President Joe Biden finally began his first visit to Asia last weekend to visit key American allies like South Korea and Japan, and also to attend the second in-person summit of the four-nation “Quad”, comprising, besides the United States, India, Australia and Japan.
Prior to Australia’s closely-fought election last Saturday, it had been speculated that if the Labour Party came to power, it might emulate Kevin Rudd, the last Labour PM, who had backpedalled on the Quad after becoming Prime Minister in December 2007, months after its birth. But things appear to be different in 2022, and there is bipartisan support for a much tougher line on China. Australians have undergone years of coercive Chinese trade restrictions to damage Australian commodities exports. A recently signed Chinese security deal with the critically- located Solomon Islands, in Australia’s maritime neighbourhood, has irked them more.
President Biden’s Asia tour has strategic significance. He explained his foreign policy priorities during a visit to the state department on February 4, 2021, just after taking over. He said he aimed to repair the alliances which his predecessor Donald Trump had worked overtime to damage, and fight authoritarianism by rooting diplomacy in America’s democratic values. President Trump had done the reverse by his unabashed praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. President Biden also wished to uphold universal human rights, the rule of law, freedom and human dignity. The importance of “climate change” was emphasised, pointing out that on his very first day in office he had the United States re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement, which Mr Trump had abandoned. He also announced an early global summit on safeguarding democracy globally.
His first trip abroad was to Europe to repair the European alliance system. But Covid-19, mismanaged by his predecessor, swallowed much of his time and energy. He nevertheless convened the first in-person Quad summit on September 24, 2021 in Washington. The Tokyo summit was the second in-person meeting of the four leaders.
President Biden wanted to signal that his original agenda was not forgotten despite the distraction since last February with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Over the last three months President Biden’s leadership has been crucial to the unity of Nato, collective resistance to face the Russian breach of the UN Charter and extension of military and economic assistance to beleaguered Ukraine.
Russia has been denied capture of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the full annexation of the Donbas region and the completion of the north-south Russian pincer to lop off a third or more of Ukraine. Odessa remains in Ukrainian possession, blocking Russia’s move to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. With Russia’s challenge in Europe countered though not reversed fully, President Biden now turned to the original priority of containing China. Hence the Asian visit began with South Korea, with Japan as a natural second leg.
While the US has gained strategically since the Ukraine War, China has been entrapped by Vladimir Putin’s misadventure. After the February Xi-Putin summit, days before the war began, the phrase bandied was a “no-limits” partnership. It indicated a mutually empowering convergence of interests of two premier military powers and permanent
members of the United Nations. Three months later, the economic strangulation of the Russian economy leaves China dangerously exposed, with a crucial Communist Party meeting approaching. In addition, its “Zero Covid” policy, requiring massive lockdowns in major cities, has slowed its economy. According to Bloomberg, for the first time since 1976, China’s GDP growth at two per cent would be lower than that of the US at 2.6 per cent. Russia’s fate is still subject to Mr Putin deciding to either cut his losses or gambling on a longer and debilitating conflict. If the US threat of bleeding Russia to permanently weaken it is credible, China is stuck in the middle.
China is also seeing the dangers of unilateral military action to achieve self-defined strategic goals, like annexing Taiwan militarily. The Quad summit was important to lay out the next steps to constrain Chinese misconduct. The Quad leaders’ joint statement explains that while the first summit in Washington was to delineate a “positive and practical agenda”, the Tokyo one was to “deliver on this promise”. The Quad is characterised as “a force for good”. China naturally strongly disagrees.
The joint statement expounds this under several headings. Under “Peace and Stability”, it reveals the members discussed “our respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine”. Publicly, India still only seeks a ceasefire and peaceful resolution, while decrying the humanitarian crisis but without condemning Russia or joining the West’s economic boycott.
However, by introducing the UN Charter and international law, Russia’s Ukraine invasion and China’s unilateral actions in its maritime and continental neighbourhood get clubbed. The UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) is re-emphasised. Asean’s unity and centrality in the Quad’s Indo-Pacific approach is highlighted. India is thus cajoled to adopt a uniform approach towards the depredations of Russia or China as principles cannot be applied selectively between partners.
On climate change, about which Australia’s new Labour government is more forthcoming, the Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package (Q-CHAMP) was adopted. A “net zero” by 2050 is promised. To handle the Covid-19 pandemic, the Quad has committed $5.2 billion to the COVAX AMC vaccine programme.
Terrorism is condemned with the need reiterated to punish the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot attacks.
The announcement of the 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) came as a welcome surprise as it began creating a larger trade and investment underpinning for the narrower Quad grouping of four democracies. The US chose this route for it does not require going to the US Senate as tariff reductions or eased market access are not envisaged. This partially fills the gap remaining after President Trump made the US exit the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). China utilised that to seize charge of the 15-member Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP), which India refused to join.
The Tokyo Quad summit enabled the US to demonstrate commitment to the Indo-Pacific and China’s containment. President Biden’s cryptic affirmative reply to whether the US would intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan, despite his office’s attempt to dilute it, would have been noted in Beijing. The space for India to adopt double standards in judging events in Asia as compared to those in Europe is shrinking. The Joe Biden-Narendra Modi bilateral meeting would have reinforced that message despite praising democratic India’s success at handling Covid-19 compared to authoritarian China’s failure. Finally, the Quad is here to stay and perhaps grow....