Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that the leaders of the Quad nations will soon hold their first joint meeting since the group was founded in 2007, a sign of its growing importance.
The meeting between Biden, Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is expected to take place this month via video conference.
“The Quad is very central to the US and our thinking about the region,” Morrison told reporters at Parliament House on Friday.
Rather than “big bureaucracy with a big secretariat”, Morrison said the alliance “will be four leaders, four countries, working together constructively for the peace, prosperity and stability” in the Indo-Pacific.
A massive vaccine distribution program would mark a new era for the Quad, which has previously focused on defence co-operation, particularly joint naval exercises.
The Biden administration sees the Quad as an attractive means of exerting influence in the Asia-Pacific because all its members are all established democracies and have a combined population of 1.8 billion – exceeding China’s.
The Quad’s small size and informal structure could also allow it to act with more agility than larger and more bureaucratic multilateral organisations.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently said the Biden administration sees the Quad as a “foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region”.
The decision to elevate the Quad’s status represents an unusual embrace of a part of the Trump administration’s foreign policy approach – even as Biden ditches his predecessor’s “America first” rhetoric.
The Trump administration revived the Quad, which went into hibernation for almost a decade shortly after being founded, in its first year and instituted ministerial-level meetings for the first time.
The Quad has long been discussed as a potential “mini-NATO” for the Asia-Pacific region, while failing to live up to its promise.
“A lot of folks in the Asia-watching community have said the Quad was kind of a joke, that it doesn’t do much,” Derek Grossman, an expert on Indo-Pacific security issues at the RAND corporation, said.
“I think it’s going to be a very important forum for the Biden administration.”
As well as distributing COVID-19 vaccines, Grossman said the Quad could also play an important role in delivering infrastructure and co-ordinating action on climate change.
Daniel Russel, a key player in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy, said: “This reflect’s the Biden team’s conviction that China shouldn’t be the only game in town.
“China’s dramatic rise and assertive behaviour has brought home the realisation for these four countries that they will benefit from a co-ordinated agenda to shape and influence regional trends and global governance,” Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said.
Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “The Biden administration is sending an early and strong signal that China will face geo-political consequences for its coercive behaviour and that this administration is different to the Obama administration – that is to say, not naive about China.”
Green said the Quad represents “a fantastic bargain for Australia” given its population and military footprint is far smaller than that of its fellow member nations.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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