The Quad might have finally found a mission amid Covid-19 pandemic

Topics Quad | Indo-Pacific | United States

The four nations seem finally to have realised that to be effective, they need to provide the region not just with a military counterweight to China, but a financial and economic alternative
The informal “Quad” grouping of Indo-Pacific powers — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — has always seemed more like an aspiration than an alliance. The four democracies all have very different economies and interests. They prefer not to make explicit the one thing they share: worries about China’s rise. Even equally disparate groupings such as the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are far more institutionalised.

Judging by this month’s meeting of Quad leaders, however, the grouping may have matured. Most importantly, the four nations seem finally to have realised that to be effective, they need to provide the region not just with a military counterweight to China, but a financial and economic alternative.

One big reason for the shift has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which has upended assumptions about everything from supply chains to international cooperation. The most dramatic initiative to emerge from the recent summit was a promise that the four nations would pay for excess manufacturing capa­city in India to be used to produce a billion doses of the Nova­vax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for use in Southeast Asia. Countries in the region are struggling to acquire the doses that they need; Indonesia may be paying nearly $15 a shot for the Chinese Sinovac vaccine.

This is a blueprint for what the Quad needs to do to be taken more seriously. First, many countries in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia, worry that the Quad is some sort of exclusive club. A joint project directly targeted at those nations should ease their concerns.

Second, the Quad nations now appear to understand the form that competition with China will have to take. The billion-vaccine project is focused on new directions for fina­nce, new connections between markets, harmonised regulations and new supply chains. 
However much they may agree on their common security concerns, the Quad countries have previously diverged sharp­ly on economics — particularly in terms of how to handle Chinese dominance of supply chains. Now, the pandemic has clearly taught politicians that diversified sup­ply chains are security issues.

And that realisation extends well beyond the Quad itself. No country in the region believes that unrestrained economic cooperation with China will lead to anything but dependence; nor, after recent events, could any of them believe that the current Chinese leadership will hesitate to weaponise that dependence.

These countries aren’t aiming to prevent China’s rise, even if that were possible. What they need most is for the free world to provide a robust alternative to China when it comes to trade, institutions, investment — and, yes, vaccines.

Ultimately, the Quad should focus on giving a well-defined shape to that democratic and inclusive alternative. That will require building out new institutions that help direct finance to Indo-Pacific countries, fund their infrastructure and induce new multipolar supply chains.

One possibility is a development finance institution that helps prepare sustainable infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific for investment by global capital, prioritising those that feed into a broader vision for regional connectivity and which meet their common standards for transparency and inclusion. The working group on emerging technologies the leaders announced, meanwhile, should stake out shared principles on data regimes and digital standards that could then be applied elsewhere in the region and the emerging world.

Naturally, the Quad countries must continue to work on deepening their defence ties as well — promoting interoperability, joint exercises and shared security commitments. They should expand that remit to issues such as the security of their infrastructure, including domestic power grids.

The Quad could also offer an entry point for democracies outside the Indo-Pacific to engage strategically with the region. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked at length about a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific in his outline for a new British foreign policy this week. Cooperating with the Quad would help answer questions about whether countries such as the UK can afford to have a strategy for the region in the first place.

But the Quad’s priority should be the same as the rest of the region’s: promoting growth and development that is healthy, rules-based and less dependent on China. The grouping has proved more robust than its critics would have anticipated. It’s survived the loss of US leadership under the Trump administration and the departure of its strongest backer, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In Australia and India, both of which had to endure a year of sharply higher tensions with China, cooperation with other democracies has achieved close to a bipartisan consensus. Now the Quad needs to help the rest of the region become more resilient, too.  

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