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18 February 2021, Times of India

Clouds over the Quad?

As President Joe Biden completes his first month in office, his foreign policy on China and the Indo-Pacific will come under scrutiny. The choices made will be significant as they will define the future prospects of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Given China’s long-term and comprehensive challenges, which encompass both, security and economy-technology, the Quad will have to respond with a matching strategy.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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As President Joe Biden completes his first month in office, his foreign policy – including its components relating to China and the Indo-Pacific region – is starting to come under scrutiny. Given the widespread perception that Barack Obama, the last Democratic president, was conciliatory towards China while Trump was tough, a legitimate question arises whether Biden will be content to be Obama 2.0 or will construct a strategy different from those of his two predecessors.

Future prospects of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad (composed of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) depend largely on U.S. choices, although an array of other factors such as China’s behaviour and other tendencies in Asian geopolitics remain relevant.[1]

The new administration faces several hard realities: the U.S.-China power gap has been narrowing rapidly; the geopolitical situation has deteriorated significantly since January 2009 when Obama entered the White House; and Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and policy measures won enormous domestic appeal. Well aware of America’s strengths and vulnerabilities, Trump turned to the Quad which gained steady momentum starting 2017.[2] The two meetings of the Quad foreign ministers (September 2019 and October 2020), followed by the four-nation Malabar Naval Exercise (November 2020), were important milestones in its development.

In this backdrop, the statement of Anthony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, at his senate confirmation hearing that the Trump administration was right to take a tougher approach to China,[3] became significant’ From there, repeated references by the new administration to the previously articulated Indo-Pacific strategy were a natural progression. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan then completed the circle by stressing that the Quad would serve as “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.”[4]

This will play out this week. Following President Biden’s inaugural telephonic conversations with a host of world leaders in the past month, the stage has been set for the first virtual meeting of G7 leaders on 19 February, to be hosted by the prime minister of the U.K., the current chair. A broad convergence may be developed on five other major conferences that are in the works:

  1. A U.S.-proposed summit of leading democracies
  2. A summit, possibly virtual, on climate change on Earth Day (22 April), to be hosted by the U.S.
  3. The G7 annual summit, to be held in Cornwall, U.K., in June 2021
  4. Meeting of the foreign ministers of the D10, the British idea to combine G7 with 3 Indo-Pacific states – India, Australia and South Korea. However, the proposal has reportedly evoked resistance from Japan, due to its sensitivities towards China and opposition to involve South Korea with G7, and
  5. A likely virtual summit of the four Quad leaders.

Once deliberations at these conferences and the traditional visit of the American president to Western Europe in May are out of the way, a clearer picture of the global power politics – and the Quad’s future – will emerge.

Meanwhile, fast-changing dynamics refuse to extend the luxury of time to U.S. policymakers and others. A number of setbacks or challenges have already surfaced, with a bearing on Asian geopolitics.

First, the much-talked-about decoupling of the U.S. and China is turning out to be more a myth than a reality. In all key realms – trade, investment, finance, technology – recent evidence suggests a trend towards continuity rather than disruption.[5]

Second, by indicating clearly that Washington will compete with China but also work with it on such issues as climate change and health, Biden is determined to bring Beijing into a web of negotiations, thereby diluting the earlier climate of confrontation.[6] Consequently, it may be difficult to devote attention and energies to strengthening the Quad that the Chinese distrust markedly.

Third, the derailment of the ten-year old democratic transition in Myanmar has brought into sharp focus policy divergences within the Quad. The U.S. and Australia favour a forthright condemnation and strong measures against the generals, whereas India and Japan prefer a pragmatic policy due to their apprehension that the western approach could drive the military government into China’s closer embrace.

Fourth, a less-noticed but significant development was the decision by Sri Lanka to cancel Colombo’s eastern container terminal project to be funded by India and Japan. It raises questions about the Quad’s credibility to offer an acceptable alternative to Chinese infrastructure development projects in the region.

Finally, developments relating to Japan and India too are relevant here. The transition from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga administration signifies, according to experts, prioritization by Japan of its imperative to improve ties with China over an increased solidarity within the Quad. The commencement of disengagement between Chinese and Indian troops in eastern Ladakh may trigger a process of normalisation of bilateral relations. While they are unlikely to regain the warmth of the pre-April 2020 period in a hurry, New Delhi may be inclined to improve the atmospherics, given its august responsibilities as the chair of the BRICS this year, a non-permanent member of UN Security Council, and the chair of the G20 in 2023.

China’s challenges in Asia are long-term and comprehensive, encompassing both security and economy-technology planks. Therefore, the response by the Quad (and other powers covered under the rubric of the Quad Plus) has to be a matching strategy. While defence ministries grapple with security issues, it is incumbent on captains of industry, tech visionaries, economists, space scientists and strategic experts to draw a roadmap for advancing economic and technological cooperation, both within the Quad and between the Quad and its willing partners. Else, the clouds over the Quad may darken further.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador.

This article first appeared in the Times of India

References:

[1] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘Asian geopolitics in 2021’, Gateway House, 1 January 2021. https://www.gatewayhouse.in/asian-geopolitics-2021/

[2] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘Quad, China and the Indo-Pacific churn ‘, Gateway House, 18 June 2020. https://www.gatewayhouse.in/quad-china-indo-pacific/

[3] ‘Donald Trump was right to take tougher approach on China: Tony Blinken’, Hindustan Times, 9 February 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/donald-trump-was-right-to-take-tougher-approach-on-china-tony-blinken-101612853129622.html

[4] Sriram Lakshman, ‘Biden administration will build on the Quad: NSA Jake Sullivan’, The Hindu, 30 January 2021. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/biden-administration-will-build-on-the-quad-nsa-jake-sullivan/article33703671.ece

[5] Martin Wolf, ‘Containing China is not a feasible option’, Financial Times. 2 February 2021. Also see, Shyam Saran, ‘China’s pursuit of global finance’, Business Standard, 4 February 2021. https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/china-s-pursuit-of-global-finance-121020402074_1.html

[6] ‘Joe Biden Speech on Foreign Policy Transcript February 4: “America is Back”’, Rev, 4 February 2021. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-speech-on-foreign-policy-transcript-february-4-america-is-back

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