The First QUAD Summit: A Critical Assessment 

The geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific Region is the reflection of the power politics between the US and China in the increasingly multipolar world order. The rise of China on the global stage has led to the resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD because the US perceives the Chinese increasing sphere of influence as detrimental to its dominance over the broader regional order. Although, the first summit of QUAD, held on 12th March 2021, was focused on non-military initiatives, but by no means it downplayed the US geostrategic interests in the region.        

The historical roots of “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” can be traced back to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami when the four major countries the US, Japan, India, and Australia emerged as a “core group” to support and assist the thousands of people who were badly affected by the Tsunami. Now, the announcement by these four countries to work together against another devastating global pandemic, COVID-19, can be seen as something of a return to the roots of QUAD.          

It is pertinent to mention that the QUAD was officially established in 2007 and the idea of this Quadrilateral Security Dialogue/Quadrilateral Initiative/QUAD was proposed by the then Prime Minister of Japan Mr. Shinzō Abe. The concept was based on the so-called Democratic Peace and the QUAD will ultimately include all the countries on China’s periphery except China. The concept indicated that the move was against China as the former US State Department official Morton Abramowitz also called the project “an anti-Chinese move”. Therefore, it is said that in fact, it is the Chinese increasing influence in the region that has provided the energy to the US and its allies to form the QUAD.  

The changes in the leadership and divergence in the strategies of the four members of QUAD couldn’t generate the desired results. Moreover, the struggle to have cordial ties with China has been an obstacle especially in the case of India and Australia as they both hesitatingly participated in the QUAD meetings due to their endeavors vis-à-vis China. The QUAD activities have been periodical since 2007 including the discussions between mid-level diplomats, a joint naval drill, and rare meetings by the military commanders of the respective member states.     

Despite Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and freeloading attitude towards its allies, his administration has made a significant effort to revive the QUAD. In 2017, Mr. Trump visited Japan and agreed to pursue the strategy of Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Between 2019 and 2020, the Quadrilateral met five times and as a result, Malabar Exercise was held in November 2020 and it was the first time that the Australian Navy also joined the exercise along with Indians, Americans, and the Japanese navies.  

However, the first summit of the QUAD hosted by President Joe Biden is a surprise move by the new US administration. It is interesting to note that this time the QUAD leaders have put forward a plan rather than just making the promises. The spirit of QUAD demonstrated in a joint statement by the leaders at the end of the summit in which the challenge of the global devastation wrought by COVID-19, the threat of climate change,  and security challenges facing the region have been highlighted as major challenges by the QUAD leaders. 

Moreover, above all, the containment of China policy is perspicuous under the garb of the shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific as the QUAD strives for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion. In addition to it, the QUAD leaders are committed to the complete denuclearization of North Korea and also confirmed the necessity of immediate resolution of the issue of Japanese abductees. On the recent development in Myanmar, the joint statement has added that there is an urgent need to restore democracy and the priority of strengthening democratic resilience.  

In the pursuit of the aforementioned goals, the four-member countries have not only committed to intensifying the QUAD engagements but also announced to launch of three working groups. The first working group will be a vaccine expert working group to implement our path-breaking commitment to safe and effective vaccine distribution. The second group a critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future, and the third one will be a climate working group to strengthen climate actions globally on mitigation, adaptation, resilience, technology, capacity-building, and climate finance. 

Furthermore, it has also been decided that the experts and senior officials will continue to meet regularly; the Foreign Ministers will converse often and meet at least once a year. At the leader level, they will hold an in-person summit by the end of 2021. These decisions indicate that the QUAD countries especially the US is now more serious and determined to contain the rising Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region and maintain its dominance in the broader regional order. 

Although apparently, the QUAD leadership has focused on climate change, COVID-19, and security challenges in the region but the ultimate agenda of the US-led initiative is to contain the Chinese increasing presence and influence. The US needs to work on different slogans to push the narrative to serve its strategic interests in the world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The mantra of the presumed shared vision for free and open Indo-Pacific safeguarded by democratic values cannot generate the desired result for the US and its allies in the region. 

Moreover, India one of the strongest actors in the group has been trampling the UN Resolutions on the Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), and now under the leadership of a Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi, it has also decimated the democratic values inside India by marginalizing the minorities especially Muslims and the Sikhs. The US also has a long history to violate human rights which are guaranteed under the UN Charter and International Humanitarian Law. Therefore, the key and leading actors of the QUAD need to put their own house in order before repeating this tagline of “democratic values and unconstrained by coercion”.

As far as the US objective to contain Chinese influence is concerned, the US cannot extract the same results by adopting the same policies against China as it pursued against the Soviets in the past. It also needs to understand the following realities. First, China is entirely different from the Soviet Union as the Chinese economy is strongly developed and also incorporated into the global economy while these characteristics were missing in the Soviet economy. Secondly, the established global political system is not threatened by the Chinese rise as China is very much comfortable with the current system. 

Thirdly, China is not following any expansionist agenda similar to the Soviet Union. Fourthly, most of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region are developing, therefore, they have welcomed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which is aimed at economic prosperity, interdependence, and connectivity. On the other end, the US-led block, as of now, is unable to offer any alternative project to the countries to meet their needs of economy and infrastructure development. Moreover, the economic prosperity, interdependence, peace, and stability in the region are in the interests of “all”, while it might not be in the interest of the US as the US economy thrives on its Military-Industrial Complex. 

Last but not the least, the QUAD members have the least potential to transform this group into an Asian NATO as there are some conflicting views on security issues in the past few years, such as China-India border frictions and the Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan, China and the countries involved are strengthening their interactions in these areas, such as economy and trade, science and technology, as well as humanities. China is still the largest trading partner of Australia, Japan and India, and one of the most important trading partners of the US. 

In short, the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region have weak standing as compared to the Chinese injection of billions of dollars, for the economic growth and infrastructure development, in the countries which would ultimately enhance the economic interdependence and connectivity across the region. However, despite the simultaneous convergence and divergence of interests between the QUAD member countries, if the US-led group manages to work on the aforementioned goals in their joint statement, they will be able to decelerate the Chinese BRI projects in the region, at least.   


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About Zeeshan Shoukat 14 Articles
The author is a Geopolitical and Strategic Analyst. He writes on Indo-Pak Ties, Geopolitics of Indian Ocean, Evolving Dynamics in the Middle East, and Global Power Politics. He tweets at @_IamZeeshan