The 20th century was the century of Europe, and if we take the two world wars as a reference point, it was a Euro-Atlantic-centred. With the gradual emergence of China, the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing, the global centre of gravity has moved to the Indo-Pacific region. Twenty years in the present century and the chances are the security and stability of the international system will be played out in the Pacific and the Indian oceans.
On Friday US President Joe Biden hosted his first multilateral summit since he took office – a virtual event because of the constraints of Covid-19. It was a summit of the Quad Group that includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The Group took shape in response to the tsunami of 2004 that hit Japan. It turned into an alliance of democracies working together to defend and secure their national security interests. Their concerns about the rise of China, whether true or imagined, led the four countries to form an alliance reflecting a unity of like-minded countries under American leadership.
Last October, Japan hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of the member countries, and the Washington virtual summit of the Quad is their first. The objective stated for the summit was to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open to all countries. From an American point of view, the Quad has become an essential part of this vast geographic region, and according to Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, giving a press briefing at the White House last Friday, the four leaders saw the event as “historic”.
Sullivan pointed out that the Biden administration has revitalised American alliances in both Europe and Asia. Furthermore, he said the region is witnessing a competition between two models of governance, namely Democracy vs Autocracy. Having said that, he made sure that the first Quad summit should not centre on China, although the summit briefly discussed what was termed the “challenge” China poses to the Quad member countries. Attention was paid rather to the most pressing challenges of the hour, like Covid-19, its economic impact on the world economy and the means to ensure an economic rebound once the pandemic is brought under control.
In his opening remarks as the host of the summit, Biden said the United States is committed to working with its allies and partners to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific. He added that the United States and its Quad partners and allies are renewing their commitment to ensure that this vast region should be governed by international law and universal values, becoming “a region free from coercion”. Those following the unfolding, silent confrontation brewing between the United States and China will easily surmise the coercive power he meant.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Quad will remain an important “pillar of stability” in the Indo-Pacific, while working with other member countries for the advancement of our “shared values” and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous region.
From an Australian point of view, the Indo-Pacific region will shape the destiny of the world in the 21st century. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quite ambitious in this regard, saying the strategic partnership of the Quad would become the “enabler” of peace, stability and prosperity in the region in collaboration with “many nations” therein. He was referring to the ASEAN group of nations and vowed to cooperate towards an “open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific.”
For his part Japanese Prime Minister Joshi Suga mentioned that the Quad was transformed into a diplomatic forum in 2007, expressing his hope that it will cooperate to bring about “a free and open Indo-Pacific”, and to make a “visible and tangible contribution to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region”.
“The Spirit of the Quad “was the title the four leaders who participated in the virtual summit gave a joint statement released at its conclusion. The statement reaffirmed their respective commitments to quadrilateral cooperation, and to making the Indo-Pacific “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion”. It is interesting to note in passing that rarely has there been such frequent use of the word “coercion” in summit statements.
The statement spoke of the commitment of the four countries to “promoting free, open, rules-based order rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”, moreover, it spoke of the defence of “democratic resilience based on universal values”.
One of the concrete results of the first Quad summit was the joint commitment of the participants “to expand safe, affordable and effective vaccine production and equal access, to speed economic recovery and benefit global health” in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a related matter, the Quad summit called for “transparent and results-oriented reform at the World Health Organisation”.
Similarly, the four leaders vowed to begin cooperation on critical technologies of the age.
On the other hand, the Quad leaders agreed to work together to make the next COP 26 in Glasgow before year’s end a successful summit tackling climate change.
The Quad summit, the first of its kind but definitely not the last, was a success for American diplomacy under a new American administration determined to renew and revitalise American alliances and strategic partnerships around the globe, in an unmistakable break with the Trump administration. If some of overarching strategic objectives remain the same, the tactics have changed. As for timing, I have no doubt that Washington purposely hosted the summit a few days before an important meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart at Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18. It is the Biden administration’s first high-level meeting with Chinese senior officials with the intention of searching for common grounds between the two competing great powers. It will probably set the tone for American-Chinese relations in the next four years and perhaps lead to an American-Chinese summit in the months to come.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly