Even before taking his oath of Office and immediately afterwards, President Biden expressed his dissatisfaction about the manner in which Trump carried out his foreign policy. He also signaled that under him Trump’s “America First” philosophy will not only be a thing of the past but also that he would rebuild alliances. Biden, as promised, has already rejoined the Paris climate agreement contrary to what Trump had done in 2017 when he left that UN accord.
In this context, it may also be recalled that President Donald Trump appeared to have always advocated for a classic, Cold-War style containment strategy. US-China relations consequently plummeted to an all-time low – owing to disputes over trade, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This trend was also evident in October last year during the meeting of the Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo. The then US Secretary of State Pompeo railed against what he called the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion”, adding it was “critical now more than ever” that the four countries collaborate to counter China. However, for Australia and Japan, the US strategy might have appeared to have been a step too far.
This time under Biden, the process appears to have changed in terms of dynamics.
Leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, participated in a Quad group virtual Summit in the second week of March convened by US President Joe Biden. The US President was joined in the meeting by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who appeared on three separate flat-screen monitors at the White House.
They pledged to work together to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region and cooperate on COVID-19 and climate issues. They pledged in this regard to cooperate in addressing climate change and work towards a successful outcome of the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow, Scotland.
Later, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan informed that the leaders had discussed challenges posed by China and focused on pressing global crises including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. It is understood that they discussed a possible vaccine drive for Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s influence. The media was also informed that in this Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad members also brought up the issues related to China’s coercion of Australia, harassment of Japanese fishing boats around the Senkaku Islands, and aggression on the border with India. Apparently, they also talked about Taiwan, where a recent show of military force by China had taken place in the 180-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait which had raised tensions.
It is understood that Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken are scheduled to have a meeting with senior Chinese diplomats on March 18 in Alaska. In this meeting the U.S. is expected to raise at a strategic level US concerns about China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and military actions in the Taiwan Strait. Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is also planning to go to Japan and South Korea sooner than later. It is understood that the U/S. will be having other high-level meetings and visits in the coming weeks with leaders from the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad Group since the initial discussions has also reaffirmed its commitment to denuclearisation of North Korea and urged restoration of the democratically elected civilian government in Myanmar. They have also announced plans to work together with the World Health Organisation for development and subsequent distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to more than one billion people in the Indo-Pacific region. They have also affirmed that they are hoping to convene an in-person summit before the end of 2021. Interestingly, Sullivan has described the vaccine programme as “a massive joint commitment today with Indian manufacturing, US technology, Japanese and American financing and Australian logistics capability”.
All these areas of emerging consensus has led former US Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who served in the administration of President George W Bush, to tweet that the Quad meeting would help “strengthen democracies in the region”.
The visit of the US Secretaries of State and Defence — their first official trips outside of the US — is being monitored very carefully by international political strategists because this will be their first in-person trip as part of a wider U.S. campaign to combat China’s influence in the region. It is being seen as an effort by the new U.S. Administration to boost regional alliances as a bulwark against China’s expanding might.
In Tokyo, Blinken and Austin will be attending a US-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting hosted by Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi. The U.S. Department of Defence has already indicated that the meeting will seek to emphasise the strength of the alliance as a “cornerstone of peace and security in a free and open Indo-Pacific in the face of long-term competition with China”.
The US officials will also travel to Seoul, where they will attend a US-Republic of Korea Foreign and Defence Ministerial hosted by the South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defence Suh Wook. The visit will try to emphasise the least common denominators that will not only “reaffirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea” but will also underscore its view that South Korea is a “linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity in Northeast Asia”. Blinken is also set to meet virtually with business leaders and journalists during these trips before returning to Washington, DC. Blinken, it may be noted, in this regard has already sent a tweet that the trip will aim “to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world”.
The U.S. Department of Defence in a press release has also stated that Austin will later visit India “to discuss deepening the US-India Major Defense Partnership” while in the region.
From all of these measures it is becoming clear that Biden believes that the Quad can play a more interactive role in promoting foreign policy initiatives. His Administration, in a subtle manner, is ostensibly continuing Trump’s hawkish approach towards China but, in principle, his strategy is putting more emphasis on strategic alliances.
This latest effort undertaken by the USA within and through the Quad forum is however being described by some geo-strategic analysts as an effort that is not likely to assure success. The Quad is being described as a decentralised grouping that lacks shared strategic goals that can deter China’s growing economic and military might. However for Poling, the US expert, Quad’s strength lies in its semi-formality- “the Quad is clearly not a security alliance and that makes it hard for China to prop it up as part of this US-containment narrative and it’s having trouble rallying criticism, even from its allies.”
Poling has, however, also noted that the combination of the US, Japan, Australia and India lends the Quad “an enormous amount of diplomatic weight”. His observation has also hinted that with the evolving dynamics in place criticism from a grouping that also includes non-aligned India will be harder for China to brush off. It has also been hinted by this analyst that the Quad “has to convince Beijing that if it wants to be a global leader, it will have to follow certain rules. None of the Quad members have enough weight to impose costs and convince China on their own. But maybe the Quad as a unit, working in collaboration with the Europeans on some specific issues, Southeast Asians on other issues, might have enough weight to convince Beijing that if it wants to play the global role it envisions for itself, then it will have to moderate its behavior.”
Lemahieu, the Lowy Institute expert has also observed that “a lot of countries are very wary, not just of China but of great power competition.” From this context some “see the Quad as a facet of great power competition, with the potential of further destabilizing the region. So the Quad needs to work to reassure the region that it is more than just a military counterweight to China, but that it is willing to apply itself in shoring the rules-based order, particularly in the economic multilateral rules based order.”
It appears from the above observations that there is some agreement that if the Quad is going to be serious about countering China in the Indo-Pacific, it will need to offer an alternative to China’s diversified economic diplomacy. They will also have to remember that today, the world is more interdependent and in more ways than one, after the pandemic, economic advantages will be taking priority.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.