In a signal development, the leaders of the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad met on March 12 in a virtual summit. The Quad summit and joint statement marks a significant milestone in the evolution of the grouping, its agenda now clearer and likely to be received positively across the Indo-Pacific. Since it was revived in 2017 after a decade on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, the Quad has acquired considerable momentum. The March 12 summit is an indication that that momentum is far from being spent.
In a White House press conference following the summit today, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted that each of the four leaders present had described the meeting as “historic.”
Quad talks were elevated to the ministerial level in 2019 with foreign ministers from all four countries holding a meeting on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York in September that year. Since then, Quad foreign ministers have met twice: in-person in Tokyo in October last year, and virtually last month. Australia also joined the India-Japan-U.S. Malabar naval exercises last November after a gap of 13 years.
While the Malabar exercises formally remain disjunct from Quad activities (and it is not known whether Australia’s participation in the 2020 edition was a one-off affair or not), New Delhi’s decision to invite Australia to the exercises amid a tense standoff with China in eastern Ladakh carried symbolic weight, leading adherents to claim that the grouping – widely believed to be held together through common threats posed by an intransigent China – was finally signaling its collective military weight.
Since assuming office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden has enthusiastically embraced the “free and open Indo-Pacific” nomenclature favored by his predecessor Donald Trump, contrary to apprehensions that he would seek to adopt a softer line toward China with the downstream effect that the Indo-Pacific construct would lose salience for the new administration. To the contrary, Sullivan affirmed the “centrality of the Indo-Pacific in U.S. national security” for Biden administration in post-summit press briefing.)
The Biden administration has also sought to promote the Quad as a key component in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy almost immediately since it took over, with both emerging as rare points of policy convergence between Biden and Trump, with Biden noting “[t]he Quad is going to be a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” in the March 12 summit. In turn, in his own opening remarks at the March 12 summit (March 13 in Australia), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked Biden for his initiative in holding the summit, confirming news reports as well as a March 5 statement by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to that effect.
However, Biden seeks to leave his own distinct, pragmatic, imprint on the Quad, with a focus on the grouping’s “softer” capabilities in line with Indo-Pacific public-goods needs rather than promote a singular counter-China orientation for the grouping. In any event, such a monomaniacal thrust would have had uncertain buy-in from India, not to mention from the 10-nation ASEAN whose “centrality” has become a defining proposition in the Quad’s public billing.
In the run-up to the March 12 summit, media reports suggested that one of the key areas of focus for the Quad would be a vaccine initiative for the region that would see U.S. COVID-19 vaccines being manufactured in India with U.S., Japan, and Australia providing financial and other support. At a press conference following the summit, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla provided further details confirming that India will be manufacturing up to 1 billion single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines, with the U.S and Japan providing financial support and Australia taking care of logistics. Sullivan in his briefing noted that these vaccines will be delivered to ASEAN states, in the wider Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Sullivan also noted other areas of thrust for the quad, including maritime security and cyber issues. While noting that the four leaders had indeed discussed China, “today’s meeting was not fundamentally about” that country, he said. Interestingly, in a response to a question from the Bloomberg White House correspondent, he noted that India and Japan too had been victims of recent cyber attacks.
In terms of the joint statement that followed the summit, its robustness – and straightforward framing and commitments – is likely to surprise some. As preamble to “The Spirit of the Quad,” as it described itself laying out, it noted: “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” suggesting a broad and varied ambit for common action.
As key challenges in front of the Quad, the statement notes “economic and health impacts of COVID-19,” climate change, and “shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.”
The joint statement was unexpectedly blunt on the maritime security front. In particular, its spelling out of “collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas” suggests significant future potential for common action — and a surprising degree of formal buy-in for such action from India that has, traditionally, couched its position on the disputes in the Western Pacific in more oblique language.
Interestingly, the joint statement also saw the Quad committing itself to “complete denuclearization” of North Korea. On Myanmar, on the account of India (and perhaps also Japan), the language was unsurprisingly toned-down. “As long-standing supporters of Myanmar and its people, we emphasize the urgent need to restore democracy and the priority of strengthening democratic resilience,” it said.
The joint statement also saw the four countries committing to establishing three new working groups: on vaccines, emerging tech, and climate. (Details about the working groups as well as the Quad Vaccine Partnership are available in this fact-sheet supplied after the summit.)
“Our experts and senior officials will continue to meet regularly; our Foreign Ministers will converse often and meet at least once a year. At the leader level, we will hold an in-person summit by the end of 2021,” it noted.