Flashpoints | Diplomacy

What to Expect From the First In-Person Quad Summit

A preview of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. summit, and what it will mean for the Indo-Pacific region.

What to Expect From the First In-Person Quad Summit
Credit: Illustration by Stefan Yanku

The first ever in-person meeting of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), set for September 24, has set tongues wagging across the world. For these Quad nations to move from a virtual summit into the offline realm within the space of six months is a major leap of faith. Before this, the foreign ministers of the Quad nations had met in Tokyo in October last year.

A virtual meeting of the heads of government of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was held in March this year. Since then, there have been many rapid developments across the world. Most notably, the fall of the elected government in Afghanistan, the takeover by the Taliban and the United States’ hasty withdrawal from that country has led to a lot of upheaval in Afghanistan and beyond. The Taliban have already termed China as their most valuable partner and opened channels of communication with Beijing.

All these four countries have common interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent signing of the AUKUS pact between the U.S., U.K., and Australia makes it clear that new alliances are being worked in the region. The United States still remains a potent force even after the pullout from Afghanistan. The in-person Quad summit shows that U.S. involvement in the Indo-Pacific region seems to be growing in many ways. This augurs well for the region.

There are also signs that a new security architecture is in the works in the region. This includes players like the U.K., which recently sent a carrier group to the region. The French have also been very active in the region.

For India, the emphasis on the Quad is a sign that the naval realm will be key as New Delhi seeks to blunt Beijing’s moves on land (last year saw deadly clashes between the two sides along their disputed border). During his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also have his first in-person meeting with his U.S. counterpart. It has been almost two years since he visited the United States during the administration of then-President Donald Trump, when Modi addressed a mammoth rally in Houston.

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For Japan, Friday’s summit means a vindication of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision,” which was enunciated well ahead of time by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

At the same time, there are quite a few challenges for the Quad going forward.

This includes China. Last time, the Quad came together in 2007, member countries had many reservations, especially Australia, which has extensive economic ties with China. The project was abruptly aborted in a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Things have come to a full circle now, with Australia-China relations dropping to an all-time low, but the possibility remains of one or more Quad members still getting cold feet.

It took a long while to revive the Quad – 10 years, to be exact, as it was finally revived on the sidelines of a ARF meeting in Manila in November 2017. It will take much more than the China factor to keep the flock together.

Then there is the North Korean challenge, especially as it has tested both cruise and ballistic missiles in the last couple of months.

There are also questions about the Quad’s expansion, particularly in the wake of the AUKUS announcement. What if other countries want to join? Will the four original members allow the expansion of the Quad?

Meanwhile, Japan is headed for a leadership change next week. Hence, whatever is decided upon will be left to Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s successor to implement.

A White House statement on the summit notes that “the Quad Leaders will be focused on deepening our ties and advancing practical cooperation on areas such as combatting COVID-19, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.” This makes it clear that the cooperation between the Quad countries will extend beyond security to other areas as well. The Biden administration has brought a sea-change in its approach to areas like climate change and clean energy from the days of Donald Trump.

The four countries are also likely to try to work on an alternative to the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This includes merging initiatives like the Japan’s “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” and the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better World” Initiative.

They are also looking at tying up on the tech front, especially in the field of telecommunications, as Chinese firms like Huawei are seen as security risks.

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However, the fact that the United States’ ties with France have become strained could also weigh on the Quad. To critics, especially those in Paris, the Biden administration seems to be following the Trump-era “go-it-alone” approach to trans-Atlantic ties.

Be that as it may, what remains clear is that the Quad is likely to remain a major area of focus of the Biden administration. Given the setback in Afghanistan and Washington’s desire that to show that it remains committed to the region, the Quad is here to stay.