North American summer dominated by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and surging coronavirus cases. The new AUKUS partnership – announced with much fanfare at a joint virtual press conference – did not deliver Biden the triumphant headlines he wanted. Instead, the focus was on France’s furious reaction and the extraordinary decision to recall the ambassador to Washington for the first time in history.

Narendra Modi: The US and Australia are leading the push to contain China’s regional ambitions at the Quad, but it is India who has the most at stake. Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, leads the country that poses the biggest long-term economic threat to China’s dominance of Asia.

For now, India remains reliant on security support from other Quad partners in the broader Indo-Pacific, but it is about to do the heavy lifting in another key area: vaccine diplomacy. No other member has the capacity to produce vaccines on the same scale as India. The Quad members will help fund the production and distribution of vaccines from India to poorer countries across the Indo-Pacific. China has been supporting dozens of countries in the region with millions of doses while India prioritised domestic distribution due to its Delta outbreak.

Scott Morrison: The Australian Prime Minister is definitely punching above his weight when it comes to being a member of the Quad. The other three nations all have significantly larger populations, economies and military budgets than Australia. Meeting as an equal partner with the leaders of three such significant nations at the White House is a major moment for Morrison.

The Quad is important for Australia’s strategic interests because the country does not want to be left isolated against a rising and increasingly assertive China. For example, the Quad could open up lucrative export destinations to sell its rare earth minerals and develop a reliable supply chain for semiconductors that cannot be disrupted by Beijing.

Yoshihide Suga: Japan’s lame-duck Prime Minister has one last farewell trip to Washington. By the time he returns home next week, the Liberal Democratic Party will be on the cusp of replacing him. The 72-year-old resigned on September 3 after his approval ratings fell into the 30s and will leave office on Thursday.

Japan has championed the Quad as a regional deterrent to China, its superpower neighbour. It has ongoing territorial disputes over islands in the East China Sea with Beijing and as south-east Asia’s largest aid donor, is keenly aware of China’s growing influence in its immediate region. It wants all of its Quad partners to do more, particularly on infrastructure, as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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