An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College.
16 March 2021
Around midnight Sydney time on 12 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined a virtual dialogue with three other leaders to reframe international strategic competition.
Suddenly, if only for the moment, democracies have the initiative and China finds its diplomacy off balance.
On the surface, the first summit of the so-called Quad was just 90 minutes of trusted conversation among Morrison, US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide.
But this was more than a trans-Indo-Pacific talk-fest.
The inaugural Quad leaders meeting normalises and formalises this four-nation group as a pillar of partnership.
It is an early success for the Biden Administration in signalling America’s seriousness about engagement with this region, the centre of gravity in the world’s economy, demography and strategic rivalry.
It affirms that vision is not about Trump’s crude confrontation with China or transactional treatment of allies.
Instead, the Quad is about combining capabilities in pursing the common good – such as COVID-19 vaccine distribution - while pursuing competitive coexistence with an assertive Beijing.
Since the groups’s low-key revival through official-level talks in 2017, the critics – including China – have insisted two contradictory things.
On the one hand, the Quad was supposedly dangerous, an Asian NATO, an alliance that raised risks of conflagration by encircling China.
On the other hand, the four-nation enterprise was deemed flimsy and futile. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the Quad and the wider idea of Indo-Pacific solidarity as “an attention-grabbing idea” that will “dissipate like ocean foam”.
If the four countries were not automatically willing to risk all to fight China, then it was claimed they would achieve nothing. Granted, there was an accelerating tempo of Quad meetings – officials, even foreign ministers – but the fact these produced no joint communiques suggested differing interests that China would ultimately wedge.
No longer. The time for all those theatrics of fulmination, quibbling and dismissal is now mercifully over.
The terms of debate about the Quad have been reset. Even the sceptics now recognise it may be here for good, in every sense.
With a strong consensus statement and constructive action plan, the leaders meeting has confirmed that the Quad is here to stay and has plenty to do. What’s more, much of that purpose is to serve the interests of the whole regional community.
The historic statement of the four leaders did not name or threaten China. Instead, it called for a region “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion”.
It endorsed rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, territorial integrity, prosperity and the central role of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) – not exactly the agenda of strangers looking for trouble.
The practical action plan includes a massive commitment to deliver equitable COVID vaccine access in the region – including Southeast Asia and the South Pacific – and new official processes to find common ground on climate and technology issues. Hardly hawk talk.
And if the Quad becomes a platform for progressive American pressure on climate policy, its Australian constituency will fast outgrow security circles and become even more firmly bipartisan.
In fact, the quadrilateral security dialogue is proving true to its origins. After all, the novel partnership of four different democracies began with their mobilisation to provide humanitarian relief after the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004.
When their officials met in 2007 to share lessons learned from that collaboration, China began to protest this new grouping. A five-nation naval exercise, adding in Singapore, added to Beijing’s angst. China’s lobbying paid off, and the four backed away from meeting together again, Australia most openly.
But China’s subsequent decade of assertiveness deepened the logic for a ‘democratic security diamond’, as labelled by its persistent champion, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The Chinese behaviour that the Quad would supposedly provoke – strategic paranoia, rapid militarisation and geopolitical coercion – flourished in its absence.
The sensibility of seeking safety in numbers has recently intensified, given geoeconomic leverage against Australia, lethal violence on the border with India, new Chinese laws ‘legitimising’ maritime force against Japan, continued pressure in the South China Sea, the breach of pacts over Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.
The new Quad rhetoric is much about spirit and vision, but it is also about defining coexistence with China from a position of strength.
Just as the four leaders have promised to meet again soon – in person – their militaries will get used to training together. Much more is possible, including sharing intelligence, joint innovation in advanced technologies and trusted supply chains in critical minerals.
No doubt there will be limits to what the Quad can do together. It will be vital to manage expectations, and to follow through early on the promise to work inclusively with others.
Australia could take a lead here, for instance by hosting a small Quad secretariat of dedicated officials from the four countries, with clear channels of coordination with other nations and groups.
The Quad leaders have signalled theirs will be a flexible coalition – ready to work with others, issue by issue. The choice of cooperation or competition is now China’s.