What to watch as Indo-Pacific Quad leaders meet for the first time Asia-Pacific News

US President Joe Biden will participate on Friday, virtually, at the very first meeting of leaders of the so-called “Indo-Pacific Quad” – which includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

The informal partnership has long struggled with conflicting priorities and differing strategic and economic ties with China, but has been seen by some as a bulwark against Beijing’s economic and military assertiveness in the region.

The four countries first worked collectively in 2004, in response to the devastation of an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In 2007, countries aligned to tout a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, but were largely inactive in the face of pressure from China.

In recent years, the quartet has again stepped up cooperation, bolstered by a campaign of support from President Donald Trump’s administration, which has seen the Quad, short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as a regional cornerstone of its confrontational approach in Beijing.

The increased cooperation came as bilateral relations between most of the Quad countries and China took a “rather tense turn,” said Benoit Hardy Chartrand, East Asia analyst at Temple University. Tokyo.

Quad’s foreign ministers have met regularly in recent years, and the four countries conducted a massive joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean in November last year.

“The fact that the quadrupled meeting is now taking place at the leadership level is certainly an illustration of the seriousness with which and the importance that the four partners place on this partnership,” Hardy-Chartrand told Al Jazeera.

Sentiment among Quad countries towards China has cooled over the past decade as Beijing rapidly modernized its defense forces and increased its military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along the two disputed countries on the Himalayan border and Chinese trade sanctions against Australia have further soured ties.

China’s crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim minority in the far west of Xinjiang Province and on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and China’s growing sphere of economic influence, with a growing number of countries reliant on Chinese development and technology, have yet undermined relations with Quad countries.

While Quad countries stressed that China is not their main motivator, “there has certainly been a greater willingness to cooperate in all areas, driven, in large part, by their problems with their relations. with China, ”said Hardy-Chartrand.

China “ occupies an important place ”

At an October 2020 Quad summit in Tokyo, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the foreign ministers of the other three countries to “work together to protect our people and our partners in the exploitation, corruption and coercion of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ”.

The blunt approach contrasted with that of Japan, Australia and India, which often sought to downplay the group’s possible role as Beijing’s counterweight, or what the Chinese tabloid Global Times called “the Asian version of NATO ”.

In statements announcing Friday’s summit, Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra again took measured tones, with few references to China, instead stressing, as India’s foreign ministry said, that the summit would focus on finding “practical areas of cooperation to keep an Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive”.

Washington’s change of tone, in particular, underlines Biden’s change from his predecessor, increasingly stressful facing China, while finding areas of cooperation when possible.

“Biden said that facing the challenge [of China] is going to be one of the administration’s top priorities, ”said Hardy-Chartrand. “At the same time, he doesn’t want to unnecessarily escalate tensions, as Trump and Pompeo seemed not to do during the four years of their administration.”

“ A club of four focused on China ”

Others criticized the group for its apparent preoccupation with China, with Evan A Feigenbaum and James Schwemlein of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing Thursday that the Quad has “fumbled for its purpose” and must “evolve from a China-centric club of four” to focus on “specific functional challenges” in the region.

They envisioned a model where the Quad could be “reconceptualized as the core of a set of ad hoc coalitions that bring a shifting distribution of partners, where appropriate, based on capacity and will”.

Meanwhile, they wrote that the United States, India, Australia and Japan could “act as pioneers and pioneers on … important issues where regional actors have been too reluctant, or far too politically. forced to move forward ”.

Still, Dane Chamorro, a former US diplomat and partner of Control Risks, a consultancy firm, said that China’s balance of influence is unlikely to cease to be the Quad’s tacit motivation.

However, he said the group should use its first leaders’ meeting to focus on a specific area where countries can agree to focus their resources.

“I think it’s incumbent [the Quad] to really prioritize what is most important to these four countries to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Is it the South China Sea, for example? Ok, let’s focus on that. And let’s really put resources behind that, ”he said.

“When everything is thrown into this kind of ‘anti-China basket’… just by the nature of having four parties in this… they will inevitably be drawn in different ways,” he said.

Deep “ signaling effect ”

The agenda for Friday’s meeting is expected to include a series of issues encompassing the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, maritime safety, the economy and securing rare earths that are essential for goods, from mobile phones to electric car motors.

One of the expected outcomes, as reported by the Reuters news agency, is the announcement of a financial boost to vaccine manufacturing in India.

New Delhi has long urged other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity in an attempt to counter China’s growing influence on so-called “vaccine diplomacy.”

Nicholas Szechenyi, senior researcher and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such a commitment to vaccines could be “reassuring for Asian countries.”

Although he said Friday’s meeting would result in a list of priorities and a few concrete steps, he predicted it would be the first in a long series.

“The signaling effect of this first leaders’ meeting is very profound at a time when the region is concerned not only about American leadership, but also about China’s assertion,” he told Al Jazeera. .

“I think this is the perfect way for the new US administration to substantively demonstrate its commitment to leadership in Asia,” he said.

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