The quad at the crossroads by Brahma Chellaney
The four major Indo-Pacific democracies can hold as many leaders’ summits as they want, but without a clear strategic vision – and corresponding agenda – they will have little impact. The group’s objective is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and to ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
NEW DELHI — When the Quad was first conceived as a strategic coalition of the four major Indo-Pacific democracies, many doubted it would amount to much. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi mocked as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would dissipate “like sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean”. But continued Chinese expansionism, combined with former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s determination to put up broad resistance, has produced an increasingly consolidated group, with real potential to bolster regional security. The question is whether he will deliver.
One thing is certain: the four members of the Quad – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – are essential to realizing the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. introduced by Japan in 2016 and affirmed by the United States in 2017. While the Quad was slow to take off – it was resurrected during the administration of US President Donald Trump, but leaders’ summits did not begin until after taking office of Joe Biden – he has gained tremendous momentum. Its members have held three summits since last year (including two virtual ones) and are scheduled to meet in person in Tokyo on May 24.
But the Quad still has a long way to go, not least because its members’ own actions undermine its strategic logic — the need to stop China from upending security in the Indo-Pacific. A key issue is that the four countries have been seduced by the Chinese narrative that economic relations can be separated from geopolitics.
China’s trade surplus, which hit a record $676.4 billion last year, is now the main engine of its economy. Without it, Chinese growth likely stall, especially as President Xi Jinping tightens state control over private companies. It would also hamper China’s ability to invest in its military and fund its aggressive maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
And yet, the United States and India are the main contributors to China’s trade surplus. The United States in the lead: its trade deficit with China swollen by more than 25% in 2021, to $396.6 billion, and now accounts for more than 58% of China’s total surplus. India’s trade deficit with China – which hit $77 billion in the 12 months to March – exceeds its defense budgeteven as the two countries are locked in a dangerous military confrontation on their long Himalayan border.
China’s stealthy encroachments on some Indian border areas in 2020 sparked deadly clashes, triggering a buildup of border forces and infrastructure that continues to this day. This should have been a wake-up call for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was so committed to appease China that he was blindsided by its aggression. But India’s large and growing trade deficit with China suggests it is still sleeping.
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Australia and Japan have also developed significant dependence on Chinese trade. China accounts for nearly a third international trade of Australia and Japan the biggest export market. Additionally, the two countries are members of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. For them, allowing China to shape trade rules in the Indo-Pacific is apparently a small price to pay for economic benefits increased regional trade.
Rather than continuing to guarantee China’s economic and geopolitical might, the Quad should make economic cooperation — including increased trade among its members — a core part of its agenda. Unfortunately, although Biden has promised to unveil an Indo-Pacific economic framework covering everything from infrastructure to the digital economy, his administration’s reluctance to commit more resources to the region or offer regional partners better access to U.S. markets severely boundaries the potential of the initiative. Additionally, Biden has pushed a broad Quad agenda covering topics that have nothing to do with the group’s core goals — everything from climate change to COVID-19 vaccine delivery to supply chain resilience. supply.
america deepening power of attorney dispute with Russia further blurs the strategic picture. Biden is the third successive U.S. president to pledge to shift America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific. But the war in Ukraine – that he believes “could go on for a long time” – could well cause him, like his predecessors, not to complete this pivot.
The war could also prompt Biden to take a more conciliatory approach to China. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease the pressure on China. He actually left China off hook both for obscuring the origins of COVID-19 and for failing to respect engagements as part of the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with the United States. He also has dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of Chinese military-linked tech giant Huawei. US sanctions against the Chinese Muslim gulag remain largely symbolic.
Now, as Biden tries to ensure Xi doesn’t offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an economic lifeline, neutralizing the impact of Western sanctions, he’s likely to take an even more dovish approach. Already, the US Trade Representative has reinstated Trump-era tariff exemptions on 352 products imported from China. And now the White House is considering a broader reduction in customs duties on non-strategic goods from China.
The Quad can organize as many leaders’ summits as it wants, but without a clear strategic vision – and corresponding agenda – it will have little impact. The group’s objective is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and to ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. At its May 24 summit, all other issues are expected to take a back seat to this goal.