Quad meeting level boosted to summit level (News Analysis)

Quad collaboration has been upgraded to summit level and the leaders of the four nations — the US, India, Australia, Japan — will meet virtually on Friday with visions of expanded, outward-looking cooperation as they face the growing global threats from China.

At their meeting, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan, and US President Joe Biden will discuss a broad range of issues beyond the strategic, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

Biden expected discussions of issues facing the global community “from the threat of Covid-19 to economic cooperation, and of course, to the climate crisis”, Psaki said at her briefing on Tuesday.

“That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

Till now Quad meetings have been held at the levels of Foreign Ministers and senior diplomats and boosting it to a summit is a sign of the urgency of the Chinese threat for Biden.

At the same time, the broader agenda signals the Quad’s move towards multifaceted cooperation to broaden their footprint, while also keeping the facade, important to India, that it is not directed against China.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a separate briefing that “maritime security is, of course, an important one, but our shared interests go well beyond that”.

“And I think you will see reflected in the agenda the breadth of those shared interests in the aftermath of the Quad meeting.”

It “will showcase the Quad’s ability to pool our capabilities and build habits of cooperation to address some of those urgent challenges we face,” he said.

“Quad members are uniquely positioned to help lead the world out of the deep crises that we’ve spoken about recently,” and, of course, that includes Covid-19 and “towards the more positive vision that we all seek. And it’s a vision that we in large part share with our fellow Quad counterparts”, Price added.

Giving America’s vision of the Quad’s future, Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said it could “build into something much bigger for the sake of the globe”.

He said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Quad “could bring so much more, not only to the region (but) to the globe, not in terms of security alone, but in terms of how we might approach the global economy, critical technologies like telecommunications and 5G, collaboration on international order, more diplomatically, economically”.

During his campaign for President, Biden had played down the Chinese challenge either because he was not aware of it or because his predecessor President Donald Trump had sounded the alarm about it.

“I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” he had said. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.”

But after becoming President, his outlook changed and he has turned the lunch metaphor around to highlight the competition from Beijing.

“If we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch,” the President said last month.

Strategic cooperation had been the focus of the Quad, but in seeking to expand its role it goes back to its roots when the four countries came together to carry out tsunami relief and reconstruction in 2004.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue took shape from that in 2007 but fell dormant.

It was revived in 2017 at the initiative of Trump, who woke up his country and the world to the Chinese threat and his administration took on the call for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Trump also had the US military’s Pacific Command renamed as the Indo-Pacific Command to signal the broader strategic cooperation that brought India into the security concerns of the region.

Several meetings have been held by officials of the country since then on a regular basis.

Last year, the Quad members took the first wobbly step towards overt military cooperation when they participated in the naval exercise Operation Malabar that was hosted by India, which had to overcome its hesitancy to Australia’s participation.

The Quad’s revival coincided with China’s more aggressive posture across the region, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the Himalayas.

The Chinese challenge goes beyond the military to the economic and the diplomatic.

The Asian giant’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ economic programme of lavish loans to developing countries that make strategic assets vulnerable to takeover by Beijing.

China took over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port that it financed when Colombo could not keep up the debt payments.

Japan and India have tried to offer a package to Sri Lanka to develop another port but have run afoul of domestic politics, possibly at the instigation of China.

Now the Quad countries could be looking at launching a coordinated aid and development programme in the region, where each of them has aid programmes.

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)