United States President Joe Biden on Friday will take part, virtually, in the first-ever meeting of leaders of the so-called “Indo-Pacific Quad” grouping – which includes the US, India, Japan and Australia.
The informal partnership has long grappled with conflicting priorities, and different strategic and economic ties to China, but has been viewed by some as a bulwark against Beijing’s economic and military assertiveness in the region.
The four countries first worked collectively in 2004, in response to the devastation of an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In 2007, the countries aligned to tout a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, but were largely inactive amid pressure from China.
In recent years, the quartet has again increased cooperation, bolstered by a support campaign from the administration of President Donald Trump, which saw the Quad, short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as the regional cornerstone of its confrontational approach to Beijing.
That increased cooperation came as bilateral relations between most of the Quad countries and China have taken a “fairly tense turn”, said Benoit Hardy Chartrand, an East Asia analyst at Temple University in Tokyo.
Quad foreign ministers have met regularly in recent years and all four countries conducted a massive joint military drill in the Indian Ocean in November of 2020.
“The fact that the quad meeting now is going to be at the leader level is certainly an illustration of the seriousness with which, and the importance that, all four partners give to this partnership,” Hardy-Chartrand told Al Jazeera.
Historic: This is the first meeting of the #Quad at the leader level. @POTUS and this administration are committed to working with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to secure the peace, defend our shared values, and advance our prosperity. pic.twitter.com/ImlJvLeAVW
— National Security Council (@WHNSC) March 9, 2021
Sentiment among the Quad countries towards China has shifted during the last decade as Beijing has rapidly modernised its defence forces and increased military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along the two countries disputed Himalayan frontier and trade sanctions against Australia have further soured ties.
Human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province and against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and China’s growing sphere of economic influence, with an increasing number of countries relying on Chinese development and technology, have further eroded relations with the Quad countries.
While the Quad countries have stressed that China is not their main motivator, “there’s definitely been a greater willingness to cooperate on all parts, driven, in large part, by their problems with their relationship with China,” Hardy-Chartrand said.
In an October 2020 Quad summit in Tokyo, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged foreign ministers from the three other countries to “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s (the governing Chinese Community Party) exploitation, corruption and coercion”.
The blunt approach contrasted with that of Japan, Australia and India, who have often sought to downplay the grouping’s possible role as a Beijing counterweight, or what the China state-run Global Times tabloid has deridingly called “the Asian version of NATO”.
In statements announcing Friday’s summit, Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra again took measured tones, with scant reference to China, instead stressing, as India’s foreign ministry put it, that the summit would focus on finding “practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.
Washington’s change of tone, in particular, underscores Biden’s shift from his predecessor, increasingly stressing confronting China, while finding areas of cooperation where possible.
“Biden has said that dealing with the challenge [of China] is going to be one of the main priorities of the administration,” Hardy-Chartrand said. “At the same time, he doesn’t want to needlessly escalate tensions, the way that Trump and Pompeo seemed wont to do in the four years of their administration.”
Others have criticised the grouping for its apparent pre-occupation with China, with Evan A Feigenbaum and James Schwemlein, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing on Thursday that the Quad has “groped for purpose” and needs to “evolve from a China-focused club of four” to hone in on “specific functional challenges” in the region.
They envisioned a model where the Quad could be “reconceptualised as the core of a set of ad hoc coalitions that bring in a changing cast of partners, where needed, based on capacity and will”.
Meanwhile, they wrote the US, India, Australia and Japan could “act as first movers and pathfinders on … important issues where regional players have been too reluctant, or else too politically constrained, to move ahead”.
Still, Dane Chamorro, a former US diplomat and partner at Control Risks risk consulting firm, said it is unlikely balancing China’s influence will cease to be the unspoken motivation of the Quad.
However, he said the group should use its first meeting of leaders to hone in on a specific area where the countries can agree to focus their resources.
“I think it behooves [the Quad] to really prioritise what is the most important thing for these four countries to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. Is it the South China Sea, for example? Ok, let’s focus on that. And let’s really put resources behind it,” he said.
“When everything gets thrown into this kind of ‘anti-China basket’… just by the nature of having four parties in this…they will inevitably be drawn in different ways,” he said.
The agenda of Friday’s meeting is expected to include a range of issues that encompass the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, maritime security, the economy, and securing rare earth metals used in essential to electric car motors.
One expected outcome, as reported by the Reuters news agency, is an announcement of a financial boost to vaccine manufacturing in India.
New Delhi has long urged the other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity in an attempt to counter China’s widening influence of so-called “vaccine diplomacy”.
Nicholas Szechenyi, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such a vaccine commitment could be “reassuring for countries in Asia”.
While he said Friday’s meetings would result in a list of priorities, and few concrete steps, he predicted it will be the first of many.
“The signalling effect of this initial leaders meeting is very profound at a time when the region is concerned not only about US leadership, but also Chinese assertiveness,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I think it’s the ideal way for the new US administration to demonstrate substantively its commitment to leadership in Asia,” he said.