Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 14 March 2021

Quad forces to join French warship drills

Andrew Tillett

Australia, the United States, Japan and India are poised to build on their historic first leaders-level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue by joining French warships in naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal next month.

The exercises, the first time the five nations’ navies have banded together, would be the latest iteration of countries building military interoperability amid growing regional alarm over China’s rising assertiveness.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins the inaugural Quad leaders’ meeting early on Saturday. AAP

In a warning to China to pull back following their early Saturday morning talks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to foster an Indo-Pacific region “unconstrained by coercion”.

During their talks, the four leaders emphasised the “strategic trust” they had with each other and committed to highlighting more to countries in the region how liberal democracies can help them, setting up a contrast to China with its more authoritarian model.

Given each of the Quad members have had different flashpoints with China, such as economic coercion from Australia’s perspective, geopolitical competition (the US) and territorial disputes (Japan and India), the four leaders also promised to reinforce each other’s position.

Mr Morrison told the Quad leaders Australia wanted a happy co-existence with China in which international rules were followed.

As foreshadowed, the major announcement out of the summit was the four countries working together to produce and distribute a billion coronavirus vaccine doses for the Indo-Pacific.

The US and Japan will finance India’s pharmaceutical industry to produce the vaccine, while Australia, through its existing foreign aid network, will spend an extra $99 million to undertake the logistical challenge of delivering vaccines in south-east Asia, on top of $523 million already allocated.

Common standards

The leaders also agreed to establish a working group to tackle climate change, including developing low-emissions technology and co-operating on climate mitigation, resilience, adaptation and finance.

They will also co-operate on breaking China’s stranglehold on rare earths, as well as providing an alternative to Chinese telco equipment suppliers such as Huawei by establishing a separate working group on critical and emerging technology.

This working group will seek to develop a common set of standards on new technologies, encourage co-operation on telecommunications, including diversification of equipment suppliers, monitor trends and opportunities with new technology, including biotechnology, and hold talks on critical technology supply chains.

To continue the momentum, the leaders resolved to hold an in-person meeting at the end of the year, while also committing foreign ministers to annual meetings.

‘Ball in China’s court’

Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, said the virtual summit had exceeded expectations, noting the decision to hold another leaders’ meeting would institutionalise the grouping at that level.

Professor Medcalf said it was clever the Quad meeting harked back to its origins – when the four countries worked together on the humanitarian response to the 2004 Asian tsunami – to provide a collective good in vaccines rather than automatically lining up against China.

“It’s not bending to China in any way, but nor is it taking a strictly confrontational approach with China,” he said.

“It’s putting the ball in China’s court now to find a way of working with the Quad. If China embarks on outright criticism of the Quad, it’s going to be isolating itself.”

Indian media reported that the four Quad navies would participate in the French navy’s flagship Indo-Pacific exercises, known as La Perouse, in early April.

Australia was last year invited back into India’s Malabar maritime exercises alongside Japan and the US, but the “Quad plus” drills next month would be the first time the five navies have worked alongside each other. 

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