Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden invited the leaders of Japan, Australia and India to join him online for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”). Under the Trump administration, the foreign ministers of the Quad countries had convened twice since 2018, but the March 2021 summit represented the first meeting of the four heads of state.
The Quad concept was originally championed by Shinzo Abe in 2007, during his first stint as prime minister. India was reluctant to participate at the time, however, because it feared provoking China. Australia also worried about the potential impact on economic relations with China. Given the half-hearted response of the U.S., a crucial player, the Quad concept failed to gain traction.
Today, the circumstances are entirely different.
What has changed the most is the U.S. The Biden administration inherited the Quad concept from the Trump administration and immediately upgraded it to a top-level conference of national leaders. Consequently, bipartisan support for the Quad should be readily forthcoming. The joint declaration issued last month outlines a plan for an in-person summit by the end of 2021.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hailed the recent Quad summit, writing immediately after its conclusion: “Right now, the biggest beneficiary of last week’s meeting is Australia.” Last year, China imposed trade sanctions on Australian exports in retaliation against Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. The Quad provides a structure for collective opposition to China’s weaponization of the economy.
During the online summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his counterparts that “today’s summit meeting shows that Quad has finally come of age” and expressed his hope that the Quad “will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.”
China appears to have been caught off guard by the Quad summit. In 2018, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, dismissed the Quad as an ephemeral alliance that would “dissipate like sea foam.”
Last year, as the COVID-19 crisis deepened and the Trump administration intensified its attacks on China, Beijing began criticizing the Quad as “the Asian NATO.” The recent Quad summit came under fire from Chinese media outlets, with China’s Global Times writing of the Biden administration’s foreign policy and defense officials: “George Frost Kennan, whose ‘Long Telegram’ propelled the Cold War, seems to have become the ‘Jesus’ of U.S.’ strategy. That ‘Long Telegram’ can also be used as a trans-century ‘Bible.’” The Global Times was referring to George Kennan, an American diplomat and chief of the State Department’s policy planning staff, whose 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow laid out an influential argument for the strategic containment of the Soviet Union.
The Quad is also an extremely valuable tool for Japan’s longer-term strategy of “competitive coexistence” with China.
First, the Quad has clarified the U.S.’ intention to apply an Asia policy — or rather, Indo-Pacific policy — lens to its formulation and implementation of China policy. This approach to China policy is crucial as the U.S., Australia and Japan join forces with ASEAN countries — especially Vietnam and Indonesia — and India to build pressure against China. This is why the joint declaration issued at the end of the online summit in March emphasizes: “We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN unity and centrality.”
On a related note, the Quad signifies the U.S.’ decisive refusal of China’s decade-long invitation to form a “new relationship between the superpowers” — a “G2” or “special relationship.”
Second, as threats to national security grow increasingly geopolitical in nature, the Quad offers a foundation for its four members to fortify their economic and national security through technical cooperation, economic coordination, supply chain integration and resource-sharing.
Yet the Quad must also confront various issues.
To start, the democratic superpowers that comprise the Quad support the strengthening of democracies in the region, but the Hindu fundamentalism of India under Modi’s rule is causing alarm. Nor is India the only cause for concern. The U.S. itself is an increasingly problematic model of liberal democracy, as it grapples with such issues as racial injustice, widespread inequality, eruptions of populism and the country’s failed handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Next, should the Quad mount a “coalition of the willing” to compete with China, third parties must not be forced to choose between the U.S.-led Quad on the one hand, and China on the other. Above all, in the growing competition with China surrounding human rights and democratic values, the Quad must refrain from subjecting ASEAN countries to any sort of loyalty test.
The relationship between the Quad countries and South Korea also requires some adjustment. The advent of the Quad must have prompted a profound sense of alienation in South Korea. Yet South Korea also dreads facing relentless pressure from China if it were to join the Quad. This is why the U.S., Japan and South Korea should strengthen their trilateral policy consultations with the goal of creating a mechanism for South Korea-Quad cooperation.
The Quad has the potential to become a truly historic undertaking. Indeed, it may well emerge as the most significant by-product of international politics amid the global pandemic. The more consequential the Quad becomes, however, the harder China will work to provoke discord between the four member countries.
The peace and stability of 21st century Asia Pacific may hinge upon devising the perfect answer to the age-old question of quo vadis (whither goest thou?) — or more precisely, Quad vadis (whither the Quad?).
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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