Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Economy

US Official Flags Future Quad Infrastructure Push

Infrastructure competition between China and the U.S. could ultimately be good for the developing world.

US Official Flags Future Quad Infrastructure Push
Credit: The Diplomat

The U.S. government is planning to convene an in-person meeting of the Quad group of countries in the fall, to focus on providing developing nations a joint alternative to Chinese infrastructure projects, a senior official said Wednesday.

“We want to look this fall to convene an in-person Quad and the hope will be to make a similar kind of engagement on infrastructure more generally,” Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, told an online event hosted by Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Campbell, who helped to plan the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, said it was important for the United States to have a “positive economic vision of what it wants to contribute, what it wants to engage on in Asia.”

“We can do everything right in Asia, but without a[n] economic strategy, it’s hard to be successful. That’s what Asians are looking for as we go forward,” he said.

Should it eventuate, the infrastructure-focused meeting would represent a further step forward for the once-stagnant Quad grouping. On March 12, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit with Quad leaders, a sign that the Quad grouping, which a Chinese official once claimed would dissipate like “sea foam,” has gained momentum since its resurrection by the Trump administration. As my colleague Abhijnan Rej noted at the time, the summit offered an indication that this momentum “is far from being spent.”

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One sign of this momentum was the expansion of the Quad beyond the security realm to embrace issues like climate change, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and technological innovation.

Campbell’s mooted meeting also comes after President Biden suggested to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March that democratic countries should have an infrastructure plan to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has supported the construction of tens of billions worth of roads, bridges, and ports across the Global South.

Among the Quad countries, Japan in particular has considerable experience in infrastructure building, and in regions like Southeast Asia comes closest to offering a direct alternative to the BRI.

While the U.S. plans remain very much in embryo, Branko Milanovic argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the Biden’s domestic focus on infrastructure development, corporate taxes, and public education presaged “a change in the focus of U.S. policies regarding international development” – one that could bring them more in line with the needs of developing nations.

Over the past two decades, Milanovic writes, Western development efforts have tended to focus on the inculcation of intangible institutions and norms – such as the rule of law – that take many years to inculcate, and frequently create frictions with host governments. China’s no-questions-asked infrastructure-centered mode of engagement, on the other hand, is much better aligned with the needs and interests of developing nations, giving Beijing a distinct advantage in many parts of the Global South. As he puts it, “Most governments of developing countries would probably prefer fewer lectures and more money.”

Of course, one great advantage of China’s BRI is that it is indifferent to how host nations govern themselves, and a similarly pragmatic approach by Washington would sooner or later collide with the Quad’s commitment to “a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, [and] anchored by democratic values,” to quote the joint statement from March’s virtual summit. However, the fact that the Quad includes Narendra Modi’s India suggests that these principles are ultimately fairly elastic and could be made to encompass more robust engagement with non-democratic or illiberal regimes.

Whatever the rhetorical sheen, a move toward harmonizing U.S. support with the developing needs of nations in the Global South would not only help Washington to counter Beijing’s BRI; it would also ultimately benefit the less developed nations of the world.

“If China and the United States really do begin competing in earnest to build the world’s infrastructure, countries that great powers have long neglected will suddenly acquire much greater influence,” Milanovic concludes. “Many that once played the United States and the Soviet Union against each other would do the same with the United States and China.”