Even before taking his oath of office and immediately afterwards, US President Biden expressed his dissatisfaction about the manner in which Trump carried out his foreign policy.
He also signalled that under him Trump’s “America First” philosophy will not only be a thing of the past but also that he would rebuild alliances. Biden, as promised has already rejoined the Paris climate agreement contrary to what Trump had done in 2017 when he left that UN accord.
In this context, it may also be recalled that President Donald Trump appeared to have always advocated for a classic, Cold-War style, containment strategy. US-China relations consequently plummeted to an all-time low – owing to disputes over trade and the coronavirus pandemic. The four countries collaborate to counter China. However, for Australia and Japan, the US strategy might have appeared to have been one step too far.
This time under Biden, the process appears to have changed in terms of dynamics.
Leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, participated in a Quad group virtual Summit in the second week of March as convened by US President Joe Biden. The US President was joined in the meeting by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who appeared on three separate flat-screen monitors at the White House.
They pledged to work together to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific and cooperate on COVID-19 and climate. They pledged in this regard to cooperate on addressing climate change and to work towards a successful outcome of the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow, Scotland.
Later, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan informed that the leaders had discussed challenges posed by China and focused on pressing global crises including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. It is understood that they discussed about a possible vaccine drive for Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s influence.
Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later had a meeting with senior Chinese diplomats on March 18 in Alaska. In this meeting, the US raised at a strategic level US concerns. It is understood that the US will be having other high-level meetings and visits in the coming weeks with leaders from the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad Group since their initial discussions have also reaffirmed its commitment to denuclearisation of North Korea and urged restoration of the democratically elected civilian government in Myanmar. They have also announced plans to work together with the World Health Organization for development and subsequent distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to more than one billion people in the Indo-Pacific region. They have also affirmed that they are hoping to convene an in-person summit before the end of 2021. Interestingly, Sullivan has described the vaccine programme as “a massive joint commitment today with Indian manufacturing, US technology, Japanese and American financing and Australian logistics capability”.
The visit of the US Secretaries of State and Defence - their first official trips outside of the US - is being monitored very carefully by international political strategists because this is their first in-person trip as part of a wider US campaign to combat China’s influence in the region.
In Tokyo, Blinken and Austin attended a US-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting hosted by Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi. The US Department of Defence indicated that the meeting emphasised the strength of the alliance as a “cornerstone of peace”.
The US officials also travelled to Seoul, where they attended a US-Republic of Korea Foreign and Defence Ministerial meeting hosted by the South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defence Suh Wook. The visit tried to emphasise the least common denominators that not only “reaffirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea” but also underscored its view that South Korea is a “linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity in Northeast Asia”.
The US Department of Defence in a press release also stated that Austin later went to India “to discuss deepening the US-India Major Defence Partnership” while in the region.
From all of these measures it is becoming clear that Biden believes that the Quad can play a more inter-active role in promoting foreign policy initiatives. His administration, in a subtle manner, is ostensibly continuing Trump’s hawkish approach towards China but, in principle, his strategy is putting more emphasis on strategic alliances.
This latest effort undertaken by the USA within and through the Quad paradigm is however being described by some geo-strategic analysts as an effort that is not likely to be assured success. The Quad is being described as a decentralised grouping that lacks shared strategic goals that can deter China’s growing economic and military might.
Poling has also noted that the combination of US, Japan, Australia and India lends the Quad “an enormous amount of diplomatic weight”. Quad as a unit, working in collaboration with the Europeans on some specific issues, Southeast Asians on other issues, might have enough weight to convince Beijing.”
Lemahieu, a Lowy Institute expert, has observed that “a lot of countries are very wary, not just of China but of great power competition.” From this context some “see the Quad as a facet of great power competition, with the potential of further destabilising the region. So the Quad needs to work to reassure the region that it is more than just a military counterweight.”
It appears from the above observations that there is some agreement that if the Quad is going to be serious about countering China in the Indo-Pacific, it will need to offer an alternative to China’s diversified economic diplomacy. They will also have to remember that today, the world is more interdependent and in more ways than one, after the pandemic, economic advantages will be taking priority.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance