On May 25, the leaders of the Quad – the loose grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – met in Tokyo to announce several new initiatives, including plans to surveil deep-water fishing in the Pacific, a new educational exchange program, and more. These initiatives caught international attention and prompted predictable yet fiery criticism from the Quad’s chief rival, China, which complained that the alliance was becoming a hyper-militarized and destabilizing force in the region.
However, also announced at the Tokyo Quad Summit was a less-discussed yet still significant initiative: a $100 billion investment by the Bank of Japan to finance the ongoing Quad Vaccine Partnership. Announced in March 2021, the Quad Vaccine Partnership aimed to donate 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022. Under this partnership, India would produce vaccine doses, the United States would finance dose production, and Australia and Japan would aid in vaccine manufacturing, distribution, and financing efforts.
Beyond humanitarian motives, this Quad Vaccine Partnership was a thinly veiled counter to China’s vaccine diplomacy, under which Beijing has sold 1.9 billion doses to 118 countries worldwide, including to nearly all Indo-Pacific nations, and donated another 246 million. Indeed, upon its launch, observers lauded the Quad Vaccine Partnership as a chance for the alliance to move beyond its traditional military domain and use diplomatic engagement to counter China in the region.
However, one year later, the Quad Vaccine Partnership has underperformed expectations. Despite receiving continuous financing since 2021, the first doses from the partnership were only delivered in early 2022. Further still, the Quad has delivered less than half of its pledged 1 billion doses, with six months to go until the end of 2022. Further still, for many countries, the Quad’s donations pale in comparison to Beijing’s. In Cambodia, for example, the Quad’s inaugural donation of 325,000 doses in April is less than 1 percent of the more than 40 million doses sold or donated by Beijing. In fact, ironically, the individual Quad members have had greater success on their own, as each nation has donated millions more doses unilaterally than through their joint partnership.
How did the Quad Vaccine Partnership fall so far? The answer is deceptively simple: time. The Quad Vaccine Partnership faced several delays, some due to unforeseen tragedies, but others due to shortsighted thinking by the Quad. First, shortly after the partnership’s announcement, India faced a devastating wave of COVID-19 infections, leading New Delhi to prioritize domestic vaccine production and curtail donations. That delayed the partnership’s launch by several months.
Soon thereafter, the Quad ran into further trouble with their choice of vaccines. The Quad chose to donate the Johnson & Johnson and the experimental Corbevax vaccines instead of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines – and officially, the Quad never gave an exact reason for this choice. In turn, production of the Quad’s two chosen vaccines was scheduled to begin at a single facility in Hyderabad, India, owned by the Indian firm Biological E.
However, this decision soon ran into trouble. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricted the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it could cause blood clots, and India refused to sign a liability waiver that would shield Johnson & Johnson from lawsuits over the vaccine’s side effects. These two events caused Biological E to cease production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and shift to only manufacturing the Corbevax vaccine – but since this vaccine remains experimental and has never received WHO approval, it cannot be donated internationally. Even further, the finite production capacity of the single Hyderabad facility originally limited the number of doses the Quad could donate.
Together, these issues caused the Quad Vaccine Partnership to fall behind schedule, allowing other states like China and even individual Quad members like the United States to take the lead on donations while Quad Vaccine Partnership was left behind.
This failure, in turn, has had real-world consequences. The inability of the Quad to effectively run its multilateral initiative raises questions about whether the alliance is capable of running effective diplomatic and economic initiatives. These credibility questions reinforce the perception of Quad critics like Kishore Mahbubani that the alliance is a military-focused organization that is unable to support the Indo-Pacific on critical economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian issues.
This perception, in turn, presents a valuable opportunity for Beijing, because it allows China to frame itself as the only actor capable of successful economic and diplomatic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In turn, such framing makes Southeast Asian states feel that they must avoid angering China and limit their alignment with the Quad, undermining the alliance’s unstated goals of building an expansive regional coalition to counter China.
Thus, to protect its long-term goals of building regional support and countering China, the Quad should learn two key lessons from its vaccine diplomacy initiative. First, the tale of the Quad Vaccine Partnership should warn the alliance about how nationalism and short-term self-interest can hinder the Quad’s long-term effectiveness in countering Beijing. The first significant delay to the Quad’s vaccine diplomacy came due to Indian export restrictions on vaccines, and these restrictions were politically and scientifically sensible, especially given the need to contain India’s horrific second wave of COVID-19.
However, when this delay came, the other alliance members should have acted. The other Quad members should have invested in scaling up vaccine production in their states to ensure that the alliance could donate vaccine doses by the stated target date. Such a move may have been counter to the strict short-term interest of states like the United States and Japan, which did not need to produce more vaccines as they had enough doses for their populations. However, these investments would have helped overcome the production bottlenecks caused by India’s export restrictions and guaranteed the Quad’s vaccine doses would be donated on schedule, enhancing the alliance’s credibility in Southeast Asia.
Similar examples of short-term self-interest clashing with long-term gain abound throughout Quad Vaccine Partnership. For example, instead of relying on experimental vaccines or those with liability concerns, the Quad should have donated a better-tested and less legally-hindered vaccine. While mRNA vaccines may not have been feasible to donate due to the lack of cold chain storage capacity in Southeast Asia, the Quad could have scaled up production of vaccines like India’s Covishield, which is WHO-authorized and can thus be donated. While these vaccines may have been more expensive to purchase or may have required additional investments to expand their production for global donation, using these vaccines could have helped the Quad Vaccine Partnership deliver its pledged doses on time.
Second, the disappointing performance of the Quad Vaccine Partnership also indicates that the alliance needs to give equal priority to its non-military initiatives instead of solely prioritizing military tools. Throughout the Quad Vaccine Partnership, as the initiative faced repeat delays, liability hurdles, and production issues, Quad states kept investing significant sums of money in expanding defense budgets, military exercises, and more. This contrast signals that the alliance viewed the Quad Vaccine Partnership as a secondary priority compared to the Quad’s security cooperation.
An excellent example of this seemingly military-first mindset was seen at the Tokyo Summit. While the Quad Vaccine Partnership remained behind schedule, Quad officials only briefly discussed this issue in their joint statement. Instead, Quad leaders eagerly shifted their focus back to the Quad’s new military initiatives, like its plan to surveil Chinese deep-water naval activity.
In turn, this military-first mindset is a mistake for several reasons. First, constant reliance on military initiatives further feeds into the aforementioned perception that the Quad is incapable of running successful economic and diplomatic initiatives. Second, this military-focused approach is also insufficient to counter the array of economic and diplomatic tools Beijing uses to expand its influence. While Quad states have often attempted to contain China through military bases or naval presences, the vanguard of Beijing’s influence often takes the form of trade deals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), infrastructure investments in projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and more. These initiatives, once launched, allow China to build closer relations with the target state and limit U.S. or Quad influence in these nations, as Beijing has successfully done in Cambodia and Myanmar.
Thus to truly counter China and build support in the region, the Quad must offer a compelling diplomatic and economic alternative to China for Southeast Asian states. In the end, not only should the Quad commit to new economic initiatives like offering technology transfers, trade deals, and infrastructure investments to Southeast Asian states, but the alliance must also show the world that it is prioritizing these initiatives at a similar level to military operations. In particular, the Quad should assign more personnel and provide more financing and resources to ensure these new economic and diplomatic initiatives achieve their goals on schedule. Quad leaders should also more actively promote these new programs at alliance summits and on other media platforms to raise these initiatives’ profiles and combat the perception that the alliance is primarily a military-focused grouping.
In short, the Quad can no longer pretend that competition with China only occurs in military domains. Instead, the Quad must understand that the heart of strategic competition with China inevitably lies in the economic and diplomatic spheres, and it must allocate its resources and personnel accordingly. Defending the rules-based international order in Asia requires nothing less.