Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has declared a ‘’new dawn’’ in the Indo-Pacific after the first ever head-of-government meeting of ‘the Quad’. The virtual meeting on the 12th of March between Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and American President Joe Biden was notable. It is the first joint-meeting between the leaders and signals to the region that the Quad has emerged as an important cornerstone of the regional security architecture. This marks a significant step towards cementing the partnership of these democracies–and counterweight to China–that had once appeared to be more concept than reality.
Known as the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue', the Quad was established in 2007, but failed to take off for several reasons. In 2017, the Quad was resurrected out of mounting pressure on the members by China. It was also bolstered by the Trump administration, which saw it as the regional cornerstone of its confrontational approach to Beijing. Consequently, Quad foreign ministers have met regularly in recent years and all four partners conducted a major joint military exercise in November last year.
Recent activity has increased impetus for a more formalised structure of the Quad to emerge. All four nations have seen their relations with China rapidly deteriorate over the last couple of years. The Biden administration is facing a growing peer competition in China, and Beijing is punishing Australia with trade conflict over political grievances. More pressingly, Japan is facing a sabre-rattling China along its territorial boundaries, and Indian and Chinese forces have directly engaged in skirmishes across the Himalayas. These events have led to the remarkable convening of the premier leader summit of the Quad.
The meeting demonstrates that the Quad has emerged into an important entity in the Indo-Pacific. The partners announced a string of new collaboration efforts including: working groups for cooperation on climate change, technology standards and a joint development of emerging technologies. Most significant, however, was the announcement of vaccine distribution in the Indo-Pacific, which is undoubtedly aimed at countering China’s own vaccine rollout in the region. The Quad countries have the aim of manufacturing one billion vaccines by 2022 through this initiative. This is an example of how vaccines have become a new flashpoint in international relations, and how great powers can leverage soft power to “win hearts and minds”.
During the meeting, President Biden also reportedly gave his commitment that the US will not grant China any improvement in relations until Beijing stops its economic coercion of Australia. Another important development to come out of the Quad dialogue was the announcement of an in-person meeting by the end of the year. This meeting will likely further solidify the relationship and produce consequential outcomes.
The joint statement leaves no doubt that an increasingly assertive China is driving the elevation of the grouping to national leader status. It noted: “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”. This suggests further cooperation against Beijing into the future and a need to defend the international rules-based order.
The future of the Quad appears to be firming in this direction. The Quad countries are reportedly preparing to roll out a plan to reduce dependence on Chinese rare earth imports. During the mid-2010s, Japan and Australia proved it could be achieved. The Quad nations intend to counter Chinese dominance in the market by cooperating in funding new production technologies and development projects. They are also ramping up joint-military exercises, with a joint French-Quad naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, planned for early April 2021.
The Quad is not a military alliance. However, reluctance among the four members to antagonize China by formalizing the Quad structure is evaporating. Already, it is a powerful emerging piece of regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, but is unlikely to ever transform into an ‘Asian NATO’. Nevertheless, the latest meeting marks a potential turning point. Three years ago, when the Quad countries came together, they only sent officials to minimise the fall out with Beijing, now the leaders have met and announced a new range of Cold War-esque policy initiatives. The Quad has “come of age” and it will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.
Cameron Smith is a recent Bachelor of Arts History (Hons) and International Relations graduate from the University of Wollongong. His interests include American global affairs, international security and Australian foreign policy.