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Quad a big step up for Australia

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s virtual meeting this week with US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked a new high point in the fortunes of “the Quad”, four nations struggling to work out a response to the rise of the People’s Republic of China.

Ahead of the meeting the White House hailed the Quad as having been “formalised in 2007”, but this elides the fact that for 10 years after that it gathered dust on the diplomatic shelf. Mr Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, envisioned it as a “democratic security diamond”, something hard and definite. More recently Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the Quad’s Indo-Pacific remit as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would vanish “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean”.

So which will it be – diamond or foam? Is the Quad a new NATO or does it straddle too many political landscapes, leaving it to face the same failures as the long-forgotten Cold War alliance known as the Baghdad Pact or CENTO?

Mr Biden’s decision to make Kurt Campbell his “Indo-Pacific co-ordinator” with a clear message that Washington is in Canberra’s corner is a very promising start, though talk of a US “pivot” to Asia has raised and then disappointed hopes before.

Up until now the Quad has been understood mainly in military terms such as naval drills in the Indian Ocean, freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea and the question of Taiwan’s security.

The truth is that “pushing back” against Beijing in these theatres will only get the Quad so far. To be effective, it needs to come up with initiatives rather than reactions, and these need to go beyond the military sphere. The decision announced at the leaders’ meeting to make 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine available to developing nations is a step in that direction, though it also highlights a rift between India and its three friends, who all opposed New Delhi’s call to temporarily waive vaccine patents so that poorer countries could manufacture doses more affordably at scale (a proposal Beijing supported).

Writing for the Lowy Institute last year, Macquarie University’s Lavina Lee suggested that the Quad, acting in concert with smaller Asian and Pacific nations, could also provide “a practical and genuinely alternative source of infrastructure funding” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The ability of the Quad’s “big fish” to convince the region’s “small fish” that it can promote their economic interests will be vital. Trade and markets are powerful tools in forging alliances, yet both India and the US have in recent years baulked at committing to East Asia, with deep-seated domestic opposition to the RCEP trade accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership respectively. Shaping a rules-based order that other countries (and even China) want to be part of requires everyone to play.

The other key to the Quad’s effectiveness is whether it can offer a compelling social and political vision. Mr Abe’s talk of a “democratic security diamond” was deliberate, but we have since seen China’s willingness to weaponise Australia’s failures on human rights to counter criticism of the party-state’s conduct. If the Quad were to campaign on behalf of oppressed Uighurs, for example, what would Beijing have to say about the Modi government’s policies towards its Muslim population in Kashmir and elsewhere?

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